by Danny Carnahan
Kicking into a tune that fiddler Jonny Hardie said he’d found in ‘a dusty old book’, The Old Blind Dogs didn’t break a sweat as they set some of the sell-out Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse crowd to dancing behind the sound board. That’s one of the appealing aspects of this veteran Scottish trad quintet—the way they whip up such energy while making it look like it’s no big deal.
The tall, deadpan Hardie is the only remaining founding member of the band, touring with a shifting lineup since 1990. Guitarist and songwriter Jim Malcolm joined about six years ago to share the front-man role and provide his own variety of laconic cool. Much of the melodic engine is driven by Rory Campbell, an extraordinary Scots border piper and whistler. Aaron Jones, the newest member with eighteen months’ tenure, alternates between his Sobell cittern and a Fender electric bass. Percussionist Fraser Stone surrounds himself with a very un-Celtic trap set and percussion array. Everybody but Stone sings.
It’s a fondness for the ‘dusty old books’ that helps set this hard-working band apart and keeps their repertoire fresh after fifteen years of touring. Scholarly and curious, Jonny Hardie and Jim Malcolm are constantly searching out forgotten traditional tunes and songs, while Rory Campbell cranks out original pipe tunes at an alarming rate, his writing infused with rare fire and authenticity.
Authenticity is exactly what the Dogs consciously strive for, balancing old with new, and trying to ensure that Malcolm’s original songs are both viscerally appealing to a modern audience and believeably Scottish in shape and nuance. It’s a delicate task, but one with plenty of healthy historical precedent.
“We’re fortunate in Scotland that Robert Burns mapped out the whole idea of being a searcher and arranger and writer of songs over 200 years ago,” says Malcolm. “He started that whole philosophy. So folks in Scotland have no problem with writing songs and combining them with traditional music. It’s always been part of the culture.”
One of Malcolm’s songs, ‘The Wisest Fool’, is a good example of what Old Blind Dogs work to accomplish. Malcolm’s lyrics tell an ironic story of Scottish historical glory, with a sweet choral hook that hands off to Campbell’s border pipes, and backed by a funky conga groove, fiddle, bass, and even a harmonica backbeat. Delivered in Malcolm’s unhurried style and soft Scots accent, it’s easy to imagine that this song might have been around since Burns’ time. Without the funky conga groove, of course.
Somehow the use of congas avoids what Malcolm is fond of calling the ‘Frankenstein effect’, or combining elements that threaten to drain the Scottishness out of a traditional arrangement. Even his use of harmonica serves the Scots idiom, unlike Andy Irvine’s overtly American approach. But pressed to define ‘Frankensteining’, he shakes his head. “It’s really not a case of what you can do, but what you can’t. That may sound awfully un-Californian but that’s the way it is.”
As efficient as Hardie and Malcolm are in coming up with new material to add to the traditional canon, they share a genuine respect for the long-dead composers whose work forms the band’s core repertoire. “I’ve always been more interested in research than in what I’ve got to contribute,” admits Hardie. “There’s so much good music that can be rearranged and looked after. That’s always far more exciting to me than writing something new.” Malcolm is quick to agree. “Infinitely more! I feel that I’m contributing much more to the tradition when I’m pulling out a tune or strathspey that nobody’s heard for 200 years and giving it an airing. It’s a fantastic feeling.”
Jim Malcolm is a careful songwriter, not prolific but scrupulous in his attention to his roots. Advising those wanting to follow his traditional lead in their writing, he stresses the need to do one’s homework, steeping in both Robert Burns and the best of his modern descendants to avoid the dread ‘Frankenstein’ effect. “You need quite a good understanding of the vocabulary—the way these old words and tunes sounded,” he insists. “There are certain scales and cadences that don’t occur in the tradition. Use the traditional building blocks if you want to sound traditional.” One trick Malcolm employs in writing and arranging is to avoid the walking suspended chords that come so easily in DADGAD. Instead he barres up the neck to find different voicings. “It’s not free jazz,” he says, “I try to counteract that dissonant twanginess and power out a guitar sound.”
What They Play:
Jim Malcolm’s guitar is a 1994 Taylor 20th Anniversary Model XX-MC, tuned DADGAD and rigged with an LR Baggs internal pickup. He uses medium guage strings with extra heavy straights (.014 and .018) on top. On the rare occasions when Jonny Hardie exchanges his fiddle for a guitar, he plays a Lakewood D-14 dreadnought with an EMG internal pickup, tuned to Drop-D and run through an LR Baggs preamp with a Sans Amp for fattening. Aaron Jones toggles between a 5-string Yamaha RBX bass and a custom Sobell 10-string bouzouki, also fitted with LR Baggs internal pickup and running through an LR Baggs Para-EQ. He tunes the bouzouki DADAD.
- Old Blind Dogs Play Live; Green Linnet (2005)
- The Gab O Mey; Green Linnet (2003)
- Fit?; Green Linnet (2001)
- The World’s Room; Green Linnet (1999)