Live Review
The Warehouse, Belfast

"Folk Roots" July 1995

Dick Gaughan comes to Belfast roughly every couple of years and always gets a full house - even, as it was this time around, on a Monday night and VE day to boot. What kind of a show he gives, drawn on which aspect of his fearsome repertoire, is less predictable - on past times it's been laid back, gentle balladry from the tradition, other times a manic one-man rock'n'roll socialist crusade. Tonight, with two sets, he seemed to flit between the two, engaging a highly charged audience with rapid-fire banter and irony-laced anecdotes as background and justification for his songs and his politics, every other sentence separated - as always - by an equally rapid-fire flurry of notes on his guitar.

The guitar, for most of the show, was an electro-acoustic Telecaster-esque affair, upon which the jury remains out. It just wasn't organic enough for this most organic of artists, who can wrench with sheer physicality the most awesome effect from a microphone-amplified, dreadful-action acoustic like no-one else. His frenetic behaviour as a raconteur was, with similar irony, at odds with the supreme confidence and powerful messages of material - from the ecological anthem of Burns' Now Westlin Winds through the byways of the tradition and right up the subtler end of the protest song movement of the sixties and the unassailable sincerity of his own songs Different Kind of Love Song and Shipwreck. Nationality is an almost obsessively recurring theme in Gaughan's performances and, however strong his views, it's to his credit that - especially in Ireland - he uses humour, self-deprecation (on behalf of his beloved Scots) and historically justified one-liners against the English 'ruling classes', and not the English per se, to make his points, without simply ranting for a cheap hurrah.

Opening the first set with Si Kahn's What You Do With What You've Got and following immediately with Pete Seeger's Waist Deep in the Big Muddy was a sure way to grab the attention of an occasionally noisy but excited and exuberant crowd, packed right around the stage like those old photographs of Dylan at the Singers Club. There seemed to be a high quotient of gruff looking men with moustaches in attendance - the promoter had put the word out amongst trades union types, which may be a crass but likely explanation - although Dick's had long since disappeared.

There were a number of unrecorded songs on offer - Brian MacNeill's Ewan and the Gold, Childhood's End (a glorious Gaughan original), Thomas Muir of Hunterhill (possibly a Davy Steel number?) [N.B. Actually written by Adam McNaughton -- Gaughan], No Cause for Alarm (the death-of-socialism rejoinder that's been a highlight of his live repertoire for a good couple of years now) and a brave and stirring crack at MacCrimmon's Lament, acapella. He marked VE day with reverence and sincerity, and to a feverishly hushed and undoubtedly mixed-politics audience, with Hamish Henderson's 51st Highland Division's Farewell to Sicily and signed off brilliantly with the Scots/English 'people together' sentiments of Both Sides the Tweed, leaving no-one in any doubt that Dick Gaughan, for all his complexities, is first and foremost a man of the people. With a list of requests like a phone book he could have gone on all night, but he called it a day ('tomorrow' as it happened) at just the right time. A truly masterful performer.

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