Old Blind Dogs,  close to the bone (KRL, 1993)
Old Blind Dogs, five (KRL, 1997)
Old Blind Dogs, Legacy (KRL, 1995)
Old Blind Dogs, Live (KRL, 1999)
Old Blind Dogs, new tricks (KRL, 1992)
Old Blind Dogs, tall tails (KRL, 1994)
Old Blind Dogs, the world's room (Green Linnet, 1999)
Old Blind Dogs, FIT? (Green Linnet, 2001)
Old Blind Dogs, the gab o mey (Green Linnet, 2003)
Old Blind Dogs, Play Live (Green Linnet, 2005)

 

The Old Blind Dogs is one of the new wave of Scottish groups that have combined traditional material with an unconventional style of playing. I promoted them years ago when they visited our fair city, when the Old Blind Dogs consisted of Davy Cattanach on percussion, Jonny Hardie on fiddle, Buzzby McMillian on cittern and bass, and Ian Benzie doing vocals and playing guitar. This was not actually the original group -- the first OBD had Dave Francis on percussion and Carmen Higgins on fiddle (there are two cassette-only recordings of this incarnation of OBD). But, with the "classic" line-up of Cattanach, Hardie, McMillian, and Benzie, which began in 1992, OBD toured as a four piece and recorded four great CDs with the Scottish record label, KRL -- New Tricks, Close to the Bone, Tall Tails, and Legacy. Live they are simply superb -- recorded they sound just as good.

This is not thrash Celtic, as is the case of groups like MacKeel, and Seven Nations, but rather a more subtle approach that allows both the vocals and other instruments to be clearly heard. Their sound is very unique -- no other group sounds quite like them. In contrast to groups such as Iron Horse, Pogues, and MacKeel which all combine traditional material with aggressively loud percussion and a lot of piping, the OBD, who only recently started to use pipers on their CDs, apply a lighter touch to the music, which allows them to bring out the heart and soul of the traditional material.

Their first CD, New Tricks, introduced them to their fans. Their first four albums revolved around the superb percussion work of Davy Cattanach, an amazingly fey being who plays as if the wee folk of Scotland were standing at his shoulder. The album starts off with "Bennachie," a snappy song about -- surprise -- drink. (Now I may be wrong -- see my note below 'bout Benzie's accent.) What is interesting is that even though they didn't have a piper until the album called Five, they did cover piping tunes by adapting them to the fiddle, a fairly common practice in many Celtic groups. For example, on this album is "Treladle," a piping tune rumored to be at five hundred years old! And the songs they cover are just about as old: "The Wee Wee German Lairdie" is biting political commentary upon the Hanoverian King George I (1660-1727), who ruled Britain, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. These songs were definitely popular with the singer-songwriters of their time, as "Cam Ye O'er France," which has been covered by Steeleye Span, is yet another attack upon the Hanoverian family! This album finishes out with two songs made famous by other groups: "Bedlam Boys," which was covered by Steeleye Span, with Maddy Prior as lead vocalist and which sounds much darker here, and "The Rights Of Man," which has been done by many groups including the Battlefield Band.

(A note from Ian Benzies in May of 2001 corrects my impression: "Yes you are wrong there , sorry, Bennachie is an unrequited love song. The singer wishes to back beside the Gadie ( which is a stream that runs behind Bennachie Hill in Aberdeenshire) where she had obviously done most of her courting. Both of the men she was attracted to were killed, one at the Lourin` Fair the other drowned in the river Dee and instead of;using linen for her wedding gown ( she had hoped ) she used it as a winding sheet for the corpses, she herself dressing in " honnin " which is a rough sacklike material, by way of mourning.")

