writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Songs in a Scottish Accent 5: A Hidden Advantage of Analog

Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album, Nebraska, still divides opinion amongst his fans. Burned out by the long creative and recording process it took to produce his masterpiece, The River, and its accompanying tour schedule, Springsteen headed home with what was then a modern bit of tech in the form of a 4-track portastudio (1). He recorded most of the tracks that became Nebraska in a single all nighter: conceived of as a demo tape for the E Street Band, he then caught up on some sleep and went fishing.

Here’s where myth and fact start to merge. The master tape from those original sessions, in cassette form, then sat in Springsteen’s denim jacket pocket for some months, and, at some stage, may or may not have dropped in the river when he went out fishing with his boom box and it tipped out of the boat. Either way, it eventually found its way back to civilisation and Sprngsteen, after trying and failing to recapture the original spirit of the recording with the E Street Band, issued the album from a much rejigged and enhanced version of the original pondweed-encrusted cassette.

Or so the story goes. My own story, about the track below, is a bit more prosaic.

I released the original ‘Scotland as an XBox Game’ on Soundcloud some time ago, but it wasn’t till I performed it one night live to a backing track with harmonica, that my friend and long time creative collaborator Gavin Inglis came up with the idea of an 8 bit remix of it. (2) I sent him the original tracks: he did an outstanding remix, but, being Gav, just wanted to tweak it one last time. Eventually, I arranged a time to go over to his flat and stand over him while he perfected it to his own exacting standards. Then he exported it to an mp3, copied it to a memory stick I’d brought for the very purpose, and I headed off into the night, happy as Larry.

Here comes the really prosaic bit. A short time later, before I’d copied the mp3 anywhere else, I realised I needed a memory stick for a work presentation I was preparing at home. That was the one nearest to hand: I knew it had my only copy of the mp3 on it, but I wouldn’t, I reasoned, be so irredeemably stupid as to lose it.

I wasn’t that irredeemably stupid. What I did do was tuck the memory stick into my shirt pocket at the end of the working day and set off for home, reasoning I wouldn’t be so irredeemably stupid as to forget about it and put the shirt in the wash without taking the memory stick out first.

Yup. As some of you will have seen from Facebook or Twitter, I was that irredeemably stupid. Cue more demands on the Gavster’s precious time, one more tweak from him, and, at long last, voila! Scotland as an XBox Game (8 bit remix).

As a story, it lacks the romance of the Springsteen one: no fishing trip, just two trips through the fast coloureds wash was all it took to kill the memory stick and its precious cargo. The key thing to note here, really, is this hidden advantage of analog, although to be fair I wouldn’t have fancied submitting the Boss’s precious master tape to the tender mercies of the Tricity Bendix 1000 spin cycle either.

Anyway, here it is. I love it because it’s nothing like anything I would have come up with myself. With or without a fishing trip.

(1) He also took his engineer home with him, which is less romantic than the idea of him doing it all by himself, but then, he was a major recording star by that stage. Wouldn’t you?

(2) I had no idea either. Gav sold it to me on the basis that it would be ‘lots of bleeping noises.’ I trusted him implicitly, and so should you.

















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Reinventing Edinburgh – a short review

A couple of days in Edinburgh earlier this week gave us a different perspective on a city we know so well, mainly, but not just, because we were staying in an unfamiliar part of town.

Fountainbridge has traditionally not been the most scenic part of town. Originally an industrial area built around the end of the Union Canal, which was the unloading point for goods shipped from the west coast via the Forth-Clyde Canal, it was for many years dominated by the former Uniroyal factory and a massive brewery. With all of that cleared away, there’s now major redevelopment going on which will, eventually, see this whole area come up in the world.

In the meantime, there are the green shoots of gentrification. We stayed in the excellent Brooks Hotel, partly on price, but mainly because it was a short distance from Daughter and Heiress’s new gaff in the Napier University student accommodation at Bainfield. The Tripadvisor reviews for Brooks were pretty uniformly positive, with only a few grumbles about the ‘compactness’ of the rooms. Well, if you’re looking for a hotel room to have vast, rolling acres of carpet between you and the en suite, with herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain, this one probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you’re happy with a neat wee place with contemporary decor, polite and helpful staff, and a cosy lounge with a fire and an honesty bar, I can thoroughly recommend it.

Less recommended is Loudon’s Cafe and Bakery, which we went to for breakfast with D & H the first morning. You can’t fault the presentation of the food (see pic below) or the pleasantness of the staff. However, I thought my tastes were pretty cosmopolitan till I experienced chilli powder in the Eggs Royale. I mean, come on, guys! Chilli for breakfast? Call me suburban. OK, so I am suburban. And my suburban sensibilities were also kind of knocked back by the £42 bill for what was a modest breakfast for three. Far better value to head up Viewforth to Bruntsfield, where perhaps the proliferation of coffee shops has kept the price down.


I would, however, recommend the Fountain, just across the road from the new cinema complex. You can tell it’s a gastropub because it has that poncy habit of not adding the pound sign on the menu. So pate and oatcakes (v. good) might be, oh, 7 1/2. Or £7.50 to us Fifers. The beer wasn’t the best pint of IPA I’ve had, but it was definitely a cut above your usual pub grub, and a nice atmosphere.

