writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: February 2018

That Difficult Second Album (again)

So, regular readers of this blog (who must number, oh, I don’t know, single figures, but are clearly very discerning) will know that I’m in the process of finishing off my second solo album, to follow up my soaraway success debut, Songs in a Scottish Accent. (1)

Things are actually, finally, starting to coalesce. It’s not that I’m suffering from shortage of material – in fact, I’ve probably got enough between the finished stuff and the half-written to fill a double album – but I’m trying to put together something that’s coherent in some sort of way: certainly not a concept, and I’d be lying if I said the songs were all one style, but still. They seem to hang together in my head, at least.

The song I’ve just got to next-to-final draft is maybe out on the edge thematically. The country punk band I’m in, Isaac Brutal, has many qualities, one of which is the level of inter-band banter on the Facebook group message. In one of these, the phrase ‘It’s all gravy,’ came up, and I just kind of picked it up and ran with it. I describe it as Kafkaesque country.

More releases to come up soon – I’m particularly looking forward to one called ‘Due Ceremony,’ which borrows a tune fellow Scots may recognise…

(1) Actually, I have now given away almost all copies of my first album, so if you’ve missed out so far, let me know. Remember, it’s free in return for a contribution to a refugee charity, which I just trust you to make, so no complicated filling in of online forms or such. I don’t even ask for your email addy.

Alternatively, you can download the tracks from the Soundcloud site – but be warned, all but a few of them will be disappearing soon to make room for the new album…









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Shelf by Shelf: A Bookcase View

We recently laid new carpets and vinyl through most of the ground floor of our house. Not the most exciting opening to a blog entry, I grant you, but work with me on this! One of the great things about the kind of upheaval this entails is the opportunity to de-clutter: and, in the case of my bookcase, to reorganise.

I once knew a woman who had her book collection sorted in what, to me, seemed the most counter-intuitive way: by the colour of the spines. She shared a great big old high-ceilinged flat near London Road with her partner of the time, and there was a huge bookcase along one wall of the living room, with the books as a sort of art exhibit, mutating through blue, red, purple and the rest. Whatever colour the book’s spine was, that was where you’d find it. She was, needless to say, as well as being a very talented writer, also a visual artist.

Well, I’m not that clever, or counter-intuitive. I still think in terms of bookshop classifications, normally, when putting things together (apologies, librarians). However, I also went through some sort of long dark tea time of the soul a few years ago about what a bookcase was for. Is it to show what a clever clogs you are and display all the literary classics you’ve ploughed through, sometimes with gritted teeth? Or is it to hold on to books you’ll never read again because you have a connection to them? I sometimes think that, ideally, it should be a bookcase full of books you’ve not read yet, but I don’t suppose that’s going to happen. And yet…

And yet considerations of space also come into consideration. With a burgeoning guitar habit to support, the living room and diner doesn’t have limitless wall area. So, a few years ago, Thomas Hardy was brutally murdered and his remains disposed of to a charity book shop. Ditto one hell of a lot of poetry anthologies I was never really going to look at again.

This time round, I realised there still were quite a few classics I’d been holding onto in case Daughter and Heiress needed them for some sort of class essay or whatever. Given she’s now beyond the school stage and studying the fact-based world of journalism, that doesn’t still need to happen. Said classics are now in a box next to me here in the study, awaiting transportation to Oxfam in Edinburgh (yes, the drugs n’ hookers revelations haven’t put me off my default charity. And I’m sure none of it went on in their Morningside branch anyway).

So what survived? Well, shelf by shelf:

I guess this is what you might call the ‘place-based’ section: on the left, a group of books about Spain which might yet form the backbone of that travel book I’ve been threatening for a while. On the right, books about Fife, Edinburgh (including Charles Smith’s fantastic book about the south of the city) and some related ‘Scottish interest’ books on things like Burke and Hare, witchcraft, and so on.

That’s the top shelf, apart from the glass head with the corks in it. Oh, and a wee replica of Rodin’s Thinker, just out of shot. Together they must mean something, I suppose.


Second top, my Iain Banks (and Iain M Banks) collection, which I can’t bear to part with, having fleetingly known the great man. Then, in the middle, a very limited collection of classics I can’t – or won’t – give up: Dracula, Frankenstein, Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, The Shining. Oh, and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, which isn’t really fiction, or at least so he says.

To the right of that, a group of books by people I’m proud to call my friends – fellow travellers from Writers’ Bloc, and others. Pride of place has to go to the anthology with my mate Gavin Inglis in it, entitled ‘Grunt and Groan: the New Fiction Anthology of Work and Sex.’

