Album Review
Sail On

"The Scotsman"

For a man who has become increasingly addicted to the techno-electronic gadgetry of the recording studio, and who has carved a fair reputation as a producer who can work wonders for other singers and musicians, Dick Gaughan has been almost perversely reluctant to make records under his own name.

He has never found it a satisfactory exercise: he soon loses interest in his recorded material - "All I can hear is the mistakes" - and he claims, with a hint of a smile, that his new album, Sail On (Greentrax), his first in seven long years, is no exception to the rule.

But exceptional it surely is. For a start, it contains one of the greatest performances that has ever come soaring out of the cornucopia of folk/traditional music over the years. His version of Hamish Henderson's 51st (Highland) Division's Farewell to Sicily is awesome in its vision, its feel, its skill, its deep, deep understanding.

This track, stripped down to Gaughan's guitar and voice and the clarsach of Mary MacMaster, runs for almost 12 riveting minutes, Gaughan first exploring the tune (borrowed from Pipe Major James Robertson's Farewell to the Creeks) in a tempo that would be funereal were his subtle bagpipe intonations on plaintive guitar not so electrifyingly charged with tension. He then does full justice to Henderson's magnificent poetry, clearly relishing the rich expressiveness of lines such as "There's nae hame can smoor the wiles o ye/Puir bluidy swaddies are weary..." and succeeds in sustaining the hypnotic power of the piece to the end.

Phew! There should be a built-in pause at this point on the CD, but instead Gaughan hurls off the weary weight of an older war and charges into a new battle, flourishing Brian MacNeill's stinging, snarling portrayal of Scotland the un-brave, No Gods and Precious Few Heroes, a song which finds Gaughan almost quivering with anger over a nation that is living on "pie suppers in the sky". In this powerful mood, also found in his handling of Pete Seeger's Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, Gaughan is the kind of no-prisoners "protest" singer you don't mess with. So I won't.

There are three original Gaughan songs here, too, including the title track. Best of the trio is No Cause for Alarm, with beefy instrumental backing and lines that neatly respond to the argument that socialism is dead.

And there's Ruby Tuesday, where Gaughan shows, as he once did with Games People Play, how he can dig beneath the veneer of a familiar pop-song and open your ears to its inner meanings.

Another fine track is Land of the North Wind, written by the gentle Allan Taylor and here transformed into a powerful, surging declaration of love for Scotland.

Yes, it's good to have him back.


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