Sadly I have to report a diminution in quality of Filmhouse audiences however. Traditionally the patrons of this long-established arthouse mecca were impeccably behaved. However, there to see the really quite funny in an undemanding way (unlike the other harrowing works of artistry on offer in the rest of the FH programme) Hunt for the Wilderpeople, I am disappointed to say the whole lot of them yakked right through the Pearl and Dean and trailer offerings, with one couple even daring to keep talking WHEN THE FILM HAD STARTED. Fortunately, they were shushed Quite Severely by the Edinburgh matron in front of them. However, the bad behaviour didn’t stop there, as many people left as soon as the credits started rolling, instead of sitting respectfully on to see who the Key Grip had been. O tempora, o mores

In general I was really impressed with the way Fountainbridge is coming on. The bit at the end of the canal, with its grafted on restaurants and bars, is starting to look less incongruous as the surrounding area comes up in the world. Mind you, the whole of Edinburgh seems to be on the march at the moment: the sounds of construction were with us wherever we went in the rest of the city, too. There was a slightly surreal visit to the universally-loathed St James centre, a Sixties-built mall of near-legendary ugliness which is now ghostly quiet, the retailers all having been moved out apart from the anchor, John Lewis. Quite spooky.

There’s a reason for all this construction, of course. With the dip in fortunes of oil-dependent Aberdeen, the capital’s become the major economic powerhouse in Scotland, and is set to exceed Glasgow population-wise in the next few years. The City Region Deal currently under negotiation should unlock the infrastructure needed to drive all this development forward. I hope it can all be done sympathetically. I’m very far from being a dyed in the wool Cockburn Association old crusty, but Edinburgh is a special place, and the planners need to balance the demands of the developers against preserving that special character.

Good luck with that. We suburbanites will be watching.
















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First Bands and Badly-Judged Bandanas: Reflections on Lost in Music

I read Giles Smith’s Lost in Music recently: got it second hand in Leith Walk’s excellent music and bookshop, Elvis Shakespeare. A  journalist of some repute as well as, apparently, ghost writer for Tom Jones and Rod Stewart, Smith is the same age as me, so part of the appeal of his book was the bit about growing up and having your formative experiences in pop music filtered through that particular time period. Like me, he had older siblings,  whose record collections allowed access to a slightly more sophisticated set of tastes than, say, T Rex.

I also enjoyed his often extremely funny tales of first bands and the travails of wanting to be a pop star, only to find you and your best mates have neither the connections nor, necessarily, the talent to make it. Of course, part of the charm of the book is it’s related with typical British self-deprecation: Smith did, briefly, nearly make it with a band called Cleaners from Venus, being signed to RCA’s German division. (If you think that name’s dodgy, try those of Smith’s previous bands: Pony, and Orphans of Babylon).

Unfortunately for Smith, what should have been a triumphant promotional tour of Germany was slightly marred by the lead singer and leading light’s philosophical aversion to touring, leading to a tour with no lead singer. For an excellent  – and, looking back now, poignant – review of the book, go to John Peel’s piece in the Independent.

Anyways. It got me thinking about my own early forays into the world of music, all those years ago. I came late to guitar playing, after discouraging parent-inspired forays into violin and piano. At about sixteen, I first started painfully acquiring the muscle memory to play basic chords on my brother’s nylon-string guitar: this led to a birthday present of a Kiso-Suzuki J200 copy. I embarked on mastering this, fired by the conviction that I could be the Next Big Thing in Rock. Specifically, I saw myself becoming the New Dylan – this was the early Eighties, bear in mind, when the Old Dylan was finding Jesus and tearing up his back catalogue.

At about the age of nineteen, I responded to an advert in a music shop in Edinburgh, and the Rob Long Band was formed. The band, at least in that incarnation, consisted of just me and the eponymous Rob,who was, I think, the same age, possessed of a red Stratocaster, (before Tony Blair made such an instrument terminally uncool) and of immeasurably greater guitar-playing experience and ability than me. Rehearsing solidly in Rob’s student flat above the Southsider, we quickly assembled a set of what might now be described as ‘classic rock.’ I sang, played harmonica and rhythm guitar; Rob did all the clever guitar bits.

We did ‘Shakin’ All Over,’ because Rob could do the riff. I can’t remember if we did ‘Message in a Bottle,’ live, but he could do the riff for that, too. He really was a pretty good guitar player, looking back. There was one original song in the set, a jointly-penned effort with a twelve-bar blues structure. The lyrics were something about Maggie Thatcher and nuclear war, which back then was about as original as using a twelve-bar blues structure for the music.

Our first – and in many ways best – gig was in the University Union in Chambers Street. All our friends came along to cheer: the folk in the flat below Rob’s, who had had to endure the solid rehearsals, came along to boo. I dedicated ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ to them: not a Judas moment, exactly, but it did shut them up for the full five minutes it took for all four verses plus verse-long harmonica solo. I also encountered my first example of the live-performance brain freeze known as Temporary Fretboard Amnesia, making a complete bourach of my one guitar solo (Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here.’)

In retrospect, we must have been pretty awful. Rob could have been Eric Bloody Clapton for all it mattered: my guitar playing was basic to say the least, and I had home-schooled myself in the Dylan/Mark Knopfler nasal whine, to the extent that it was pretty much croak-perfect. But our friends were kind, and most of them weren’t in bands so maybe didn’t know any better, so the long march to musical stardom wasn’t stopped in its tracks then and there.

For our second, and, in many ways, worst gig, Rob enlisted a bass player pal, one Andy Robb. I think we had one rehearsal with him before unleashing ourselves on the unsuspecting punters in Sneaky Pete’s in the Cowgate. However, one rehearsal was quite obviously going to be enough for Andy, who was one of that breed of musician you meet from time to time in bands: the self-proclaimed virtuoso. Andy played double bass in the Uni orchestra, didn’t you know, so he was basically doing us (or, at least Rob) a Massive Favour by slumming it in the Rob Long Band.

Encouraged by the band’s two-gig longevity, I splashed out on some performance gear. This took the form of a bandana (I know, but I repeat, this was the early Eighties) which was white, but with a Japanese – style rising sun in the middle. With this and (if I remember right) a grandad shirt with vertical stripes, I was good to go stage-gear wise, I felt.

