andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Category Archives: music and writing

Leonard, the Donald, and that difficult second album

A lot happened in early November 2016. The main headline news, of course, was that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, against all predictions, polls, the Washington establishment’s expectations and, frankly, the hopes and dreams of most of the rest of the world. Including, frankly, me. I don’t suppose that comes as a massive surprise to anyone that even half knows me.

Another significant event for me in that period, though, was the death of Leonard Cohen. Somewhat oddly, his passing was announced on November 10th, a day after it became clear that Trump had won the election, so that, briefly, I entertained the idea that Leonard, hearing the news of who had won the Presidency, had simply turned his head to the wall and left us. The truth was more prosaic: he’d died in his sleep, following a fall, three days before.

I’ve posted before about Leonard Cohen, about why I came to him late, and took great pleasure in hearing his late flowering period albums Old Ideas, Popular Problems, and You Want It Darker. The last of these, released three weeks before his death, is truly dark. Listening to it in full for the first time, driving into Edinburgh one night in March, I own that there were tears in my eyes as I heard the final track, ‘String Reprise/Treaty,’ which took the theme from an earlier track about the singer wishing he could conclude a treaty ‘between your love and mine,’ and embellished it with the saddest strings ever. It’s an album that isn’t easy listening, but more than worthy of your attention nevertheless.

It was like Leonard’s last words to us. In the weeks and months that followed, however, the little orange notebook I keep for lyrical and other ideas began to fill with lines that were, in spirit if not in quality, decidedly Cohenesque. Some of these were translated into ‘Song for Leonard,’ which might yet gain traction as a Venus Carmichael song. However, the lines kept coming.

Which is by way of explaining ‘Final Days,’ which might well be the first completed track of my as-yet-untitled second solo album, to follow Songs in a Scottish Accent. I finished the first draft of it in February or March this year, but certain other commitments, not least the day job, meant it took until this month to record it.

Releasing it now, I’m a bit conflicted, because I’m concerned people might feel it’s some sort of facile reflection on the most recent awful events to hit us here in the UK. Politics aside, we’ve had terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London (twice) as well as the awful sight of a tower block full of (mainly immigrant) families go up in a ball of flame, all in a matter of weeks.

All of the above, especially the last of them, might make you feel that this song is meant to be contemporary. It is, in the sense that Trump’s election might well mean that we’re now living in the final days. On the other hand, there will always be wars and rumours of wars, and the song’s black humour consciously references the type of songs that Leonard Cohen was writing in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In other words, it’s written with current events in mind, but not exclusively so. Nor is it meant to be some sort of pastiche: it’s Cohenesque, I can’t hide that, but the words and sentiments are my own as much as my accent. Consider an affectionate tribute.

Like Songs in a Scottish Accent, I’ve made the track free to download. However, if you do, please consider giving a donation to some sort of refugee charity, or one of the ones that’s been set up to look after the survivors of the Glenfell flats fire.

You Should Totally … a (p)review of various things

Drink South African

South African red wine’s a bit of an enigma for me. Every so often I come across one that’s a cracker: and then I can never find it again. The Holy Grail for me is the wine region of Robertson, which I’ve never had a bad bottle from.

However, most South African supermarket reds in this country seem a bit, well, so-so. Not bad, but not outstanding. Unfortunately, the recent triallists aren’t breaking that trend for me, but they’re worth a try – and not just because the Proteas are over here to give the Poms a damn good thrashing in the Tests. Although that’s as good an excuse as any.

Both wines are from Morrison’s: first up, Beyerskloof Pinotage Reserve, reduced to £6.50 from £9. A hefty beast, this, that went particularly well with curry. I wouldn’t pay full price for it.

Maybe a bit more accessible is Leopard’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, currently £5 down from £6.50. This is a long term favourite, and well worth snapping up for its damsony, blackberryish fruit (woah, just went a bit Jancis Robinson on you there!)

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Read Mac Logan and Kevin Scott

I’ve just read the first of Mac Logan’s Angel’s Share thrillers, Angels’ Cut. It’s a tense, pacy thriller with a sympathetic hero. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Angels' Cut (The Angels' Share series Book 1) by [Logan, Mac]

Also well worth a read: my Thunderpoint stablemate Kevin Scott’s first novel, Dead Cat Bounce. Two brothers with very different life trajectories, one a charming loser, the other a seemingly successful London futures trader, have to combine to find a missing coffin, the one with their late stepbrother in it. This being Glasgow, there’s gangsters and black humour involved, but Scott cleverly subverts the more obvious tropes and comes up with a surprising conclusion.

Dead Cat Bounce by [Scott, Kevin]

Listen to Cory Branan

A more extensive review coming, but Branan’s latest, Adios, is just great. Here’s a taster, one of my favourites from the album, Imogene.

