When it popped through my letterbox what seems like (and actually is) months ago, Vagabond, Eddi Reader’s 10th studio album proved something of a revelation. Over a generous handful of plays it established itself as a firm favourite, but then the chance both to interview Eddi and more importantly, see her live at London’s Union Chapel, well and truly sealed the deal. A great singer, a great band and great stories too, so unquestionably one of the outstanding gigs in what proved a great year for gig going, simply served to underline how good the new material was and still is, as Vagabond remains a firm favourite, although is only now due its official release. It established Eddi Reader as one of my favourite singers, ever, but with that realisation came a nag.
I’ve never really given Eddi her due until now, she’s another of the artists who has slipped through the cracks. Quite why is one of those mysteries, but when Reveal Records re-released her second and third solo albums, adding her Robbie Burns CD with the advanced copy of Vagabond arriving soon after, it was like suddenly waking up from some nightmare world where Eddi didn’t exist, only to be immediately soothed by her gorgeous voice, reassuringly emanating from CDs that I now, thankfully, can call my own.
As good as those earlier records are (and they really are), Vagabond is the one I play and play and will continue to do so. There was just something that grabbed me. I thought it was the sense of maturity, much like a premium single malt, or perhaps the easy jazzy lilt to some of the songs, the sublime arrangements and playing. Yet the more I listened, the more I started to feel that this was a deeply personal record for Eddi and all the more involving for it. Perhaps they all are, but this one seemed to be more about her taking stock of her life, her family, her music and career therein. Then there was that title…
Vagabond is defined both as wandering from place to place, being nomadic with no fixed home, but also living a carefree and easy come, easy go life. The title track uses a poem by John Masefield for the lyric, which neatly seems to bisect those two definitions. When I asked Eddi in our interview what it meant to her she told me, “It’s a wee concept of me and how I’ve floated or travelled through my decades and through other decades and centuries using song to take me. My desires and hopes are all wrapped in the opportunity or peace in the moment when concerning music. Music gave me tickets to anywhere I wanted to roam. I suppose reflecting on it I see how the road will never end as long as someone is listening or singing something I recorded, no matter the times to come without my physicality in it.” I suppose that answer was a bit more than I’d bargained on, but in a way I still feel I’m on the right lines, it’s just that Eddi has given me the much bigger picture.
[pullquote]she got married in 2012, only for the newly wedded bliss to be cut short with the discovery that her partner, John Douglas, had developed an incurable illness[/pullquote]So sticking to my guns, it’s probably fair to say that the last couple of years for Eddi Reader have been joyous, troubling, inspirational, creative and above all busy. As she explains it on her website she got married in 2012, only for the newly wedded bliss to be cut short with the discovery that her partner, John Douglas, had developed an incurable illness. Despite the problems that posed she started work on her tenth studio album, eventually solving one of the issues by bringing the studio into her home, to better allow John to play an active part. Touchingly Eddi talks about it raising John’s spirits and that he has now made something of a recovery.
There are familiar faces and new names gathered together. It’s Mark Freegard who has moved the metaphorical mountain, actually his Kyoti studio, to Eddi’s. Also Roy Dodds (Drums), Alan Kelly (accordion), Ian Carr (guitar), Ewan Vernal (bass), and John McCusker are all familiar names from Eddi’s recent records. Boo Hewerdine is of course involved and Declan O’Rourke once again makes the song writers selection. Newer names are Gustaf Ljundggern who has outstanding multi-instrumental skills and has worked with Boo’s State Of The Union and pianist Steve Hamilton is also someone Eddi has recently taken a musical shine to.
So in some mostly familiar company there’s a sense of Eddi returning home. For a start there’s the very real roots she’s put down in Glasgow, where the album was recorded and that has shown itself in several ways, some of them quite surprising. After years of simply thinking of the world stage as her home, Eddi has reconnected with her past and her upbringing and also her Scottish identity. Eddi has become quite passionate about the possibility of Scottish independence and her inspiration comes from clearing out the house of her Uncle James who died aged 87. Amongst the papers was an autobiography handwritten by James’ father, which has clearly ignited something that I think has even surprised Eddi herself.