Next up, the Fergusons. Lots of anthologies of short stories with one of mine in – some of them even paid! – a couple with my brother’s; and my late Dad’s books on Glenrothes, his contribution to the Stair Memorial Encyclopedia of Scots Law, and his book on my grandfather, ‘A Huntly Loon,’ still available from the family for a very reasonable price.

To the right of the elephant book end are books I’ve bought but not read right through yet. My intention is to work on these steadily, and meantime not buy any others, given that the shelf is full: an intention only stymied by the pile of similar size by my bedside I’m working through, too. You may recognise the problem.

The shelf below that is a bit more eclectic. Some random non-fiction stuff, including a book on UK accents, and an excellent wee treasure my Dad’s cousin gave me years ago, ‘How to Lie with Statistics,’ by Darrell Huff.

Poetry, including Dylan’s lyric book (now there’s a debate…) and then, extending to the far end, my ever-increasing stock of Robert Louis Stevenson. I  have at least three different versions of ‘Kidnapped,’ but I can’t bear to get rid of any of them. RLS has, like Iain Banks, been such a powerful influence on my writing, that he’s going to stick around, no matter how Stalinist my subsequent bookshelf cleansings become.


Next to last is the Outsize Shelf – books that are, frankly, too big to go on any of the other ones. Roughly divided into language dictionaries (plus a CD on Finnish I really must get back to Hannu Rajaniemi some time); song lyrics; cookery books that need sorted through to see if we’ll really ever cook with them again (but I bet Delia Smith will survive the next purge) and gardening books.

Below that, apart from a couple of Bibles retained for sentimental family reasons, an empty shelf, which is really too small to fit much into upright.


Does it show me as a well-read, cultured creature? Probably not so much. Has sentiment played as much a part as anything else in what stays? You betcha. These are, in the end, the guys that I want to keep close: because, for me, books have more meaning than all the words in them put together.

Does that even make sense?

















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A Tale of Two Amplifiers

Ok, let’s talk amplification, people. I’m talking about the means by which guitars – and in my case, almost exclusively acoustic ones – are made louder than they naturally are.

Three reasons why I decided to do this. First, Vox have just brought out a new range of acoustic amps and, being Scottish, I thought it was a good time for you to look again at the previous lot as they’re likely to be on sale in a guitar shop near you soon. Secondly, since the original post I did about my first acoustic amp, the Vox AGA 30, I have splashed some cash on the Marshall AS50D and I thought, after a good year or so of use, it was time to compare and contrast the two.

The third reason is pretty shameless, really. Week in, week out, month in, month out, year in, year out, that Vox amp review gets hits. It just keeps on trucking as the most visited post I’ve ever done. Honestly. I might have written the most brilliant literary works of fiction, the most penetrating gig reviews, the most acerbic Dorothy Parkeresque jeu d’esprits, and none of them would have done as well as that amp review, according to the WordPress stats.

Any of you who’ve read the original review of the Vox will know it was pretty positive. So why buy a second amp? To explain, I have to tell you a little about my musical life, so any of you that know this already, you can scan on. I play with two bands: my own acoustic duo, Tribute to Venus Carmichael, and my mate Mark Allan’s country punk outfit, Isaac Brutal. As far as Venus was concerned, my motivation was to make us self-sufficient for small pub back rooms, having the additional option of more inputs should there be a bit of backing vocal needed, or even just another place to jack in another guitar.

And as for Isaac Brutal, well. The current line up consists of  drums, bass, two electric guitars, singer and me. Frankly, the little Vox wasn’t quite up to being heard above the racket. So I had me a little tour of Amazon’s warehouse deals section, and found myself a good bargain of a Marshall AS50D in a very natty racing green.

Image result for Marshall AS50D

And on the first – and arguably least important – point of comparison, looks, the Marshall wins hands down. Just look at it! It’s like a vintage Aston Martin that’s been compressed into a rectangular box. Utterly gorgeous. And, while it shouldn’t matter, when you’re setting up for a gig and people see that legendary Marshall signature across the grill, it does look – well, a bit like you know what you’re doing.







The Vox? They’ve tried their best with a tan leather effect for the box, a vaguely tweedy cover for the speaker, and vintage-stylee ivory-coloured knobs, but it pales in comparison, frankly.

So, half a point maybe for the Marshall. On the other hand, I would give a full point to the Vox for relative weights – it’s light as a feather, whilst the Marshall, er, isn’t. Frankly it’s a big clunky bugger to lug around.