Needless to say the gig didn’t live up to the lead singer’s outfit. Most of the punters moved away to the other bar as soon as we got started; Andy chose to tell me half way through that I wasn’t playing in time with him (it couldn’t have been, of course, that he wasn’t playing in time with me). There were no encores.

After we finished, a girl I vaguely knew came up to me.

‘What’s that on your head?’

‘It’s a bandana. It’s got the Rising Sun on it.’

‘Oh, right. I thought it was a bandage and you’d cut yourself.’

That summed it up, really. There was no third gig. I stayed friendly with Rob, but I suppose we both realised we needed something more than a virtuoso bass player to get us to the next level.

After that, my musical career kind of went on the back burner. I rehearsed with another band at Uni, but the other guitarist was too spaced out for us ever to get a gig organised. After I started work there was a disastrous solo gig in the Lundin Links Hotel when the receptionist, as part of the deal that got me the gig in the first place, got to play her own set first, which basically consisted of my set list, for reasons which I have never quite managed to work out.

There were the rehearsals with a couple of blokes in Dundee who mainly wanted to play Whitesnake covers. There were the couple of rehearsals with a friend of a friend, also in Dundee, which came to an end when he brought in another self-proclaimed virtuoso, a guitarist, who calmly announced that neither I nor Barry, the friend of a friend, were good enough guitarists to make it as a duo (Barry, when I last heard, is still playing and still gigging. I do hope the self-proclaimed virtuoso isn’t in the band).

Then, other than solo home noodling, nothing for years. I threw my creative energies into writing fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, with mixed success. It wasn’t until 2008, when I formed Tribute to Venus Carmichael with Kelly as a musical interlude in the Free Fringe spoken word gigs I did that year, that the fire was lit under my musical muse again. Another key collaboration was at the Book Festival Unbound gig in 2010, when I did a spoken word and music number with Kelly, Charlotte Halton on sax, and one Mark Allan, my future Isaac Brutal band leader, on the other guitar.

What would the nineteen year old me make of how things have turned out? He’d probably be pretty disappointed my main source of income isn’t as the new Dylan, if not exactly surprised. (He’d be secretly impressed, I reckon, I married a beautiful woman and have stayed married to her.) Would he settle for being in two bands with fantastic people, with songwriting duties in both? An album from each as well as a self-produced solo album coming out in the next few months, not to mention the novel?

No idea. The nineteen year old me was terribly ambitious about his creative endeavours.

Would he want me to write a song titled Fuck Off Andy Robb?

Yes. Yes, I think he would.

Image result for mark knopfler

Incidentally, if any of you have war stories of disastrous band relationships or gigs, feel free to contribute – I might write a song based on them!








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Songs in a Scottish Accent 4: the wrong kind of cricket

If you think of yourself as ‘alternative’ in any sort of way, there are sometimes moments when you realise just how far you’ve swum against the current and out of the mainstream. On such moment happened to me recently, when two art teachers, one of them wearing a maroon pork pie hat, called me ‘weird’ to my face. Here’s how it happened…

Some songs come to me with just the basic tune on acoustic guitar and keyboard. Others, usually late at night when I’m about to fall asleep and then forget them, are fully orchestrated – sometimes quite literally. Most are somewhere in the middle, and it’s a case of knowing what to put in and leave out instrumentally. Usually leave out, to be honest.

As soon as I had the basic riff and lyrical idea for ‘Prophets on Instagram,’ though, I knew the type of vibe I wanted on the track. And that included crickets. It was to be a bluesy, doomy kind of stomp, and the background noise of the Gryllidae family was part of that. Lanois used them on Dylan’s ‘Man in the Long Black Coat,’ on the album they did down in New Orleans (1), ‘Oh Mercy.’ Lucinda Williams, too, had them on some of the tracks on ‘Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.’ Probably partly through the movies, there’s a specific sound of crickets that conjures up a Southern Gothic night of humid, portent-filled dread for me. And I thought I had a means of getting it.

My go-to place for sound effects is Freesound, but I always prefer, if I can, to create noises of my own and load them up there for others to use. It’s a great sharing community, of the kind that the Net used to excel at. Whilst the Scottish Lowlands aren’t really natural habitat for crickets (or indeed cricket) I had, on recent visits to Pets At Home on our friendly neighbourhood retail park, heard them singing. We were there to restock the Redoubtable Mrs F’s aquarium (there’s a separate post to come some time on the tale of more-than-a-bit pregnant female guppy) but, on hearing the crickets, I conceived Plan A, which was to record them in situ.

Needless to say, next time I was there with my trusty Zoom H4n, not a chirrup was to be heard. While the RMF went to have her water tested (the aquarium’s that is, not hers) I went to look at the crickets. The crickets looked out at me, from their little plastic boxes containing little cardboard crenellations. I had come to understand on previous visits that nobody actually kept crickets as pets. Oh no: instead, people that keep reptiles as pets need them as a live feed for their little darlings. I was about to head up towards the fish again when I caught sight of the ‘reduced to clear’ section of cricket world, and wished I hadn’t.

It would appear that reptiles aren’t over fussy about just how live their food is: for a bargain price, the reptile lovers could take home a boxful of half dead, clinically dead, and dying crickets, grasshoppers, locusts and the like. Like all convenience foods, it seems, crickets and the rest have a shelf life. They waved their mandibles and antennae at me, pathetically, and I felt a twinge of sympathy for the wee critters. I mean, it’s not much of a choice, is it, getting snapped up by some bearded gecko or left to peg out under the unforgiving striplights of a retail shed?

