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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1241

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Old Blind Dogs: Fit?
by George Graham

(Green Linnet 1214 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/30/2001)

Celtic music is in a state rather like bluegrass was fifteen or twenty years ago -- a traditional style enjoying renewed popularity, and one being taken up by a newer generation of outstanding musicians, who are extending the style to new places, as David Grisman and those in the New Acoustic movement did for bluegrass in the early 1980s. Today's younger-generation of Celtic musicians range from very traditional to those like Martyn Bennett and the group Shooglenifty who mix jigs and reels with hip hop, to those like Enya who go off into a New Age atmosphere.

This week we have new recording from another of those younger eclectic Celtic bands, who, while they don't go as far afield as hip-hop, still take music to interesting places that are not strictly traditional. The group is called Old Blind Dogs, and their new CD bears the title Fit?

Old Blind Dogs are from Scotland and were formed in Aberdeenshire in the early 1990s by classically trained fiddle player Jonny Hardie, rock-and-reggae veteran bassist Buzzby McMillan along with others who have since exited the group. Old Blind Dogs was assembled originally out of the members' love for traditional music, but with changing personnel over the course of six previous albums, the group has been branching out some, incorporating some non-traditional percussion, such as the African djembe drum. But the group's primary focus remains on more or less traditional material, and mostly acoustic instruments. They also are very Scottish, singing a number of their songs in a Scottish dialect. The title, Fit? is also from the Scottish dialect called Doric. It means "what?" and as the CD's booklet points out, it is often used as an expression of disbelief.

The rest of the Old Blind Dogs are lead vocalist and guitarist Jim Malcolm who has had a solo career in his own right; bagpiper and pennywhistler Rory Campbell -- a second generation piper; and Old Blind Dogs' newest addition, teenaged percussionist Paul Jennings, who despite his upbringing on the Shetland Islands plays the djembe, bongos, congas and other African and Latin American instruments, and nary an Celtic bodhrán. While their instrumentation sounds rather traditional, they are not afraid to create some interesting variations on the music in their arrangements. This CD, only their second US release includes about half instrumental pieces, and one acapella track. And while most of the music is from traditional Scottish sources, most of it is unfamiliar even to regular fans of Celtic, which in this country is usually associated with Irish traditional music.

The band's level of musicianship is exceptionally high, and despite their taking some liberties with the traditional material, they remain faithful to the basic direction and quite tasteful, while imparting a contemporary twist to the music.

The opening piece is an excellent example. Is There for Honest Poverty is a musical setting of a famous poem by Scotland's national poet Robert Burns. The piece was apparently originally a song as well, but Old Blind Dogs provide their own upbeat music to the Burns' words, inspired by the French Revolution. The track is one of the strongest on CD, with the combination of the great words and the excellent musicianship. <<>>

Bassist Buzzby McMullan's experience playing in reggae bands, and percussionist Paul Jennings' decidedly tropical percussion add an interesting touch to the traditional song Kincardine Lads, a song about a beverage which on this side of the Atlantic would be called moonshine. <<>>

Another appealing song in a difficult-to-decipher Scottish dialect is Tramps and Hawkers, who were itinerant agricultural workers. It's basically an upbeat work song in jig time, though toward the end, it laments the changes taking place as farming in the region was displaced. With the Scottish so-called "border pipes" having a similar sound to the Irish Uillean pipes, and the prominence of the fiddle, instrumentally, piece is reminiscent of Irish music, with the exception of Jennings' tropical percussion. <<>>

The first of the instrumentals is a lively set of pieces under the name Much Better Now. That is the title of the original instrumental by piper Rory Campbell which is the first in an otherwise traditional medley of pieces from jig to reels. <<>>

One of the most interesting pieces from a lyrical standpoint is Reres Hill the story of a one-night affair that the man finds himself regretting. The group adds a lot of interesting ingredients including some spacey effects. <<>>

Among Old Blind Dogs' strongest instrumental pieces on this CD is another medley called The Rejected Suitor which also contains two other traditional reels, Sweet Molly and Periwig. Jennings' almost Latin congas and bongos give the track an interesting texture, while the rest of the band swirls around in considerable virtuosity. <<>>

Old Blind Dogs adapt another set of lyrics by Robert Burns, Awa' Whigs Awa'. It's a political protest song about the Whigs, the political party that did away with much of Scotland's independence. The instrumental backing is reminiscent of American Appalachian folk. <<>>

The CD ends with the acapella performance Tatties and Herrin', done in a strong Scottish dialect. It's a story of culinary deprivation, surviving on potatoes and herring fish. <<>>

Old Blind Dogs, on Fit? their seventh album, and second US release, show themselves to be one of the finest of the new generation of Celtic bands on the scene. With a distinctly Scottish perspective and exceptionally fine musicianship, the group creates music that is a nice combination of traditional elements with their own originality, from their creative arrangements to their use of African and Latin American percussion. In that respect, Old Blind Dogs are not as wildly eclectic as other performers who blend Celtic sounds with techno or hip-hop, but they do manage to come up with a fresh sound in the context of their traditional influence, making for enjoyable and often intriguing listening. And what traditional music they do steers clear of the war-horses in favor of more obscure pieces, or their own interpretations of existing poetry, in the case of the Robert Burns settings.

We'll give the CD a grade "A" for sound quality. There's really nothing to complain about. The acoustic instruments are well-recorded, the mix is tasteful and there is a decent dynamic range allowing the ebb and flow of the music to be experienced.

With Celtic music enjoying a healthy revival of interest on both side of the Atlantic, groups like Old Blind Dogs are building on the traditions and establishing their own distinctive sound making some great music in the process.

(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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