Link to Living Tradition Homepage





THE McCALMANS The Greentrax Years

The Greentrax Years
Greentrax CDTRAX350

Every so often this magazine sends me a review copy of a CD (or in this case a double CD) that I did not specifically request.  Over the years, my initial response on opening the package has varied from “yes, there just might be possibilities”, to “ah, this should be rewarding”.

But never have I opened a package like this one, and felt such truly unalloyed delight.  For the fact is, that for four decades I have greatly admired the McCalmans: indeed I regard them as having done Scotland and indeed Britain proud.   Their harmonies thrill this non-Scot reviewer, every bit as much as the skirl of the pipes must move the Tartan Army!   And their choice of material has always been simpatico with their gifts as performers.  So, when I played this double album, I did not expect to be even mildly disappointed.   And I was not.

Now, “the Greentrax years” in the title, refers to the time post the 1982 departure of the multi-talented Hamish Bain.   Now, you’d have thought that Hamish would have been irreplaceable, but Nick Keir stepped into the role most capably.

After two albums on their own label with the “new” group, Ian McCalman decided to accept the invitation of family friends to make an album for them on their absolutely embryonic label.   That album was called Peace and Plenty: the friends were of course, Ian and June Green.  The label was Greentrax, and the McCalmans were in, right at the beginning of the company.  Just note the catalogue number for that recording: TRAX002.  It was a marriage that was never going to end in divorce court acrimony.  Since that first recording, the McCalmans have recorded circa 180 songs for Greentrax.  And of course, those Greentrax years have seen another change of personnel in the group: Stephen Quigg had the unenviable job of trying to fill the massive shoes left by the great Derek Moffat, when Derek died far-too-young in 2001.  But what a good job he has done too: Stephen has now made 3 CDs with the McCalmans on Greentrax.

And so then, to this double CD.  Here we have over a quarter of the total songs they have recorded for Greentrax: an astonishing 23 songs on each CD.  (And hey, I well know that “quality” must always be the watchword and not quantity, but let me tell you that this album really has zilch in the way of longueurs.  So I reckon that they have given us the cream of the crop.)

I very much liked Disc One.  But I did not like Disc Two.  I actually LOVED it.  (Disc Two, I mean.)  Which is at it should be.  Crescendo and all that.  Starting with the firecrackers and ending with the TNT, it just gets better and better.  It’s almost a hopeless task to select standout tracks on that second disc, so good is each one.  But here goes, as I’m rather drawn to hopeless tasks:

Hearing Nick’s composition American Accent again, made me realise that this should be “de rigueur listening” not just for every aspiring singer, but for every British local radio presenter.   (It seems a prerequisite these days that applicants for such jobs sound – at very least - like they’ve been sleeping with an American, if not actually applied to become a US national.)

I am generally slightly allergic to songs that glorify the life of the Travelling People, but Adam McNaughton’s admirable Yellow On The Broom, does no such thing.  It has an honest lyric, and a so-singable chorus that makes even didicoy-haters join in (and tell themselves that Adam’s song is about true Romany folk!)

Still Gonna Die is a wondrous song that tells us that we cannot avoid the inevitable.    It was written by Shel Silverstein (who proved he knew what he was talking about, by going off himself to meet his Maker in May 1999, aged 68.)  The song is delivered here with real brio.  Their version of The Broom of the Cowdenknowes, is special, in that it is almost the first “other” version I can remember, that did not make me long for Archie’s dulcet tones.    Leave Us Our Glens, does for Scots whisky, what Sir Walter Raleigh did for tobacco!   A hoot of a song that would be enough to make most people who “signed the pledge”, CURSE the day they learned to write!

And on a personal note, how good it was for me, an ex- lighthouse keeper, to hear Nick’s song Keepers.   I look in vain for songs about this one of my former occupations, and rarely find such.   Certainly not one that captures the sense of a “whole modus vivendi lost for ever” of this now-automated job, like this song does, with its chorus a litany of names of lighthouses that mostly sounded foreign to me (that’s because I worked for London-based Trinity House, and am only au courant with the names of lighthouses in England and Wales: Nick refers to Scottish lighthouses, and these come under The Northern Lighthouse Board based in Edinburgh).

I congratulate him for that song, as I also do John Slavin for his layout of the liner notes.  Stylishly presented, but still beautifully readable, with print jumping out of the mercifully plain-coloured background.    And from that text, I read the following about Bill Meek and John Conolly’s Men Of The Sea,the standout track from Disc One: “The band thought that the Dolphin Hotel, Cleethorpes was the best venue in England and the club’s residents, The Broadside, the best band.”

Well, that is now my local folk club.   And the club is still going strong (even if now it is at The Spider’s Web in Cleethorpes, as The Dolphin Hotel is no more).  And also in fine fettle are all the now individual former members of The Broadside.    Everyone at the club will be highly chuffed to hear of this unsolicited testimonial.

Dai Woosnam

Secure On-line mailorder service
Buy this CD online from The Listening Post
The Listening Post is the CD mailorder service of The Living Tradition magazine.
This album was reviewed in Issue 85 of The Living Tradition magazine.