 

Have been at the Voodoo Rooms to see Callaghan/Jesse Terry

Where were you all a couple of weekends back? Edinburgh’s inaptly named Voodoo Rooms (they’re about as voodoo as a palatial, slightly glacial, Victorian drinking salon can get, I guess, unless they mean the dark magic used to spirit your money away with frankly supernatural bar prices) was half empty to hear these guys. Jesse Terry is a fine, mainly acoustic-guitar-based singer-songwriter: his cover version was Don McLean’s ‘Vincent,’ which fitted well with his own material. He is also, as I discovered when I went back to chat to him after his set, a really nice bloke worthy of your attention.

As for Callaghan, I’ve blogged about her and her ability with a good tune and a great voice before. Her covers on the night were The Drifters standard,  ‘Stand By Me,’ John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song,’ and, as an encore, ‘Over the Rainbow.’ I know, right? Not exactly my natural musical habitat, either, and my heart sank when she announced the last one as her encore. And then she sang it.

Oh. My. Actual. [insert appropriate deity]. What a set of pipes that woman has. I mean, I knew her voice was special, even when put through the digital music equivalent of a meatgrinder that goes to produce the universal burger we call an mp3. But live? Just stunning. Stunning. She could sing ‘Baa baa black sheep’ and I’d still turn out to see her. If the angels in heaven sing half as well, it might be worth me thinking about giving up all this sinning stuff after all.

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Go see Martin McGroarty

My friend, colleague and fellow musical traveller Martin McGroarty is pretty much gaining the reputation round here of hardest working man in show business. We saw him at the Ship Tavern in Anstruther at the end of May, and the only thing wrong with the gig was we’d committed the schoolboy error of being the closest to sober in the whole place.

But boy, did he get the joint a’jumpin’ – and he now has such a following, any pub booking him can be guaranteed people travelling from as far away as, say, Dundee to see him! I see that he’s due to play there again on Saturday, June 24th, and I know it’s one of his favourite venues.

For a list of his gigs after that, go to his site.

That’s all for now, folks – more detailed musical recommendations coming soon!

Wrong Box: Events News

Now my novel, The Wrong Box, is (virtually at least) a reality, I’ve organised a couple of launch events. There are some others in the pipeline, but in the meantime (the link takes you to the Facebook event, if you’re that way inclined):

Fife Launch: Wednesday, 10th May, 17.30 – 18.45 – a just after work session at the Rothes Halls Library, Glenrothes, with Yvonne Melville of OnFife interviewing me. It’s free, and there’s free wine!

Edinburgh Launch: Thursday, 18th May, 19.45 – 23.00 (ish) Henry’s Cellar Bar, Morrison Street, Edinburgh – in the rather more rock n’ roll surroundings of Henry’s, what I’m calling ‘More Than A Book Launch, since it involves not just me talking to Writers’ Bloc stablemate and long-term WB supporter Gavin Inglis about the book, but spoken word readings from Gavin, Andrew Wilson, and Stuart Wallace, as well as music from both the bands I’m in, namely the troubador americana of Tribute to Venus Carmichael, and the country punk of Isaac Brutal (mein Herr Bandleader pictured below, in mean and moody mode).

Please note: at both events there’ll be only a limited number of books for sale, so order in advance to avoid disappointment! You can get the Kindle edition on Amazon, or the paperback edition from them or, if you prefer, from Waterstone’s.

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The merits of a leaky ceiling: how the Wrong Box came to be

Madrid and a cold beer, starting point for most of our Spanish travels

I went to see Jackie recently. It’s good movie, although there’s something a bit odd about it: the Guardian review probably sums it up for me. There’s a dream-like quality to it that got me thinking, because the way that the various forms of the sleeping state influence creative work interests me a lot.

I’m scarcely an original in using dreams to help the creative process: writers and musicians from Robert Louis Stevenson to Prince have talked about how they’ve plundered the stuff clambering out of their night-time subconscious. Stevenson’s classic horror, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for example, came to him in a dream, although the cocaine he’d been prescribed by a doctor for his ongoing health problems might have had an influence too. According to that particular creation myth, he got as far as the first transformation scene before his wife woke him up. Wives, eh!

Which leads me to the inspiration for my published-at-long-last novel, The Wrong Box.

Most of my creative endeavours, whether musical or writing wise, tend to have shadowy beginnings – a half-heard piece of conversation; an encounter on the express bus to Edinburgh; an earworm of a tune that won’t go away despite it appearing during work time. In the case of novel’s story, however, I can more or less trace the date of its inception to a week in April, 2008, and the Hostal San Bartolome, Almagro.