Which partially explains why I ended up buying a full price box of brown crickets. ‘Oh,’ said the tall girl behind the till, ‘What is it you’ve got?’ Meaning of course, which reptile was awaiting a live dinner, its basilisk eyerevolving slowly in anticipation?

‘Err, nothing,’ I felt compelled to say, before launching into a probably over-detailed explanation of why I needed them. Just outside the store, we met two of the RMF’s work colleagues, the aforementioned art teachers. Again the explanation; this time, the reaction I described at the start. I considered a cheap rejoinder about the hat, but resisted.

Back home, the presence of a boxful of rustling insectoid life was considered less than welcome, really on any of our parts. The crickets went into the conservatory while I did a bit of reasearch. This revealed:

  1. Crickets can be fed on most vegetables, including parsley;
  2. They have an adult life span of a few weeks, so even without the intervention of the Lizard People, it wasn’t like they were a pet for life;
  3. Brown crickets are especially favoured amongst the keepers of reptiles, as they make virtually no sound.

Yup. Guess which kind I’d bought.

As an aside, it was amazing how much information on crickets in fact came from sites dedicated to reptile aficionados. Apparently, depending on how many scaly things you keep, you might need entire roomfuls of crickets just to maintain a food supply for them. Hence the desire for quiet ones. It seemed to me a bit ironic that the main sites I was consulting to keep my crickets alive, were in fact dedicated to seeing they were funnelled towards certain death. It gave me another twinge of fellow feeling for the little chaps.

However, after a day or so of watching mounds of home-grown parsley disappear in the box, and not a single sound beyond that infernal scrabbling, I decided enough was enough. It was time for my brown crickets to roam free across the Fife countryside, taking their chances in the local ecosystem – and, I hoped, not mucking it up in the process.

Walking nonchalantly out of the house and past the window of my ever-vigilant neighbours, I took the crickets to the closed off road at the side of our housing estate and had a quick glance left and right to ensure no dog walkers were about.

I looked down at the little fellers, crowded now at the front of their box. They stared back at me, mutely. I appreciated that I was probably sending them to certain death – Scotland in May is probably not within their recommended temperature range – and yet, somehow, I felt I was doing the best I could for them. In fact, I felt like some kind-hearted First World War general about to send his brave boys over the top, knowing that the German machine guns were, as likely as not, still operational.

As such, I felt some sort of pep talk was necessary. ‘Well, boys,’ I said, in a non-gender specific way, ‘I’ve done what I can for you. It’s down to you, now.’

Predictably, the crickets said nothing in reply as they scrambled into the undergrowth.

So there you are. Cricket, the sport: absolutely marvellous. Only game worth a tinker’s curse, imho. Crickets, the insect: best sampled via Freesound.




(1) I feel compelled to tell one of my favourite Dylan stories, which concerns that particular song.

Interviewer:’When you say in the lyric, “people don’t live or die, people just float,” what did you have in mind?’

Dylan: ‘I needed something to rhyme with “coat.”‘





















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Songs in a Scottish Accent 3: the Thing with Final Versions

So. If you’ve been following the story so far (and there’s really no reason for me to suppose you have been, tbh) I posted a wee while ago about this solo album/vanity project of mine, ‘Songs in a Scottish Accent.’ In putting up a demo version of one of my songs, ‘Forecast to Freeze,’ I wrote that the thing with demo versions was that, sometimes, you’re just so damned enamoured of the thing you rush it out warts and all, desperate for the world to hear your genius musicality. Prefaced, of course, with a remark along the lines of, ‘It’s a bit rough, but I think you’ll get the idea…’

Now, as I approach the stage where, for the sake of my sanity apart from anything more worthy, I need to finish this thing, I realise that there comes a stage where you can’t call it a demo any more. It’s the final version. And while it may not be over till the generously proportioned woman who’s entirely comfortable with her body image sings, once you send that track off to the guy that presses the CDs and he’s nailed it down with his tungsten carbide drill or whatever (I’m hazy on the tech, here, you’ll appreciate) it really is the final, final version. At least for that CD.

But, I realise as I follow down the various options (always so many options!) for mixing the tracks for ‘Songs…’ you can never, really, truly say a version’s a definitive version. Take ‘Scotland as an XBox Game,’ for example. I thought I’d finished with that sucker, right after I put the track on my taster EP, ‘Autumn Fruit.’ (which you can totally have for free, post free, anywhere in the world, in exchange for occasional mailing to an email of your choice). No need to meddle with that for the full album, I thought. And then I decided to stick a harmonica solo on the end of it. Why? Why not?

Meantime, of course, my good mate and musical mentor Gavin Inglis had taken it away and made an 8 bit remix of it, just because he fancied it. More of that version soon, as soon in fact as Gav decides he’s got the final, final, final version.

In the meantime, here are three final(ish) versions of songs that are going on the album:

I shoved up a version of ‘Forecast to Freeze’ before. However, partly because I realised the key was actually wrong for my voice – y’know, that little thing that proper singers get all prissy about – and partly because, as my good mate and band leader Mark Allan has included it in the setlist for Isaac Brutal and the Brutalists, I wanted to do something definably different from the band’s rendition of it – I rerecorded it, in D instead of C this time, with a good few changes to the instrumentation. Not absolutely sure about the percussion yet!

‘Forest Fire,’ on the other hand, will be new to you. In contrast to ‘Forecast…’ which I’ve said before sprang, fully formed, from my waking musical interlude, with Springsteen on the main channel as I scribbled the lyrics down over breakfast, ‘Forest Fire’ was a total pain in the backside to write, execute and record from start to finish. Partly, of course, this was because I decided it was a piano-led song, which meant, as a non-piano player, trying to be as painstaking as possible with the accompaniment before recording the vocals. The latter then took multiple different takes on three different occasions before I was satisfied.  Which is, like, a lot for me. The low strings, (a setting on the Korg X5D called X Strings, for those interested) to be fair, only took half an hour.

