VIN GARBUTT - Synthetic Hues
The album's title jumps out at you from the lyric of one of the strongest songs on show here: Teacher From Persia. Vin's line “The I.C.I creates a desert sky in synthetic hues”, is a really poetic way of not being on the back foot – as with a word like “smoggies” - when it comes to describing the pollution from heavy industry one finds at the mouth of the River Tees. Quite right too: I, like many, find this industrialised area quite beautiful in its way.
So if we are happy with the choice of title, the question that follows is, are we happy that there is nowt synthetic – i.e. artificial or contrived - about this collection of 13 songs which represents Vin's 16th album? And before I answer that question, I need to first tell you something unusual that happened just before I put the CD into my player for my first hearing.
I was casting my eye over the 13 titles, and spotted his setting of Rudyard Kipling's If. And I figured that before I played his new version, I would dig out his earlier vinyl version from 30 years ago, and first feast my ears on that...and see how they compared.
And that was my undoing. Because I had not played them in years, and one vinyl album led to another – I have all of his LPs in my collection – and it was a full three days before I resurfaced. Thrilling stuff. And I remembered why I would sometimes drive a round trip of 300 miles, just to see the man in concert.
But I don't get around much these days, and it has been an unconscionable amount of time since I last saw him in live performance. So when I came to play this CD, I genuinely wondered if his extraordinary energy had been dimmed somewhat by his serious illness of a few years back, and his health problems in the past year.
After all, I am someone born in the same year as Vin, and I am a shadow of what I used to be healthwise. So could it be that Vin too, had lost the vitality that was his hallmark?
Could it, heck! Just pressing PLAY on this fine CD, and I had an instant answer. This was not a 67 year old, surely? The voice and performance seemed as vibrant as ever.
True, possibly the upper register of Vin's voice is perhaps a little different, but it is a “swings and roundabouts” thing: the little bit he has lost there, he has more than gained by developing a seriously good lower register that totally convinces.
Alongside him in this album, he has some stellar musicians on hand: Stewart Hardy on fiddle, Becky Taylor on flute, whistle and pipes, Kristen Peacock on piano, and Dave O'Neill on mandolin.
I salute Vin for the playing order of his 13 selections: he is a past master in knowing how to create a sense of crescendo. This album builds and builds.
By track 5 – The Caver's Song - I was really starting to smile. This is his account of caving in the Mendips. As the son of a coal miner, I can relate to Vin's own personal claustrophobia when he tried it, but part of Vin's skill as a writer, is his ability to put himself into someone else's persona: in this case, his late friend Tony Jarratt, a veteran, pioneering caver. And thus the song is a celebration of caving, rather than the cry for help it would have been had Vin been singing about his own personal experiences.
This track was followed by several strong songs – his Kipling incidentally was to the same tune as 30 years ago, but this time not performed a cappella – and then we arrive at the final three. These are true stunners.
They include a touching version of Eric Bogle's No Man's Land, and a startling self-penned song called The College, about the physical abuse carried out on schoolboys by priests. As Vin so tellingly says in his notes: “I have friends who entered The College as Roman Catholic children and left as young atheist adults having had Christianity beaten out of them with a cane/strap/slipper”. Golly, it is powerful stuff.
But I have kept the best till last. It is hard to believe, is it not, that there can be an anti-war song that can more than hold its own with that Bogle classic? But in The Fallen Of Fulstow, Vin has found that song. And I applaud him for giving it wider currency.
This is a song I have known from its first public performance. It is yet another great song to come out of the annual Write A Song For Lincolnshire competition. Vin does a fine job on it, though in truth, I am hooked on the original John Blanks version. After all, it figures: John set those profound Mark Addison lyrics to a melody and tempo that perfectly suited his own vocals.
The fact that I would have liked Vin to slow it down a little, is by-the-by: he still does it justice with a most passionate delivery.
And in writing what I have just written, I think I have answered the question I posed at the start of this review. “Synthetic”?
In the immortal words of George Bernard Shaw's Eliza Doolittle: “not bloody likely”!