Their second CD was Close to the Bone. Every Old Blind Dogs album consists of two elements: superb songs and tasty tunes. An example of the latter is "Linden Rise," a driving reel composed by Jonny Cunningham of Silly Wizard fame. The percussive backbeat is part of a wall of sound of guitar, fiddle, and bass. Likewise, "MacPherson's Rant" is a lovely version of a song written by  James MacPherson, who was hanged at Banff in the year 1700. (This is appropriate, as many of the protagonists of OBD songs come to very bad ends.) Other highlights of this album are two songs familiar to any fan of Celtic music: "Cruel Sister" and "Twa Corbies." The very thick Scottish burr of Ian Benzie adds a cold, horrific feel to songs that are already depressing enough as "Cruel Sister" has the rib cage of a murdered sister turned into a harp that sings the tale of the murder, and "Twa Corbies" has two ravens feasting on the flesh of a dead knight. (Both are from Francis James Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads.)

Tall Tails is the third of what KRL rightfully calls the classical era of the Old Blind Dogs (Yes, the names of first three albums -- New Tricks, Close to the Bone, and Tall Tails -- are not terribly witty dog jokes). This album continues the sound established on the first three albums: traditional material with a modern feel by dint of the almost Afro-Caribbean percussion of Davy Cattanach. The absolute highlight of this album is their cover of "The Pills of White Mercury," the pitiful lamentation of a dying man done wrong by some disease-ridden flash girls. The texts of this song was taken from Thomas D'Urfey's Wit and Mirth: or, Pills to Purge Melancholy. (D'Urfey is also the author of "Blowzabella My Bouncing Doxie" -- the origin of the name of the English group Blowzabella. See our reviews of their albums, Bobbityshooty and Blowzabella Wall of Sound.) The group clearly loves twisted tales of love, as they also include "A Wife In Every Port," a song 'bout a man who attempts to bed a lovely lady despite having no intention to stay and marry her. It reminds me of "The Gentleman Soldier," a sprightly number covered by both Steeleye Span and the Pogues! Of course, Tall Tails has the usual heaping serving of jigs and reels -- I single out "Willie's Aul Trews/The Auld Reel 1/The Auld Reel 2" with Gavin Marwick of Iron Horse fame on fiddle.

The last album of the longest lived version of the Old Blind Dogs was Legacy. This was the album that they were touring to support when I promoted them. The folks who hosted the lads said they were some of the nicest musicians they ever hosted -- not to mention the hungriest and thirstiest they'd ever seen! Even small Davy Cattanach could put away a ton of food, and drank more ale than I thought possible! But they left some lovely tunes in exchange for their food and drink. But what about the music, you ask? More of the same -- captivating tunes and redoubtable songs, expertly crafted by the lads. Live -- see the review of Live below -- they sound exactly like they do recorded. This is not a slam on them, but rather a note of just how good they are. For instance, "The Bonnie Earl O'Moray" (see our review of Edward D. (Sandy) Ives' The Bonny Earl of Murray: The Man, the Murder, the Ballad ) sounds just like it did when they played live in our city. And "Hollis Brown," their cover of the infamous Bob Dylan song off his 1964 album The Times They are A-Changin', is just as scary on CD as it is live. I should say that the thick Scottish burr of lead vocalist Ian Benzie, strangely enough, gets much lighter when need be, as it does on "Hollis Brown." There's no mistaking the grim words of this angry song!

As Monty Python would say, "...and now for something completely different": Five is so named both because it's their fifth album, and because they now have five members. The new member is the first of two pipers that would add an extra dimension to the band: Fraser Fifield. Joining in 1996, Fifield added to the band's fusion sound with his tasty jazz licks on the sax and his sublime small pipe playing. The band's first album as a quintet -- released in 1997 -- completed their five album deal with KRL. It would be the last album for Davie Cattanach, as he left for health reasons, and was replaced by Graham "Mop" Youngson (ex -Wolfstone) with, to quote the press release I saw on that incarnation, "his hard-hitting rhythm kit." Odd, I thought he sounded almost the same as Davy's playing did! As my wife Brigid notes, "Tablas are tablas are tablas."