So why all the trouble? Well, the lyrics may be pretty opaque to everyone else, but I know what they mean! I hope they come to mean something to you as well, of course, even if it’s something completely different to their original intent. In fact, especially so.

The third song/spoken word piece, ‘Credo (I Want to Believe).’ is in a lighter mode after all the introspection of the last two. It’s basically my philosophy of life set to a soundtrack which is the illegitimate offspring of those two fine Nineties bands, Kula Shaker and Stone Roses. With probably a bit more of the former in the bone structure. I had a lot of fun recording it.

So, enjoy! And don’t hold me to these being the final versions…

Although, given time constraints, they probably are.

















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Don’t Send In The Clowns: Jason Isbell Review

Some friends, loyal colleagues and family have been nice enough to ask me in the last fortnight what I’m ‘doing’ at the Fringe this year. To which I’ve replied: nothing. Nada. Not a single thing. Zilcho.

And, relaxing with a couple of bandmates and a pint of the amber nectar in the White Horse as other people’s friends, loyal colleagues and family were shovelled in and out of the back room which, on 1st October, will be Tribute to Venus Carmichael’s for the whole evening, I felt incredibly okay with that.

Anyway, enough about me. Imagine instead that you’re rising new country/rock musician Jason Isbell, booked into the Liquid Rooms for two nights running in the middle of August. You step out for a pre-gig bit of fresh air, and you’re engulfed in the madness that is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe: acres of railings plastered with posters of desperately gurning stand-ups; thronging crowds of confused Japanese tourists, fire-eaters and shouty posh boys with fliers; and the steady grind of gridlocked traffic, all trying to get somewhere, anywhere, where there isn’t a tour bus parked in the way. It must have been a relief for the poor chap to dive into the sweaty fug of the Liquid Rooms, and his own gig.

A genial onstage presence, Isbell had a nice line in amused bemusement at the carnivalesque maelstrom he had found himself in. ‘This is muiscal improv,’ he announced, prior to launching into another well-rehearsed number with his small but tight band (drums, bass, second guitar and keys/accordion). ‘Actually, there’s a reason why most musical improv’s free.’

I had first encountered Isbell through Jools Holland’s Later… and liked him enough to look him up on Youtube. For those of you, like me, raised to associate country with rhinestones, cheesy grins and a particular type of fake sincerity, his music’s nothing like that: though the melodies clearly owe a debt to the country tradition, the storytelling and songcraft in numbers like ‘Cover Me Up,’ and ’24 Frames’ remind me of Springsteen at his best, but without the bombast. Switching between Les Paul and acoustic for some numbers, Isbell showed he was no mere strummer, with both he and the other guitarist using slide on occasion as an extra texture.

In terms of material, fortunately for me he drew heavily on his last two albums, ‘South Eastern,’ and ‘Something More Than Free,’ with highlights the two songs, mentioned in the last paragraph, plus ‘Stockholm,’ ‘Flying Over Water,’ and ‘If It Takes A Lifetime.’ An encore of ‘Elephant’ and ‘Super 8,’ went down a storm with the enthusiastic, crowded-to-the rafters audience, who were noticeably singing along to the more recent songs. From the look of the crowd – twenty-somethings and up – Isbell has a growing fan base, and if he can keep playing killer gigs like this, it’s only going to get bigger.

It was no mean feet to fill the Liquid Rooms to the brim – twice – with all the other competing attractions, but he and his Alabama bandmates were definitely who everyone there wanted to see. ‘You be careful,’ he admonished us, sending us into a night full of Fringe tomfoolery.

Quite right Jason. There’s a whole lot of real clowns out there.

A Street Called Silence

En la sombra del catedral, la calle Silencio…

One of the many pleasures of going back to the northern Spanish city of Salamanca was rediscovering the ‘secret’ garden at the side of the cathedral. It’s called the Huerto de Calixto y Melibea, and it’s only secret in the sense that it’s tucked away where not many tourists would find it. Inevitably, of course, it now has a Google entry, a 4.6 star rating, and 37 reviews, but don’t let that put you off: on a hot day, it provides welcome shade and, despite the busy traffic on the main road circling the old town below, an oasis of peace and quiet. Significantly, most of the Google reviews are in Spanish, suggesting those who know about it are local (or at least Spanish!)

And yes, the street that leads to it is really called Silence:


This sense of the garden being hidden in plain sight, tucked away in the centre of the city like an open secret for those in the know, stayed with me after our previous visit. Salamanca is a well-to-do, beautifully maintained, university town: I always describe it to people as ‘the Spanish Oxford,’ because it has that same sense of long tradition, wearing its academic trappings lightly.

It’s not without its problems, of course, and you can’t sit in the many outdoor cafes without being panhandled by various beggars, some of them clearly victims of the current economic crisis, some addicts of various kinds. However, when I got a Spanish-style guitar figure in my head, months later, it was a different kind of contrast that came to me: the story of a passionate affair, conducted by means of secret liaisons, at first in the garden, and then, perhaps, somewhere more convenient in the long hours of siesta.

The ‘Cavalcade,’ incidentally, isn’t meant to be literal, but rather the paseo of the well-to-do, respectable sorts, taking their early evening stroll through the jaw-droppingly beautiful Plaza Mayor, perhaps stopping at a cafe there for a drink before strolling along the main connecting street, the Rua Mayor, to the cathedral to pay their respects. Meanwhile, in the garden down the side of the cathedral….


