Anyone that knows me half at all will know that I’m a lover of Spain and all things Spanish, and not even just the wine neither. Every year for the last fifteen or so, we’ve been spending time travelling through that great country, all the time seeking out different regions, different places to visit that are off the tourist trail. Because we rely on train and bus to get about (just never fancied driving a car in Spain, funnily enough) that usually involves reasonably decent-sized towns. However, in 2008 we decided to push the envelope a bit, and explore somewhere that even the more generous Spanish classification of ciudad wouldn’t cover.

First stop, though, after touching down in Madrid and spending a night in the unremarkable but reliable Hotel Mora, was one of the great Spanish northern cities, Valladolid. It was a pleasant three nights there, from what I can remember: the things that stood out were the storks nesting on the roofs of the churches, and the quirky proprietor of the Hostal Los Arces showing the 9-year-old Daughter and Heiress the model house he was building out of sweets (although that now sounds so unlikely, I’m wondering if I dreamed that bit!)

From there, we had to head back south, through Madrid, and change trains at Ciudad Real to get to our second stop, the La Mancha town of Almagro. It was, in retrospect, quite a small place to spend almost a week, (from 5th to 11th April according to the itinerary I’ve unearthed) and I remember wondering, as the tren de media distancia crossed what I was to describe, in a subsequent poem, as a ‘tiny wrinkle on Spain’s great red face,’ whether I’d overcooked the length of our stay there, and undercooked Valladolid.

I had. It rained. It wasn’t a warm rain. Although what I described in the same poem as the ‘green and white layer cake’ of buildings forming three sides of the central square had its charms, in the rain those charms were a bit, well, on the soggy side (I’m giving you the absolute best bits of that poem, by the way – you can see why it never made publication). As we huddled in the bars and cafes of the plaza mayor with the locals and very few other tourists, we also came to realise that, given the somewhat niche appeal of the place, we had probably arrived a week or so early, tourist season wise. Not all the cafes and bars were open all the time.

We gravitated initially towards one place in the square which seemed popular with the locals: the food was decent, if a little red-meat heavy, and they had, like most bars in Spain do, a decent Rioja as the house red. We ignored the bullfighting on the telly at first as one of those cultural things that come with the package; but by the time of the second visit, the relentless procession of Hemingwayesque scenes from the plaza de toros started to grate a bit. Then we learned that the son of the establishment was a bullfighter, and took the hint that they probably wouldn’t be changing over to the football any time soon.

The main alternative seemed to be the bar/restaurant on the side road that led to our hostal. It was often virtually empty, and the waiter a youngish bloke who didn’t seem that sure about anything we asked him. The food was ok, though, and the inevitable telly was tuned to a channel that featured lots of what we took at first to be nature programmes. On closer inspection, these turned out to be actually about one of La Mancha’s other obsessions, la caza: the types seen striding about various grassy wetlands weren’t there so much to appreciate the bird life as blast the hell out of it with guns as soon as look at it. Oh well: asi es, as the Spanish say. By way of compensation, the uncertain young waiter decided we merited an end-of-meal taste of the local liqueur: three glasses of the stuff (including one for said 9-year-old D & H) appeared unbidden at our table.

Needless to say even we Scots leave it a couple of years before starting our kids on spirits. The Redoubtable Mrs F, meanwhile, had taken one sip of the yellow liquid and decided it was something I had to deal with, either by drinking or pouring into a handy plant pot. The plants were plastic, so down my neck all three went. I still have no idea what it was, beyond perhaps being the subject of a bet back in the kitchen to see if the crazy extranjeros would drink it. I’ve a vague recollection we even got charged for it.

All of this was nearly offset by the charm of our accommodation, the Hostal San Bartolome, and the young woman who ran it. Built around a central patio, the place was brightly painted, had real plant life in it, and was comfortable, accommodation wise. On the debit side, it was a bit – well, crumbly. I owe the place a debt for forcing me to find the Spanish phrase ‘el techo de nuestra habitacion esta goteando,’ (our room’s ceiling is leaking) as well as one for the handle falling off the door of the room I can’t place exactly now. All good practice, but not particularly great in terms of rest and relaxation (I’m sure they’ve fixed it all up now, of course).

Anyway. There we were, and there was the rain, and after dinner there wasn’t a lot to do except retreat to our room and hope the door handle didn’t fall off the outside while we were inside.

And whether it was because of the weather, the leaky ceiling, the third shot of mysterious yellow liqueur, or the bed which, in common with most Spanish hostal beds, wasn’t designed for those of us north of 6 feet tall, sleep didn’t come easily: which is how I came up to dream part, at least, of the story which was to become the Wrong Box.

I can’t remember specific details now, of course: but the essentials, I think, were there, of an obnoxious commercial property lawyer who wakes up with the hangover shark biting his head and the dead body of a client, naked, dead and with his toe stuck up the tap, staring up at him from the bath. There was always the idea of women having been there but then having disappeared; of there being some wider conspiracy at work that he didn’t appreciate; and of dark forces at his workplace.