Yes, yes, you say. That’s all very well, but how do they operate in gig conditions, and how do they sound?

The first thing I’m going to say may sound unimportant, but if you frequent the kind of murky venues I do, and/or have less than perfect vision like mine, it’s kind of worth half a point to the Vox. Its knobs are on top, and a bit easier to twiddle as you go along as a consequence. Even if you have the Marshall on a chair, you’re going to have to squat down and peer at the controls in a way that’s frankly not terribly rock and roll.

On the other hand, as I found at an outdoor festival a couple of years ago, the fact the Marshall’s electrical inputs are tucked away under an overhang on the front elevation can be an advantage if it starts to rain. At that time, I only had the Vox, and it was buzzing in a way that didn’t give me a lot of confidence as to my future well being. I mean, literally dying on stage may be rock and roll, but I’m hoping to keep it to the metaphorical kind for a few years yet.

Controls-wise, they’re initially similar: both have two inputs, each with bass and treble controls, anti-feedback, and chorus and reverb options. The Marshall has a separate, more sophisticated two-knob chorus effect, whilst the Vox has a single knob that gives you reverb, chorus, or reverb and chorus. Since it’s mainly reverb I’m looking for, the difference doesn’t put me up or down, really. The Marshall also has greater sophistication regarding loop options and a DI socket, but, again, I’ve not investigated any of these options yet – either I’m using the amp as the sound source, or I’m DI’ing direct into the PA with the sound guy mixing for me. The Vox has a line out facility which was used to great effect at one early gig (see previous review). Both have a footswitch socket – which, interestingly, the new acoustic guitar Vox, the VX50AG, doesn’t seem to have, according to a recent review in Acoustic.

Sound-wise, there are differences. My main acoustic guitars are, firstly, a Lag ACE100 that I’d recently got at the time of the first review. Outstanding sound acoustically: unfortunately, the pickups are a bit rubbish. I need to get one of those LR Baggs ones some time for it! And secondly, my latest baby, which you can see me wielding in the picture above: an Epiphone EJ200CE, an absolute beast of a thing based on the original Gibson Jumbo model. I may do a comparison review between the two guitars at some stage, as they’re similar in price point, but perform a very different purpose for me: the Epiphone is actually quite quiet to play acoustically, but amped up, it sounds plenty sweet – and loud. (If you want a decent review of the latter in the meantime by a gigging musician, check out this one).

Here’s the thing. Up until Wednesday night’s gig, I would’ve said, (and indeed was saying in an earlier draft of this) if  I’m playing a small, intimate gig, as I almost always am (the stadium tour will have to wait another year or two, or maybe another lifetime) the Vox is the thing I want to plug into – especially the input which doubles as a vocal channel. It gives the Lag a lovely, honeyed sound, and the Epiphone, too – although she’s never quite going to match her older sister for tone. If the Lag were a Rioja, she’d be a Gran Reserva for all those gorgeous woody notes.

Image may contain: 3 people, people on stage and people playing musical instrumentsFull throttle Brutality. Pic: Kenny Mackay


On the other hand, I’d said, if I’m gigging with the Brutal boys (and girl) and I need to be heard higher up  in the mix (on those rare occasions where I’m playing the riff, for example) then the Marshall’s the thing I lug into the venue. Much more resistant to feedback, its 50 watts can be used to good effect for the Epiphone or – and here’s why I said almost always acoustic at the top of the review – the Danelectro 12 string that I have on semi-permanent loan from Mr Brutal himself. That Marshall crunch is there when you need it, but equally, its tone for the quieter acoustic stuff is there too.

So what changed the other night? Bear in mind a lot depends on the acoustics of the venue, the mikes you’re using for the vocals, etcetera. But last night, for whatever reason, Kelly’s vocals were sounding a bit muffled on the Vox, so I switched them over to the Marshall. I’ve never heard her sound better. And, while the Vox did its usual good job with the Lag (and my occasional backing vocals) the Epiphone, out of the other Marshall input, was sounding fantastic.

So there you are. It’s horses for courses, frankly. If you’re in a folk-rock band, or indeed country punk, the Marshall is a thoroughly good amp, with a sweet sound and plenty of oomph when you need it. I’m not going to be retiring my little Vox any time soon, neither.

Tomorrow night’s a Brutal gig. The Vox is tucked up at home, safe and sound. The Marshall, though. The Marshall’s ready to get down and dirty in Henry’s Cellar Bar. And I know it’s got my back.
















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