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Wine Tourism at the edge: hunting the Rufete in northern Spain

Describing my day job as Chief Ninja in the Council’s Democratic Services Black Ops Division, as I sometimes do, probably gives it a veneer of glamour that’s slightly misleading, if I were being honest. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy it, and try to give 100%. But like most people, it’s not, perhaps, the role in life that I lay awake dreaming of, night after night, in those heady teenage years when anything seemed possible and the world, as Hilda Ogden used to say, was my lobster, or at least seemed that way.

So when you meet, in the same day, three people that love their job so much it amounts to a passion, that’s a special day (and, come to think of it, a fourth the next day, but we’ll come to him presently). We all want to live the dream, right?

Let me say straight off the bat we’re not wine experts. Nor are we wine snobs: we know what we like, and we buy it, with a bit of research and intelligent enquiry, from supermarkets and wine merchants alike. And then we drink it. But, in the beautiful northern Spanish city of Salamanca for a few days with family, a day trip to a winery sounded just like the thing, especially as we’d stayed in town before, and done the centre, at least, on foot.

They say that we live in the Age of Peak Stuff: that in fact, from now on, the ease of getting anything delivered to your door (indeed, in the near future, 3D printed on your own machine) means that consumer goods have lost their value, in most senses; besides, much of what we used to need big clunky amounts of space for – films, music, books – have been digitized. What we increasingly crave instead, so they say, is experiences: that perfect holiday; that opening chord in the first gig of the music festival; that moment when you feel your stomach pass your eyeballs in the other direction as the bungee snaps you upwards; and so on, according to taste and vertigo levels.

In that context, what Slow Wines offer is the future. Helena and Pierre are clearly passionate (that word again) about their business, and their wine: the website tells you they can take you on a tour of most of the major wine regions of Spain. How they manage to do that, out of a small office down the side of the cathedral in Salamanca, presumably involves a lot of travelling and wrangling, and/or local contacts. However, when we got in touch, we were looking for something closer to home for them. A couple of days’ short notice, a few emails back and forth, and we had booked ourselves on a day out to Sierra de Salamanca, Spain’s newest Denominacion de Origen.

The experience consisted of three parts: a visit to a winery, a village, and a Dominican sanctuary. When Pierre later asked for our feedback, our only criticism was that the winery came first: but maybe that was just our Scots Presbyterian deferred-gratification wiring at work. An hour’s drive into the mountains took us to Cambrico, which might just possibly be the best winery in the world.


Let me explain. Anyone that’s ever read a wine merchant’s catalogue, or even a supermarket flyer about the latest plonk they’re trying to shift for Christmas, will know the kind of script they push at you. Hand-harvested grapes, tiny parcels of ancient vines, high in the mountains where the wild boar roams and the fennel grows free among the vines. A local varietal, scarcely known till now, producing flavours long thought lost in the mists – or myths – of the valley below.

Well, Cambrico is all of these things, quite literally. The wild boar didn’t pop out of the undergrowth and say hello, but the hunting signs at the side of the road on the way up the mountain made it clear jabali was somewhere about, and presumably feeling pretty feisty, too. As for the tiny parcels/hand-harvested/growing among the wild fennel schtick goes, well, it’s not just a schtick. Here’s a couple of other pictures:

100_2911 100_2912 100_2913 100_2915Seriously. I have broken off the stem of the wild fennel and smelt its tart aniseed juices myself. My leg still bears the scar from a bramble stem that reached out into the path and grabbed me. See those trees? The ones that aren’t wild olives are mostly different species of oak, which the vineyard lets grow, presumably to help fatten and flavour the passing wild boar. Think it looks like a scrubby hillside with a random collection of plant life on it? That’s because it is… well, not quite random. The vines are grown organically, on the unique combination of Cambrian-period slate and granite geology that predominates in this area. Some of the plants – such as a variety of Salvia – are grown to be harvested for natural insecticide; others go into a green manure to nourish the vines that grow amongst them.

As for the little known grape varietal: that’s the Rufete, only found in its red version in these here mountains and in limited areas across the border in Portugal. The white Rufete, we were told, is so rare they’re still trying to analyse its genetic inheritance.

We were inducted into the mysteries of the Rufete by Bosi, our guide for the tour. In an example of the type of symbiotic, co-dependent relationship plants and people have in the area, he works for the owner of Cambrico some of the time, the remainder being expended on his own vines. An engaging, charismatic guy, he was really the star of the show, telling us (with the help of Helena and Pierre’s translations) about the vineyard and its working methods, getting right down among the vines and showing us how, given the fact the varietals are all planted higgledy-piggledy together on the slopes, the pickers are expected to tell the difference between the Tempranillo, Garnacha and Rufete plants (crucial because they’re all harvested at different times) by the leaves, and the grape size and colouration.

It was a million miles away from the slick, video-based presentations of the bigger wineries we’ve been to, where the vineyards themselves, shimmering in the distance, are serried monovarietal ranks of industrial-scale product, to be shifted and sold by the tankerful. Instead, one man in a dusty van had brought us to a hillside which, you felt, was about as close to the natural state you could get in our modern times. The grapes were hand-harvested, by the way, in baskets that held no more than 10kg of grapes at a time: all the better to avoid them being bruised, or crushed too soon.

Back at the winery itself, of course, modern production methods came into play. This is a business, after all, not some sort of heritage project: although even here, the emphasis was on careful treatment almost amounting to veneration of the sacred must that wine, ultimately, comes from. Everything was gravity-fed, to avoid pumps spoiling the holy juice:

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Finally, we got to taste the stuff! With a simple accompaniment of bread and jamon (what else?) we tried, first, a younger wine, and then 575 Uvas, named to reflect the amount of grapes it goes to produce a single bottle of wine (mas o menos, as Bosi said with a smile). Standing in the cool of the winery, looking out onto the sun baking the terrace beyond, it was very easy to believe that this was the best wine we’d ever tasted, from the best winery in the world:

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Cambrico, apparently, exports all over the place, its biggest buyer being Kazakhstan, for some reason. A few precious cases are reportedly being shipped off to England at the moment, but for Scottish readers, there’s only one bottle of 575 Uvas in the country at the moment. And it’s got our name on it.