Every so often throughout the night I’d wake up, hearing nothing but the sound of the others’ breathing and the downpour outside; then drift back off again, back into this dream that spun on with its story. There was another character, one from one of the housing estates that encrust the far outer ring of Edinburgh’s historic core: a conspiracy theorist who, alone, could help the lawyer find out the truth.

Towards morning, the periods of wakefulness became longer, as a watery light started to bleed through the curtains of the room. Inevitably, the left brain – the half that likes to impose order and structure on ideas – took over: the lawyer’s name would be Simon English, and his Englishness was a factor in the whole story, making him the stranger in a strange land. I don’t know at what point I came up with the name Karen Clamp for the conspiracy theorist, although I suspect it was then, still half-dozing, when the trapdoor between the two brain halves was still half-open.

As soon as it was light enough to see, I crept to where I kept the notebook I always carry with me on holidays and scribbled some essentials down. There were still long, arduous hours of plotting to come before I could start on the story properly, because I was determined that, if I was going to commit all the spare time it would take to write another novel (the previous two remain, tucked up in a digital drawer on the hard drive, unpublished and unpublishable) I was going to have a story that actually ticked all the story-formation boxes. My fantastic Finnish friend, Hannu Rajaniemi, was to help with all of that. But for now, fresh from the alchemical moment of creation, I knew I had something.

In the movie version of this moment, the rain would have stopped, and my family and I would have walked to our breakfast café through tendrils of steam drawn from the pavement by the rapidly climbing morning sun.

In reality, it just kept on pissing down, of course.

 

The Wrong Box is now available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon and, in Scotland, Waterstone’s

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Wrong Box is Coming!

No, not the story of a logistics breakdown by Yodel, but news (for those of you who I haven’t reached yet by other social media) that my novel, The Wrong Box, is to be finally published on 20th April. Here’s a pic of me with a proof  copy:

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You can pre-order it on Kindle or as a paperback on Amazon. There’ll be a couple of events in April/May: best way of following progress would be to join up to the Facebook Group, or follow me on Twitter (@andrewcferguso4).

Incidentally, if you know of any book groups that are looking for this kind of thing, and would like the author to turn up and talk about it (either virtually or literally, depending on distance); or any other book festivals or the like I could promote this at, please let me know!

Here’s the blurb:

All I know is, I’m in exile in Scotland, and there’s a dead Scouser businessman in my bath. With his toe up the tap.

Meet Simon English, commercial property lawyer, heavy drinker and Scotophobe, banished from London after being caught misbehaving with one of the young associates on the corporate desk. As if that wasn’t bad enough, English finds himself acting for a spiralling money laundering racket that could put not just his career, but his life, on the line.

Enter Karen Clamp, an 18 stone, well-read wannabe couturier from the Auchendrossan sink estate, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Council misdeeds and 19th century Scottish fiction. With no one to trust but each other, this mismatched pair must work together to investigate a series of apparently unrelated frauds and discover how everything connects to the mysterious Wrong Box.

Manically funny, The Wrong Box is a chaotic story of lust, money, power and greed, and the importance of being able to sew a really good hem.

Brutal News

I’m delighted to announce that the first Isaac Brutal album to feature yours truly, Trailer Trash Apocalypse, is now available on Bandcamp. That noodling on the keyboard going on in the background? The occasional random stabs of piano, and that harmonica? Yep. For reasons that will become clearer in my next post, I’m particularly chuffed to be cast as a keyboard player of some sort. Fortunately, those ‘skills’ of mine aren’t likely to be tested in the battle conditions of a gig any time soon, as I get to retreat behind a guitar (with occasional harmonica) in the current live set.

My personal favourite of TTA, btw, is 4th of July.

Speaking of gigs, there’s a support slot for the Véloniños coming up on 4th March – FB event is here. Really looking forward to this, not just because the set features two of my songs, but mainly because things are sounding absolutely excellent in rehearsal. I’ve never played a gig at the Leith Depot before, but it looks good. Pictures, at least, will follow…

Meantime, work continues on the next Brutal album, which I dare to say is going to be awesome!

Death of a Blind Poet

To, somewhat counter-intuitively, the Monkey Barrel in Blair Street for the last ever session of Blind Poetics on Monday, the hallowed Edinburgh pub of the same name having closed for a refurb. Said closure had coincided with Alec Beattie, one of the regular spoken word night’s organisers, moving to darkest Renfrewshire, with his partner in crime, Roddy Shippin, possibly moving to London (but not having told his Mum first, we learned).

It’s a shame to see an institution like Blind Poetics go. The Blind Poet itself will no doubt reopen in due course, scrubbed up or vintagely distressed, as the fashion dictates, with foams of this and emulsions of that served on lumps of slate by bearded hipsters of both sexes, I shouldn’t wonder; but spoken word in all its multifarious forms will no longer be declaimed there.