James was a musician and also amongst his affects, were instruments and sheet music and Buain Na Rainich (Fairy Love Song) is plucked from that archive. It’s one of two traditional songs, sung in Gaelic, Eddi is conscious of needing tuition from Karen Matheson to get through a piece written in what is in reality her native tongue. The other traditional song is In Ma Ain Country, written from a point of exile, supposedly by the man who had to escort Bonnie Price Charlie back to France. Both in their way are quite beautiful and heart rending. The sound of Eddi and Karen Metheson harmonising is surely one of the most beautiful sounds you could ever wish for.
But Eddi’s family make their presence felt, not just in inspiring songs, although Back The Dogs (Dancing Down Rock), about her grandmother Madge’s penchant for the greyhounds, and Edinah, which refers to her given name, she ended up with have an obvious link. Also the fact that she uses her actual name of Sadenia in all of the credits cements the link. But live she told stories of how the wider clan would be crammed into quite small rooms at parties, with various family members encouraged to sing a song. Most significantly it seems her mother used to slyly take such gathering with great seriousness and practice for weeks in advance. The opener I’ll Never Be The Same, actually a jazz instrumental that became a hit song, is plucked directly from those memories.
That easy, jazzy lilt that I mentioned at the top is here for sure, but in some ways flavours much of the record, but most obviously Edinah, Baby’s Boat or Snow Flakes In The Snow and perhaps Midnight In Paris, although the latter has that curl of Gaulois’ smoke and pavement café chic. In some ways it’s the flip of In Ma Ain Country and a wistful remembrance of carefree, vagabond days.
[pullquote]The overall sound is quite lush and that adds to that feeling of maturity. It’s a grown up sound that isn’t afraid to delve into a classic palate, but benefits from impeccable taste, borrowing only what is worth preserving.[/pullquote]The overall sound is quite lush and that adds to that feeling of maturity. It’s a grown up sound that isn’t afraid to delve into a classic palate, but benefits from impeccable taste, borrowing only what is worth preserving. Add some absolutely fantastic playing, as the orchestration shimmers with really clever use of pedal and lap steel guitars, there are little details, a line picked out by accordion, guitar, piano, even mandolin and ukulele that suddenly take the attention. Every track sparkles instrumentally in one way or another. Above all it’s the vocal performances – Eddi has never sounded better but the ensemble’s voices are used brilliantly throughout – luxuriant, like crushed velvet, with the odd cheeky twist such as Macushla (My Darling).
The CD ends in the same relaxed style, but with a trio of songs that all have an upbeat meaasge. Pray The Devil Back To Hell is about defeating your inner demons, built around a blue note piano line that picks out the title. Here Comes The Bells, is dedicated to her friend, the musician, Phil Cunningham, who by inviting Eddi to perform with him at Christmas has brought the season to life again. The closer, It’s A Beautiful Night, is about seizing the moment. It’s a song written by Boo Hewerdine, whose collaboration with Eddi down the years have created some memorable moments and this is another.
It’s 25 years since Fairground Attraction first hit the heights, but to borrow from them and joining up Eddi’s past with a song she still plays live, “Too many people take second best, but I won’t take anything less, it’s got to be, yeah, perfect.” I’m not going to tell you that Vagabond is, but for me it gets close enough not to mind the gap.
Review by: Simon Holland
I’ll Never Be The Same
22/01/14 – Ayr Town Hall, Ayr
Ireland & N. Ireland Dates
25/01/14 – Waterfront Hall, Belfast
11/02/14 – Galway Town Hall, Galway, Ireland
12/02/14 – Waterford Theatre Royal, Waterford
13/02/14 – Vicar St, Dublin
14/02/14 – Mullingar Arts Centre, Mullingar
16/02/14 – Hawkswell Theatre, Sligo
17/02/14 – The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon
19/02/14 – The Grain Store, Ballymaloe
20/02/14 – Siamsa Tire Theatre, Tralee
21/02/14 – Glor Theatre, Ennis
22/02/14 – Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge
Vagabond is released 3 Feb 2014 via Reveal Records