After a good lunch in a nearby village (in Spain, even undistinguished-looking local caffs can serve up things like carillas de cerdo (pig’s cheeks, cooked in a red wine sauce) that are every bit as good as the fancied-up version you’d get in a top restaurant in Madrid) we set off for our second destination: the village of La Alberca.

Pierre told me he’d been in two minds about taking us here as part of the tour, and I saw why. La Alberca is a stunning village high in the Sierra (half-timbered, Elizabethan stylee houses deep in the Spanish mountains – who knew?) that’s just on the cusp of being spoiled by too much tourism. However, the village was so pretty we felt he’d made the right call:

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After a cold drink, we set off for the last port of call: the Peña de Francia (the French Peak), and its Dominican sanctuary. Apart from the religious buildings (although looking a bit like a set of army barracks, the sanctuary did, somehow, exude a sense of, well, sanctuary) the main attraction of the place was its stunning views over the surrounding mountainous region, and beyond. A viewpoint, with metal pointers like gunsights for the main places of interest, was very photogenic:

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After the intensity of the wine tour, and the bustle of La Alberca, the visit to Peña de Francia was a strangely tranquil end to our day. I would totally recommend any wine tour by Slow Wines: these guys are, as I say, completely immersed in their subject, and their enthusiasm and passion shone through. But above all you must go to Cambrico, and meet Bosi. Even if you’re pretty much condemned by reason of economics and geography to drink supermarket wines mostly, the memory of that hillside will stay with you for a long time.

And the fourth apasionado? We asked Pierre to recommend us a bar in Salamanca that specialised in wine, and he told us three. The best of these was, by some way, Doctrinos (Calle Doctrinos, 3) where the owner took particular care of us, recommending wines from the extensive list, giving us free tasters first, and producing excellent tapas to boot. He seemed far more concerned about us enjoying the wine than anything else: and he even had 575 Uvas on the list. Just a great, traditional style, Castilian taberna that we’ll definitely be paying another visit or two to when we’re back in Salamanca.

Oh, yes. We will be back.


Photos by Alison Ferguson










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Never Forget Who We Are

I first wrote this after watching a news item about a bunch of moronic English football fans using the Brexit vote as an excuse to go on the rampage in France, shouting xenophobic slogans as they went. However, the savage killing yesterday of an elderly priest in a place holy to followers of that religion made me realise the words go beyond the original ‘inspiration.’

Key to getting the sense of the words, though, was to back it with music that conveyed the emotion I felt. I performed it live at Blind Poetics earlier this month with the Mogwai track that had, equally, inspired it: the words, their tempo, and the overall timing, were designed to be fitted to the music. As I said on the night, the words aren’t meant to promote a particular political view: you can interpret the ‘we’ any way you want.

I’m reluctant to record a spoken word version on Soundcloud of this, because it’s using the music without permission. So, instead, here’s a bit of audience participation for you: click on the track, Special N, and read the words aloud, slowly, starting about 18 seconds in when the cello hits the bottom note for the first time. Don’t just read it in your head: we always read quicker internally than we do aloud, so you’ll be finished before the music’s half done.

Probably best to do it when you’re on your own though, rather than on the train. Folk might look at you funny.



Never Forget

When the hatred is high, and injustice is flowing

We must never forget who we are.

When the lies, and the fear, and the prejudice is growing,

We must never forget who we are.


We are very far from perfect, and we must keep going forward

But we are better than this. We must never forget who we are.


We have come a long way, out of shadows, out of ignorance,

Out of our own prejudice and unreason

But we must never forget who we are.


For we have become more tolerant, we have become more peaceful

We have welcomed our neighbours; we have sheltered strangers

We must never forget who we are.


And though it feels like night has fallen, there is a light

Shining within us, enlightenment in the darkness;

We have a history of this

We must never forget who we are.


Where we have reached out, and helped, and stood for

Fairness, equality, freedom and brotherhood

We must never forget who we are.


Where tolerance and understanding have lost their currency,

Where scoundrels wrap themselves in flags, wolves in sheep’s clothing

We must never forget who we are.


We are very far from perfect, and we must keep going forward

But we are better than this. We must never forget who we are.


We have come a long way, out of shadows, out of ignorance,

Out of our own prejudice and unreason

But we must never forget who we are.


For we have become more tolerant, we have become more peaceful

We have welcomed our neighbours; we have sheltered strangers

We must never forget who we are.


And though it feels like night has fallen, there is a light

Shining within us, enlightenment in the darkness;

We have a history of this

We must never forget who we are.


When our values, our beliefs,

when everything we hold dear is under threat,

We must never forget who we are.


Where there are refugees, where there are dispossessed,

Where there is shelter to be given,

Where there are children of every nation crying,

We must never forget who we are.


And where we believe we are in the early years of a better nation,

We must never forget who we are.


For if the eyes of the world are on us,

And we want to look them in the eye,

We must never forget who we are.



As Ithers See Us

I suppose I could do this any time, but it seems a particularly odd angle to be viewing recent UK events sitting in a cafe in Salamanca, in the Castilian heart of Spain’s heartland. Like Burns said, ‘Oh would some power the giftie gie us/tae see oursels as ithers see us.’

I make no comment, of course, on the political viewpoint presented in this article:  but it’s interesting to see British politics refracted through the lens of another country’s media (El Pais is a major, slightly left-leaning, Spanish daily). The article’s author is John Carlin, who Wikipedia tells me is half-Scottish, half-Spanish, and has spent his career on both sides of the Hispano- and Anglo-phone world, having been a contributor to El Pais since 1998.

