It’s a surprising truth that someone like me who is more than passingly (if perhaps bewilderingly) fond of seventies folk sounds should not have heard of Dick Gaughan. My lapse in knowledge is perhaps even less forgivable given we both share Mayo Gaelgoir Gaughan lineage. But there you have it, until friends of ours mentioned that the venerable Mr G was playing in Black Box we had remained somehow in the dark. Happily it wasn’t too late to be re-educated and that’s kind of what it felt like as we slipped into an absolutely packed out venue to make our way over to the bar while Dick finished his first song and launched into a scathing indictment of the modern concept of celebrity and Tony Blair as a war criminal. Several shades of red? Indeed. Adelante comrades!
For Commandante Dick is pretty much the real deal when it comes to dyed in the wool, 60s folk singing radical. Between songs he reminds us that his was the generation that brought us the anti-Vietnam war protests. He doesn’t appear to consider that this was also the generation that brought us the Vietnam war. Nor for that matter does he reflect too much on the fact that he was a teenager in Leith for much of the Vietnam war. But irony and mutability are not present in spades, here. It’s an earnest and rousing set played to a an equally dogmatic crowd, who are prone to spontaneous bursts of applause when their beloved troubadour waxes lyrical on the dangers of prejudice and segregation. It kind of got to the point when not joining in with the rapturous clapping was not just churlish, it was basically tantamount to saying you were in favour of oppression and sectarianism. This type of fervour always makes me a bit uncomfortable and it’s (one) reason why you’re unlikely to find me becoming a born again organised religion type or party member of any political grouping. Even in the middle of a group of dissenters, I want to dissent. Some people are just born awkward!
The show is about much more than just the music. It’s clearly a shared ideological space and the line of patter Dick keeps up between tunes is clearly as much a part of his charisma as the songs themselves. However, on a small stage he cuts a physically imposing figure, standing stage centre, under simple white lighting, in a black leather jacket, his guitar slung across his chest like a weapon. There is no smoke and mirrors here, just a man, his voice, his musings and his songs. And he uses these deceptively simple tools to mesmerising effect. Whether weaving a tail about a native American mass suicide to avoid capture, a thousand years of Scottish history from the point of view of an ancient yew tree, the unmarked and unknown grave of political activist Thomas Paine, the history of Hibs FC or the shameful apathy of yesterday’s revolutionary, we’re all drawn in and it times it feels more like listening to a master storyteller than a singer riffing between songs. Incidentally, though, the stark lighting is really very effective and the sound is masterful (thanks to promoter Nigel Martyn of Old Flat Top Music) – this might seem like a simple, intimate show and it is, but it belies an underlying level of artistry
He wants to know what has happened to everybody’s Che Guevara posters. Personally I took mine down in 2006, it was a de rigeur addition to my student flat but probably wouldn’t have looked so at home when I had to move back in with ma and pa for a while. Dick wants to know would our posters not look so good in our fancy new houses or if we’ve just forgotten our radical leanings. A few (very bearded) gents attired handsomely in beautiful angora and cashmere sweaters shifted around uncomfortably at their tables, cradling their pints of European craft beer and goblets of wine. This guy takes no prisoners. He might thank us all sincerely and profusely for coming out to see him on a wet Wednesday night but it’s clear we are also being held to account. Your musical taste is excellent – now examine your political conscience (and bring back the tradition of monarchs being sent out to fight and die on the battlefield while you’re at it!)
This obviously wouldn’t be to everybody’s taste but I can’t help but find that kind of passion to be pretty inspiring. Sincerity tends to be a much under-valued commodity and caring more about ideology than alienating an audience and selling more records is definitely not the kind of spirit usually seen in the self-promotion, twitter, facebook, bandcamp and youtube channel age. Dick Gaughan’s website, in contrast, is basic, shoddy looking simplicity itself because “the information here should therefore be readable on any platform. It is also built to be equally accessible to all visitors regardless of whatever abilities or disabilities they might have”. Take that digital age!
Political beliefs outside of general apathy and derision for political engagement are pretty much anathema to younger, more hipster troubadour-types too. And I think there is room – and even a need – for a musical institution like Dick Gaughan, larger than life personality, fervent ideas, sonorous voice and all.
He treats us to an encore performance of Ewan Maccoll’s ‘The Father’s Song’ and then the big man is done, his entreaty to remember ‘There’s no ogres, wicked witches, only greedy sons-of-bitches who are waiting to exploit your life away’ still ringing in our ears. Preach!