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Abroad thoughts from home

PostPosted: Tue Apr 03, 2007 11:04 pm
by Gordon Neill
In which, dear reader, the author cracks the usual jokes, the usual smart-alec comments, and then experiences an unusual moment of hubris. A bit of a collector’s item, actually.

I knew I was taking a chance, letting my friend decide where to meet. This was the woman who, a few years ago, decided her holiday location by jumping on the first available flight. (fortunately it was going up in Dublin; it could have been somewhere scary, like Luton). So it was with some misgivings that I found that we were going to the Royal Oak in Edinburgh to some gig organised as part of a celeigh festival. I don’t think my friend is keen on this sort of stuff, but the bottle had been spun and the bottle must be obeyed. It’s not that I’m not keen on celeigh stuff. I just hate it. It’s the kind of crap put on to suck in the tourists. It’s down there with ‘Rabbie’ Burns, tartan bagpipes, and Loch Ness Monster tea towels. Or, to put it another way, bloody f*** music.

I didn’t have a woolly jumper and there was no time to grow a beard. But my prejudices were primed and I was ready for a bit of fun. After all, it was April Fool’s day. What could be better than a bit of harmless sneering? I got there early, partly to appear to be a gentleman, partly to case the joint. It wasn’t hard to find. Turn right at Burger King, straight past Argos, and turn left at Pizza Hut (Edinburgh is so cosmopolitan). But the Royal Oak is in Infirmary Street, a dark and dingy backwater where no tourist would venture for fear of being vomited on. Sure enough, amongst the huddle of tobacco addicts at the door, a scruffy drunk, fluent in the McEwans dialect tried to borrow some money off me. I avoided eye contact and moved swiftly on.

However, my hopes were raised. I was even chirpier at the strong smell of urine outside the door, and positively ecstatic at the stench of industrial-strength bleach inside. She would never want to go in this dump. We could forget this celeigh nonsense and do something a bit more normal. But she is determined lady. The bottle had been spun and the bottle must be obeyed. Bloody bottles.

The Royal Oak’s f*** club is downstairs, third cupboard on the right. Think ‘intimate’ and then divide by twelve. It’s the sort of place that would make an estate agent chuck his Thesaurus in the bin. The good news was that it was full to capacity. The bad news was that its capacity was 20. I know, because I counted them. I couldn’t believe that so many people could get in such a tiny space. They can, so long as they’re thin and have little concept of personal space.

With deep joy, I noted that the doorman had a long ZZ Top style beard and matching woolly jumper. I allowed myself a smirk and then a grin. My preconceptions were about to set into postconceptions. There weren’t many beards in the audience, but lots of jumpers. And a suggestion of mothballs: they were an elderly lot and didn’t seem to have been out much in recent years. There was even a biddie with leopard-skin jumper and unmatching faded Laura Ashley frock. I’m not a nice person. I live for these moments.

The band were called ‘Home Made Jam’. With a name like that, they should have been terrible. But they were fine. Sort of bluegrassy stuff. A few fluffed lines and clumsy guitar bits. But these were more than matched by the terrific fiddle playing and the…. um…. intimate atmosphere. They did a cover version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time’. Inevitably, I thought to myself, ‘and so is this evening’. But that was just me being an arse. I liked them. I particularly liked a song they did that dated from the American civil war. I wish I could remember its name. Some woman’s name, I think. Apparently, it has 42 verses, but they only did three. It sounded great. The sort of thing that could have been written in the (19)60s.

But the revelation for me was one of the old codgers sitting in the audience. It turned out that he’s a regular. Charlie Strachan. Every Sunday he’s there and is the unaccompanied warm-up act. He just sings a couple of songs at the start and at half-time, swaying gently and a bit self-consciously. For a bit of variety, he occasionally forgets the words and has to start again. But I wasn’t smirking anymore. He did a Borders ballad and then a more modern song called Star In The Bar. I loved it all. These weren’t harmless old codgers and biddies. These were resistance fighters, deep underground, hiding from the international taste police. With a shock, I realised that we had travelled to a time and a place long forgotten. This is infinitely more strange and alien than throat singing from Outer Mongolia, or Malian kora playing. It’s called Scotland. I used to live there. Now I just stay in some anonymous edge city. Nowhere man in a nowhere land. But, Canute-style, Charlie Stachan and company still have their feet rooted in the old country. It’s just a matter of time before they’re drowned out by the rising waves of international rock tat. I even spoke to him during the interval. Just to pay my respects and find out the name of one of his songs. But it felt like saying goodbye. I left feeling like this year’s April Fool, but determined to be a better person. I draw the line at jumpers and beards, but I may have to start reading ‘fRoots’……..

PostPosted: Wed Apr 04, 2007 6:52 pm
by judith
Thank you, dear writer. Wonderful. Well worth collecting.

PostPosted: Wed Apr 04, 2007 8:54 pm
by NormanD
I do agree, Judith, this is a great read - thanks Gordon. I notice that a link has also been posted on the fRoots Forum by Ian Anderson. I wonder what the response might be (if any?) from our friends over the garden wall.

When you say "...I may have to start reading ‘fRoots’…….." well, I bet that's pleased Ian. But you may find more articles about World Music than about UK roots music (you notice I'm trying to avoid using the word "folk"?). I dunno where you'd read more about tiny folk clubs/rooms like this - it seems to be an occasional gripe on the fRoots Forum that the mag doesn't cover enough of it.

There's nothing better than music you stumble across, or someone's dragged you to ---- and you like it.


PostPosted: Wed Apr 04, 2007 10:02 pm
by Gordon Neill
Wow! Thanks guys. And thanks for letting me know about the link on the fRoots Forum. So that'll be double royalties then.....

PostPosted: Wed Apr 04, 2007 11:04 pm
by Gordon Moore
Yep, excellent writing, really enjoyed reading it.

PostPosted: Thu Apr 05, 2007 12:13 am
by Ian A.
Gordon Neill wrote:This is infinitely more strange and alien than throat singing from Outer Mongolia, or Malian kora playing. It’s called Scotland.

Around a decade ago we had a cover headlined "England, last undiscovered exotic outpost of world music." It's no different down here. Just too weird for most . . .

normand wrote:it seems to be an occasional gripe on the fRoots Forum that the mag doesn't cover enough of it.

Basically, you can't please anybody most of the time! However, next issue has a featurette on one of those very same Scottish underground singing persons Gordon has stumbled across - Stanley Robertson. Alongside Bassekou Kouyate from Mali. We aim to confuse . . .