Coupled with the end of some other regular spoken word nights like Rally and Broad recently, and the relative dormancy of groups like Writers’ Bloc, I did wonder if there was something of a trend emerging here. However, Inky Fingers, a relative newcomer to the Edinburgh scene, is to take up a residency at the Monkey Barrel, so not all is lost.

I do hope that whoever carries the torch onwards keeps the idea of open mic going, and doesn’t just cater to the star performers. Monday night’s offering was the usual eclectic mix of intense, passionate poetry, not a little of raging against the Trump regime, (step forward Janet Crawford) and some stuff that was, well, plain daft. Whilst there was a lot of fine stuff on offer in the first third, one of my favourites was a poem about sweating.

There was also though a fair amount of the intense stuff, generally by people young enough to be my offspring; another first third highlight for me was a poem by a woman who had had the sense to bring along her poetry collection to sell on the night. I couldn’t even tell you now what it was about: but it was good, I remember, and well delivered, which is half the battle.

Which brings me to my own contribution. I was first up after the break in the second third; I had wanted to turn up and do something new, but, significantly, my time had been taken up recording guitars and vocals with the esteemed Isaac Brutal at the weekend, and my idea to update and tartanise Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ as a spoken word rap was still lying, half finished, on the desk by Monday afternoon.

Running out of time, I planned to ransack my folder of tried and tested spoken word pieces and find something to fit the show’s tight three-minute limit. The folder had gone missing in action, a victim of one of my cupboard tidying purges of the past few months. Again, significantly, all I could find were song lyrics in various stages of completion.

Things began to crystallise for me. I decided that the death of Blind Poetics should also be the death of my spoken word career; or at least spoken word without music. I suppose I might make a comeback if the current Writers’ Bloc renaissance continues, and they’re really stuck, but until then, I told the audience, guitar playing was the way forward for me. They feigned polite interest.

What I ended up performing was a much edited down version of a writing project I’d done an itchy seven years before: 50 first lines, which I’d put up and asked people to vote which one they’d like me to write. I don’t know if anyone ever did express an opinion, but in any event, I think I’d attempted about three of them over the next few years. What I’d never done was use them as a performance piece.

It was pretty weak material, so it was all about the spiel; as I stumbled over the first few words of the first first line, Roddy served up a juicy half volley for me about not being able to get the word ‘conservative’ out and I was away. I reminded myself as I went along that this was my default performance style: stumbling, bumbling, self-deprecating, and getting the best laughs from the mistakes and digressions.

Although there were a few more seasoned performers like me in the second third like Rose Fraser Ritchie, I did feel a sense that it was a good time to retire. There were a lot of youngsters out there. I told the audience they were welcome to take any of the first lines they wanted and craft the killer story I never had, but I don’t expect any of them will.

In the end of the day though, if I wanted the young turks, as I called them, to take anything away from my performance, it was that as long as you spout a lot of inconsequential crap with confidence, riding the mistakes and surfing the laughs – intended or unintended – as they roll in from the audience, it’s the performance people will remember, not necessarily the killer lines. Although that would be a bonus.

Thanks to Alec and Roddy for Blind Poetics: I came to it relatively late in the day, but the few I did attend were great nights. You brought a lot of new people on, and also gave a safe space to old salts like me who wanted to try out something new. Good luck with whatever you do, guys.

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The Undiscovered Self: A Profile of Norman Lamont, Singer-Songwriter

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A shorter, more tightly edited version of this profile appears on Norman’s own site here.

Does the creative spark flare brightest in early adulthood for all of us? Or for some, does the onset of, say, middle age create new impetus, new muses either spiritual or temporal?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and especially since reading Norman Lamont’s comment on his website that he’s been writing songs for 45 years, but he didn’t start writing good ones till his 40s.

Of course, this is in many ways typical Lamontian self-deprecation – I’m sure his twenty- and thirty-something output contains fine material – but my own appreciation of Norman’s work is inevitably coloured by the fact that I first got to know him in early 2011, when putting together a tribute night to His Bobness called Dylan Uncovered. The format was for each artist to do two covers of the great man, plus something else inspired by his work. In Norman’s case this was, inevitably, ‘the Ballad of Bob Dylan,’ one of his best known songs – and written, by my reckoning, long before his forties. I’ll let Norman himself tell you the story of that one, but, for me, his whole performance was one of the highlights of the evening.

Partly I just wanted to steal him and his bandmates to be my own backing band! Although they’ve since mutated from the Invisible Helpers to The Heaven Sent, Norman’s fellow instrumentalists in both switch between that folk-rock mix of acoustic and electric bandwidths that, in my head, I mostly hear when I have an idea for songs. Norman’s output is eclectic to say the least, ranging from the folk and rock genres through jazz influences to ambient electronica, but at its core is a body of work that follows that golden thread of songwriting craft from Dylan, Leonard Cohen, through others such as Nick Cave (Norman and his band also played at my next curated night, Cry of the Cave People, and made the Grand Lord of Goth’s songs his own too).

