August 01, 1999


Filed under: Archive,Music

Dick Gaughan
with Chris Wilson
Governor Hindmarsh

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Dick Gaughan has been in the singing business for thirty years and over that time has produced some classic albums. His burly Edinburgh vocals
have breathed new life into Child Ballads such as Willie O’Winsbury and restored urgency to work songs political anthems as well as his own compositions. Born in Leith in the Forth of Firth he has based his career in Edinburgh where, due to a dislike of flying, he has pretty much stayed.

His first tour of Australia, then, has been eagerly awaited. We have seen plenty of collaborators such as Andy Irvine, and proteges such as Billy Bragg but until now no Gaughan. Refusing to fly between cities, he has criss-crossed the country playing club venues with support act Chris Wilson, including the spaciously refitted Governor Hindmarsh.

Accompanied by acoustic guitarist Andrew Pendlebury, Chris Wilson plays his set as though he is being backed by the James Brown band. Despite his excellence as a blues vocalist, hunching over his microphone stand, all histrionics and overstatement, he does his talent no service. This might work with a full tilt r’n’b outfit but in unplugged mode it seems like too much of nothing. It is a pity because The Long Weekend, his CD from last year, shows him to be a gritty performer and a gifted harmonica player. But neither the outlaw pose in People Like Me nor the social comment of Hand Becomes Fist have a chance with Wilson’s over-insistent delivery. And as for the extruded acoustic remix of Willie Dixon’s Spoonful, it is potentially brilliant – but when push comes to posture, the calibration is everything and a sweet spoon becomes a trowel.

Dick Gaughan, in leather vest and his hair tied back in a pony tail, opens with What You Do With What You’ve Got. His guitar style is splendidly nimble, his Scots accent heavy in the diction. The song is a bit naff, but he tells us it is his standard opener. Song For Ireland, written by Englishman Phil Colcloghs, is more like it. Familiar from the early album, Handful of Earth, it is Gaughan at his lyrical best. Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, a lesser Pete Seeger song follows, preceded by a lengthy explanation of the song’s subject, the futility of war.

The Shipwreck is a Gaughan song, he writes few and not all them are distinguished. This one is not. Surprisingly uneasy as a performer, his endless fiddling with his guitar reminds of the bad old folkie days when re-tuning was a major part of the show. Fortunately Ewen and the Gold from Gaughan’s excellent recent album, Redwood Cathedral, lifts the occasion. The song is about a successful gold seeker’s unwelcome return to his native island of St Kilda, a rather obscure subject from Scots nationalist Brian MacNeill. It needs some glossing because its theme is not self-evident. But warming to the task, Gaughan makes a lengthy prologue of it.

It is now evident that Dick Gaughan, splendidly skilled musician is being supplanted by Dick Gaughan, raconteur and political grumbler. I have always admired Gaughan’s unremitting views on civil liberties, Scottish nationalism and the plight of working people. They are not only legitimate concerns but still timely ones. But unlike Billy Bragg who knows how to be a bit tactical with these things, Gaughan is wearyingly earnest. And as for the Scottish history lessons, we may live at the arse end of the earth but we don’t need to be told that Braveheart is crap and Walter Scott, a fantasist. More to the point, things are changing in Scotland, haven’t they just opened their own parliament ? Some perspective on that would be useful, or even better- a few songs.

There are some lovely moments in the set. Gaughan’s arrangment of Now Westlin Winds for instance is splendid in its phrasing and trickling guitar lines, Ron Kavana’s Reconciliation is also a fine song and the eccentric Richard Thompson tribute to the 1952 Vincent Black Lightning is a nice shift of mood. But Tom Paine’s Bones, and then closing with the turgid No Gods and Precious Heroes and Gaughan’s own unremarkable Son of Man leaves the night low on energy.

Redwood Cathedral makes much of the virtue of singing other folks’ songs and Gaughan visits work by Gus van Sant, the Incredible String Band and even the Everly Brothers oldie, Let it be Me. A more judicious setlist would have served Dick Gaughan better. He has some marvellous songs in his armoury – Parcel of Rogues, Willie O’Winsbury, Crooked Jack, Lal Waterson’s Fine Horseman. Any of those would have done. Then Dick Gaughan would really know which side we are on.

The Adelaide Review, August, 1999 ? Not verified.

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