Translated fast and loose, for style rather than pinpoint accuracy: but happy as always to take corrections where I’ve gone too far off-piste.

18th July, 2016

The New British Dictatorship

Theresa May’s Conservative Government has the way clear to do exactly as it pleases

‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold….’

WB Yeats, The Second Coming

You’re afraid to find out what’s happening in the world at the moment. Put the radio on, glance at a mobile screen, the paper or the television and we see that the Brexiteers won, there’s been a terrorist attack in Nice and a military coup in Turkey (1); every day the polls bring more and more credence to the idea of Donald Trump becoming President of the United States.  Newsflash – here’s the latest: the United Kingdom has turned into a one party state.

Yes: the one time exemplar of parliamentary democracy in Britain is no longer so exemplary. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, is the head of a rightist government with no opposition. The monopoly of power it holds is reminiscent of that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, or, in the time of Jose Lopez Portillo, of the PRI in Mexico. It’s the opposite of what we see in the young Spanish democracy, a model of multi-party politics (with all the frustrations it creates)(2) in comparison to the most recent version of the ancient Britannic version.

May’s Conservative Government has the way clear to do exactly as it pleases. She has just named the three stooges charged, as ministers, with the most important issue her Government faces: to negotiate the new economic and political terms between the UK and the EU post-Brexit. But the Labour Party, who came second in last year’s elections, hasn’t said a peep. Its members are dedicating all their energy to a fratricidal conflict which threatens to end with the Left out of government for a generation or more.

If the UK is, in general, giving the world an object lesson in how not to govern a country, the labour movement is playing out a farce which should serve as a warning to those in Europe and further afield who think left-wing policies are the solution to growing inequality in a rampant capitalist system, incapable of delivering its eternal promise that prosperity higher up will filter down to those beneath.

The British Left’s problem is not new. In their efforts to be at peace with each other, its supporters forget the practical necessity of delivering a convincing message to the electorate. The particular problem for Labour currently is its messenger, Jeremy Corbyn, party leader since last September. Corbyn is, from all angles, a good man, honest, and irredeemably faithful to his socialist ideals. His weak point is that he opposes, but doesn’t propose: he is against many things, but no one knows what he’s in favour of. For that reason, and because he is also greyer than the London sky, 80% of Labour MPs have said that he is chronically incapable of mounting an effective opposition to the Conservative Government, far less win a General Election.

In 2014, the party changed their leadership election rules, moulding them to the principle of direct democracy which some followers had converted to thanks, in no small part, to the notion promoted with evangelistic zeal on social media that that everyone’s opinions are equally valid, and that the ‘experts,’ as one of the pro-Brexit Conservative leaders said during the campaign, had nothing to teach us. Previously, the votes of the MPs were decisive in the leadership election. Now an MP’s vote counts the same as anyone else’s. The change was to give everyone’s vote an equal weight: to be member you had only to pay £3, currently €3.58.

Three quarters of paid up members are middle class: more than a half have a university degree. They do not offer a true image of the class which Labour, founded in the union movement, is supposed to represent. They are more likely to be Guardian readers, more prosperous than average, highly educated, and full of desire to atone for their guilt at their good fortune. Those were the people who, by a huge margin, chose Corbyn last September, the Labour leadership candidate who represented to the Left the most pure and without sin.

Corbyn, who detests the electoral pragmatism of Tony Blair more than the Tories themselves, is all heart. No one celebrated Corbyn’s victory more than a Guardian journalist who has, now, changed his mind: Seumas Milne continues to write for the newspaper, but is now the Labour Party’s Director of Strategy and Communication. A version in caricature of the typical Guardian reader, Milne comes from a rich family, went to one of the most exclusive private schools in England, studied at Oxford, and currently lives in a house worth €2.5m on the edge of London.

A Guardian columnist published a portrait of Milne this weekend. He recalled that Milne has always been a fervent anti-imperialist, but only as regards US imperialism. Russian Soviet imperialism was another matter. ‘He says he’s a socialist, but he kneels down and doffs his cap to the capitalist kleptocracy of the Putin regime, the columnist wrote. ‘He defended the Communist one party state of Stalin, but now he’s converting Britain into a Tory one party state.’

Of course, Milne, like Corbyn, is an admirer of Chavez’s Venezuela, the disasters of which he hasn’t seen any need to distance himself from. Nor have the majority of party members seen any need to distance themselves from Corbyn, even though he has shown no capacity to inspire the same idolatry amongst the working classes he says he represents. The proof was that the most militant of them voted for Brexit in the referendum with Nigel Farage, leader until recently of the far right party UKIP, than with Corbyn, who favoured remaining in the EU.

Today, the majority of Labour MPs are terrified that they will lose their seats in the next election. For that reason, but also to avoid the only opposition to the Tories being UKIP, they have called for Corbyn to stand down. Corbyn, described by his rivals as a leader of protest, not of government, has refused to do so.

There will soon be further internal Labour Party elections. Thanks to the ideological fortitude of its members, there is every indication that Corbyn will win. No one will celebrate more than Theresa May and the other caudillos of the new Conservative Dictatorship.


(1) written before the coup failed. At least at the time of this translation. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

(2) For a long time a two-party system between the PP (centre right) and PSOE (centre left), Spanish politics seems to have entered a fractured phase with the 2015 election creating no overall majority, and the June 2016 elections still leaving no party with an overall majority between the PP, PSOE, Ciudadanos (centre-left) and Podemos (left-wing, anti-austerity) being the main players, with further regional parties having a small number of seats. The PP’s Mariano Rajoy remains Prime Minister.









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