Of course, many know Norman for his long held affection for Cohen’s work, and I was delighted to play a small part in his Third Tip of the Hat to Leonard Cohen in November 2015. This was one of a series of tribute nights to the now sadly departed Canadian singer-songwriter, and Norman’s recent post about his loss is not just a fitting tribute, but telling in small details on how much Cohen’s approach has influenced his own style. Cohen’s ‘humble’ performance in front of a sell out crowd, for example, ‘stuck with [him] as the right way to approach an audience.’

In the same post, Norman mentions where he was living at the time of various Cohen album releases, including Rotterdam, London, Manchester, Staffordshire, and latterly, thankfully for us east coast Scots, South Queensferry. He’s been a fixture on the Edinburgh singer-songwriter scene since 1990. I’ve now seen him perform several times, and been lucky enough to share a bill with him on a couple of those occasions. In person and on stage, what shines through, apart from superb musicianship and songcraft, is the charm, self-deprecation and wit. Characteristically, after the Dylan Uncovered night turned out to be a logistical nightmare for which I, as an inexperienced gig promoter, was totally unprepared, he took the trouble to write and thank me for asking him to play. It was much more than most of the rest of the bill did!

A typical Lamont song – if such a thing even exists – will often use storytelling skills to drive the lyric on, whether of the shaggy dog variety as in ‘Ballad of Bob Dylan’ or a tauter form, as in  ‘The Last Man to Touch You,’ where the telling detail of the sexual rival’s journey to meet the narrator’s lover ‘he checks his watch, he mouths a song’ unwraps the fierce emotions underneath. One of my favourites from his last album is ‘Not About to Fly,’ recounting an Ayrshire childhood, from the sound of it, well spent. How many other songs begin with a line like, ‘When I was a spy I stuffed some wires in a jam jar/ left it buried by the river bank where it’s transmitting still…’? Musically, the opening mandolin motif leads into some superb violin playing before the rhythm section of (acoustic) guitar and bass underpin the whole; but the song’s flexible enough that the band could perform it equally well with Norman toting his Stratocaster.

My perennial question for Norman when I meet him these days – apart from, ‘when’s the next album coming out?’ is ‘why in hell aren’t you far better known than you are?’ It’s a dumb question to ask any artist, but dumb questions can still be valid ones. Perhaps he doesn’t push himself forward as brazenly as it takes. Maybe it is that age thing – after all, if anyone’s going to grab attention in today’s overcrowded Youtube/Soundcloud/Bandcamp melee it’s probably not going to be a fifty-plus singer-songwriter who relies on strong melody and intelligent lyrics, and doesn’t generally pause in the middle to rap over a Limp Bizkit sample.

Well, if this blog persuades one more initiate into the cult of Norman Lamont, it’ll have been worthwhile. Let the world go to hell in a handcart – standing at the top of 2017, it certainly looks headed that way – if we’ve got Mr Lamont to help it explain it all, the journey there will seem that much less bumpy. And the good news for all of us is, the well’s showing no sign of going dry. ‘I’ve got so many to finish and so many unrecorded,’ he tells me.

Amen, amen, amen to that.

Footnote: when putting this profile together, I asked Norman a couple of questions – basically just to get a couple of quotes from the man himself in somewhere. Typically, his responses were so well written and witty they’re far too good to fillet, so they’re printed in full below.

When you’re recording an album, do you have a sound (whether it’s Dylan’s wild, thin, mercury sound or otherwise) in mind for the songs?

– On a song by song basis, yes I can pretty much hear it all in my head, a full arrangement. That’s about 60% of the songs. Not for an album, which is why my albums are such a patchwork of inconsistent styles. I just hear and create songs then try to shoehorn them into a collection.  That’s my pattern and I actively try to disrupt it now in a few ways:

  • taking a half-finished song or idea to the band and seeing how it ends up
  • starting a song on the computer from a drum track or a few chords, then trying to match some random lyrics from my notebook to it
  • in the case of the band album, using the same people and roughly the same intrumentation for every track.

I have to say none of these have been as successful, I don’t think, as the songs that are fully ‘heard’ in my head like I Started A Fire and The Last Man To Touch You. Often when I make them up I’m driving so they have to be quite catchy songs for me to remember them till I get home. By that time I’ve pretty much arranged them in my head. But I’m trying to persevere with the ‘disruptive’ methods. An example of that would be Song of Wandering Aengus from the last album where I had the backing track I’d made for a cover version of someone else’s song, but replaced the melody with a new one and Yeats’ lyrics.

Do you release groups of songs as albums as they come chronologically, as it were, or are there a lot of songs that you hold back till they find a right fit?