What makes this incarnation different is the piping and sax-playing of Fraser Fifield, which strongly moves them in the direction of the legendary Irish Moving Hearts who also fused the pipe and saxophone with traditional Celtic material. The best example of this is their all-instrumental album The Storm (released in 1992 after the breakup of the group). Five opens with the instrumental set of "glen kabul/trip to pakistan/the fourth floor," of which Fraser Fifield wrote the first tune. This is a snappy, bright set allowing him full rein to play his slightly jazzy pipes. But don't get too upbeat; the very bloody and absolutely grim song "The Battle of Harlaw," in which the British slaughter fifty thousand mostly unarmed and retreating Highland soldiers, follows this cheerful set. Not depressed yet? Check out "Johnny O'Braidislee," in which the poacher, the King's men, and the poachers' dogs are all killed. Oh, and there's a charming version of "The Lowlands of Holland" that's even darker than the Steeleye Span version.

1999 saw the Old Blind Dogs embracing the New Year, in traditional folk musician's style, with a new and evolved line up. Sadly, Ian Benzie left the band to start a solo career, and Fraser Fifield has also moved on to concentrate on other musical projects. But the Old Blind Dogs endure with the introduction of another great Scottish singer and songwriter in Jim Malcolm, as well as Deaf Shepherd veteran Rory Campbell (Border pipes and whistles). Also, percussionist number three joins the Old Blind Dogs, as Graham 'Mop' Youngson departs for other pastures, and Paul Jennings arrives (one wonders how often percussionists turn over in Celtic bands).

This lineup is now on the American label Green Linnet, and their first album for that label, the world's room, is a fresh take on the OBD style of great tunes and really amazing songs. Jim Malcolm is not at all like his predecessor Ian Benzie: his style is both more laid back and more wide-ranging. The band has -- for the first time -- a sense of humor. Yes, they actually do a song that is light in nature: "To the Beggin' I Will Go." This song was harvested from Ord's Bothy Ballads. The beggar in the song believes he enjoys the most care-free of trades and describes in rather silly detail the tricks and practices of his chosen trade.

Shades of Blowzabella, with its Anglo-French feel, slip into the next cut, "The Aird Ranters/The Branle." The Branle is a type of 16th Century formal Scottish dance (for more on Scottish dance, see George Emmerson's A Social History of Scottish Dance) that was popular in the courts at the time of the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots. Another great tune is the Rory Campbell-penned "Bannockburn Road," which allows his piping to be fully expressed. Keep in mind that this is still the Old Blind Dogs, so the usual mix of hand-held percussion, fiddles, bass, cittern, and guitar are part of the instrumental blend you hear in this tune. Another great pipe tune on The World's Room is also by Rory Campbell: "Soup of the Day."

I'll finish out my notes on this album by mentioning the song "Battle of Waterloo." No OBD album would be complete without a bloody tale of Scottish soldiers dying in battle. This Scots infantryman is killed in the decisive battle of the deadly wars waged by Napoleonic France. At least this soldier won't be haunting the Culloden battlefield.

A sweet little package arrived this week from KRL: Live is a concert CD recorded on the home turf of Aberdeen at the Lemon Tree club. I'd love to tell you when this was recorded, but KRL forgot to include that in the liner notes. I can tell you that lineup is that of the first four albums: Ian Benzie, Davy Cattanach, Buzzby McMillian, and Jonny Hardie. If you like your music with audience participation, this CD is for you. It has all the OBD classics: "Twa Corbies," "The Bonnie Early O'Moray," "Bedlam Boys," "Pills of White Mercury," "Lay Ye Doon Love," "MacPherson's Rant," "Twa Corbies," and "The Barnyards O'Delgaty." This is a superb look at the band in its longest lived lineup. For completists, it's essential; for the rest of you, I suggest that it may be purchased only if you really like multiple versions of the same songs. I said they sound the same live as recorded, and I was wasn't kidding!

There you have it: the complete and reasonably accurate guide to the Old Blind Dogs. Rumor has it that they are touring North America this spring. If they come within driving distance of where you live, go see 'em.

 [Jack B. Merry]

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