I have the recordings in half-finished states for years, dipping in and out until suddenly one night I’ll get a glimpse of what this or that one needs to make it good. I don’t really think about albums other than ‘have I got enough for one?’  I think those days may be in the past and I’ll just put them out as I finish them. I’ve got so many to finish and so many unrecorded.

Name something you enjoy about the recording process, and something you don’t enjoy so much.

I love arranging, throwing instrument after instrument on then taking them off again leaving maybe only a bar or two of this and and a trace of that. I hate the software. At first I thought it was Cubase that was playing jokes at my expense but now I realise it’s any software I use. They conspire among themselves to trip me up. They tune into my level of eagerness to get started and plan their malfunctions in proportion to my sense of urgency.  An alternative explanation is incompetence, but I don’t buy that.

You can also read my interview with Norman which formed part of my ‘songwriters on songwriting’ series right here.

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Everybody must get Stones: Keith Richards and me

One of my favourite fellow bloggers, Yeahanotherblogger, recently posted about his experiences as a youngster with the Rolling Stones. In Stoned Again and Again, Neil (shock news: yeahanotherblogger’s a nom de plume) gives an amusing account of his lifelong ‘obsession’ (he seems far too well-balanced to be really obsessive) with Mick, Keef and those other cats. Whilst not uncritical of their present lack of output, he clearly retains an affection for them – and the depth of knowledge to link to a couple of lesser known tracks from the Stones’ first imperial period, in the mid-to-late Sixties, the latter of which, Dandelion, I’d never heard..

And it all got me thinking. As the music press goes radge bongo for their first album in years and years (of which more later) what do I think of them myself? Do they still hold any relevance today? Should I be steering Daughter and Heiress towards them (as if she’ll listen, and/or as if she’ll not have made her mind up via Youtube already) as an ineluctable part of her rock n’ roll heritage?

Some context here. I was 5 in 1967, so Pinky and Perky were more my musical bag, man. Later on, I did become aware of the Stones at a relatively young age via the magic of my older brother and sister’s record collection. I still remember being especially impressed at the cover of Sticky Fingers (1971) with its picture of a pair of well-filled jeans, and an actual zip! Come to think of it, I think Toe Blister’s still got that album – might even be worth something now.

By the time I had got through my Pinky and Perky phase, the Stones were mainly absent from such crucial sources of music we had in the UK like ‘Top of the Pops.’ Actually, in the mid to late Seventies, ToTP was pretty much the only source of new music on the TV in the UK: but by then, the Stones were rich and famous enough to be tax exiles, and didn’t deign to appear on the show. Come to think of it, given the number of TOTP presenters who’ve since had their collars felt by the constabulary for alleged – and in some cases – proven misdemeanours of the morally turpitudinous type, that was a pretty smart move.

So the Stones were gone from the current music scene, and viewed by some as part of the old guard that had to be swept away by the cleansing wave of snot that was Punk, circa 76/77. Not that it was obvious from your average disco DJ’s set of the time: as a bit of relief from Rose Royce, Gloria Gaynor, and the like, a few ‘classic’ Stones numbers were generally thrown into the set: but then, Paint It Black, Ruby Tuesday, Brown Sugar are the like are pretty damn danceable, after all. I was always intrigued by the opening bars of ‘Black,’ especially: that sitar!

So the Stones were great to party on to. But in terms of still being relevant? I remember hearing ‘Start Me Up,’ the single off ‘Tattoo You’ in 1981, by which time I was a 19-year-old serious-minded student of Rock (that wasn’t my actual degree, but it might as well have been – see earlier post on my ill-judged attempts to become the next Bruce Dylansteen). I was pretty underwhelmed. Still am, in fact – I always felt that was the beginning of the end for the fabled Jagger-Richards songwriting partnership.

Then, a long period passed – in fact, most of the Eighties and Nineties – when, for me at least, the Stones were more about the myth than the music. Specifically, the Glimmer Twins legend. It was almost as if the two of them had realised the game was up with a clever tune and a lyric and decided to construct a whole new mythology instead. Mick became cast as the stereotypical Lead Singer: vain, self-obsessed, good with the media; Keith, on the other hand, was the cool one, the moody Guitarist with the tortured-artist addictions and the piratical dress sense.

Other parts of the Stones’ actual history were grist to the mill of the myth: tragic, mysterious early death of founder member; bad acid and stabbing at Altamont as the band played on with ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ drugs busts, Redlands, Marianne Faithfull and that Mars Bar. The Establishment was trying to take them down, man. Even exile in France wasn’t so much as prudent tax avoidance as sticking it to the Man.

Along the way, certain inconvenient truths were buried, particularly around Brian Jones’s part in the early years. It was interesting to read, last year, Keef’s autobiography, Life, and more or less straight afterwards  Paul Trynka’s biography of Jones. The latter gives a possibly slightly overstated version of Jones’s significance, but it does show how it was his band originally, how Mick and Keef marginalised him, and eventually left him with no place at all. Jones was far from blameless in all of this – he doesn’t seem to have been a particularly nice person, and he clearly ‘had issues’ – but it’s the way he’s been written out of the band’s history that’s striking.

Back to the Sage of Dartford though. Don’t get me wrong: respect is due from any guitar player for how, following Jones’s departure, Keef was largely responsible for refining the Stones’ sound around a riffing, country-blues vibe that played to the band’s strengths, along the way collaborating with Mick Taylor and then Ronnie Wood in a way that stepped away from the lead/rhythm guitarist paradigm and, instead, paved the way for a more egalitarian twin-guitar approach. And don’t be put off by my comments about his autobiography: it is highly entertaining, especially about the drugs busts, and well written. There’s even a section on tunings which will help you to work out how to play his stuff more accurately.

Look, I see myself as a guitarist rather than a lead singer, so like why wouldn’t I want to be a bit more Keith Richards? Indeed, I often feel the answer to many of my life’s dilemmas might well be, ‘what would Keith Richards do?’ And ‘Gimme Shelter,’ which very definitely has Keef’s fingerprints all over it, is my favourite Stones song ever.

It’s just, well, I dunno. He kind of takes the credit away from everyone else, somehow?

So, in his bio, he claims the only reason they recruited Bill Wyman was he had a big old bass amp. That famous meeting of Jagger and him on the railway platform at Dartford? He only got talking to the cat because of his record collection. In a recent interview with Uncut to push the new album, ‘Blue and Lonesome,’ he uses the same reason for hooking up with Brian Jones: ‘Brian was the first person I knew that had a Robert Johnson record … Very rare. That’s when I captured him. “I’ll take you, and the record!”‘

See what I mean? Even Mick Jagger’s apparent upturn in harmonica playing on the new album, according to the same interview, is down to him, via Ronnie Wood: as the interview puts it, ‘the two men worked discreetly, good-naturedly stoking Jagger’s enthusiasm for the harmonica.’ You can’t – or at least I can’t – help feeling a tad sorry for Brenda, as Keef calls him: forever guilty of acts of lead singerism, dependent on his guitarists to jolt him into harp-playing reanimation, the eternally uncool straight man.

Will I be buying ‘Blue and Lonesome?’ Nah. Partly because that pure, unadulterated blues isn’t really my thing, but also because, well, if I want to listen to the blues, there’s an excellent local band called Lights Out By Nine I could go and see in a small venue. I’d rather give them the money, same way I’d rather go see my good friend Norman Lamont recently (and contribute to Edinburgh Foodbanks in the process) perform his ‘Ballad of Bob Dylan’ live than go and see the non-Nobel Prize Ceremony attending old curmudgeon himself when he reaches Glasgow on 7th May (plus I’m working that night, come to think of it).

Still, Keith. We’ll always have Gimme Shelter…and to be fair, even the story of its recording is the stuff of legend.

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New Album Frenzy at Casa Ardross

Some reviews in for Songs in a Scottish Accent:

‘Everyone should listen to Andrew C Ferguson’s new album. Awesome down to earth Scots tunes. Well worth your time guys.’ Charlotte Halton

‘I can see the Springsteen and Dylan influences in the arrangements but that made it all the more enjoyable for me and the lyrics are real-life and insightful. I particularly liked ‘Never Forget’ which is far bolder than anything I would do.’ Norman Lamont

‘Poetic’ Kelly Brooks

‘Production is excellent… everything crystal clear. Musicianship top notch as well.’ Mark Allan

Ok, ok, so these aren’t ‘official’ like reviews, they’re nice things my mates have said about it. However, they are all talented musicians, so I must be getting something right!

Remember, I will send – or hand – you this album absolutely free, and all you have to do is donate something to a refugee charity (or have it on your conscience). There are suggestions on the album page, or there’s always good old Oxfam.

And, in case one album featuring me isn’t enough for you, another two are due along shortly!

First of all, as Venus Carmichael watchers will know, the first full Venus album is currently in post-production, and we’re racing to get it ready for our album launch on 14th December. The track listing will be:

Icarus Wings

All I Can Think Of Is You

Heartlands

Highway Tonight

Coming Around Again

Katerin

Old School

Spider Arpeggio

Running Song

Rose Tattoo

What’s more, it features the beautiful singing voice of Kelly Brooks on it, rather than mine!

But that’s not all. While recording has started on its sequel, the Isaac Brutal album ‘Dawn of the Trailer Trash,’ featuring my, ahem, multi-instrumental skills, has been ready for some time now, and just needs the cover art nailed down. I can’t wait for this one either, as it features some really strong material in the classic Brutal mould.

Keep the dial here for more news…

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