This week, Dougie MacLean celebrates forty years as a live performer, recording artist and singer songwriter with the relase of Till Tomorrow, a celebratory collaboration between Dougie MacLean and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, that sees some of his best-loved songs given glorious new arrangements for orchestra.
The album, his first with Linn Records, takes its title from one of the first songs Dougie ever wrote, at the age of 15. Since then the contribution Dougie’s made to the music industry has been immense. Over twenty critically acclaimed solo albums, many of which were releases on the hugely successful Dunkeld Records Label. This venture, in itself, has been the source of a wealth of musical projects based around his Perthshire home and spawned the ever-expaning Perthshire Amber Fesitval, now in its tenth year and showing every sign of becoming Perthshire’s own autumnal Celtic Connections. And Dougie’s no stranger to performing with an orchestra; among many memorable projects, in January this year he took to the stage with the RSNO in the International Burns Night Concert at Glasgow’s Hydro Auditorium.
Among a number of prestigeous awards Dougie was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and awarded an OBE in 2011 for services to the music industry. It was around that time the idea of a re-working of his favourite songs for orchestra came about. His existing friendship with the RSNO was the obvious starting point & along with conductor John Logan work on the arrangements started.
From the outset it’s clear we’re going to enjoy far more than some soft strings and woodwind to expand the songs Dougie’s chosen for this album. This Love Will Carry was a linchpin of the 1986 album Singing Land. The song opens with the expected, soothing orchestration, but an instrumental section before the final verse sees that sound build the song in a powerful new direction and bring it to a beautifully gentle conclusion.
In finding himself Dougie always looks to his heritage, and on his 2001 album Who Am I, Talking With My Father paid tribute to his richest source of personal heritage, to the man who taught him love and respect for the land, the importance of history and the inestimable value of family. After an opening of voice and guitar only, orchestral strings are introduced so gently the listener is barely aware of them at first. In time the woodwind adds further depth, the full orchestral sound expands and develops textures as rich as the Tay Valley soil itself.
The songbook of Robert Burns has always been another important source of inspiration, and one of Dougie’s most celebrated interpretations of the songs Burns wrote and collected has always been Green Grow The Rashes. Originally appearing on his 1988 album Real Estate, his arrangement for this song in praise of womanhood is probably one of his best known and has inspired artists as diverse as Altan and the much missed Michael Marra. On Till Tomorrow the song loses none of its lustre, the soaring strings and rich woodwind of the RSNO underlining the emotional effect.
Scotland’s historical heritage also holds an important place in Dougie’s heart. In 1991 Indigenous took on a number of historical and political themes and Turning Away marked the march of the people through history. It’s a stirring and powerful song, with its upbeat opening that leads straight into a chorus affirming a national identity. It’s a dramatic, almost cinematic arrangement that marches through glens, soars across seas and elevates the already evocative message of the song with a new intensity…
On Loch Etive they have worked with their Highland dreams
By Kilcrennan they have nourished in the mountain streams
And in searching for acceptance they had given it away
Only the children of their children know the price they have to pay
Till Tomorrow featured on Dougie’s 2003 album, Early, in which he took a bare-bones approach to some of the work he created as a young song writer. There are some songs that simply benefit from the symphonic approach and can be thoroughly enjoyed on those terms- no drama, no high re-interpretation, but an expanding and richening of melody, harmony and the main theme. In re-arranging Till Tomorrow, Dougie and the orchestra have achieved exactly that. The song has important messages and the rich arrangement carries those messages beautifully.
Similarly Holding Back, from the 1999 album Marching Mystery, takes voice, guitar and song-writing that’s peerless in its artistry and lifts them along with the orchestra. Cooling woodwind and a particularly effective cello stand out in an arrangement that served as a wonderful opening feature of the special concert in Glasgow two weeks ago.
Ca’ the Yowes is another song by Burns that has inspired a wide range of singers. Steeleye Span, Shirely Collins and Jon Boden have all expressed their love for this song. Burns wrote two versions of the song around the same chorus, and it’s the second version that Dougie featured on his 1995 album, Tribute, a favourite from his days with the Tannahill Weavers. The orchestration perfectly captures the pastoral idyll Burns expressed, with a harp hinting at the spectral element of the song from the omitted verses.
And just as Burns was a master at putting to paper the exquisite poetry of the Scots tongue, Dougie MacLean’s singing of the language is full of the same natural sincerity and has been one of the many hallmarks of his career, whether in the gentle songs concerned with love and the land, or the more stirring examples – such as Heilan’ Harry. A marching bass drum heralds this song of lost love with a chorus that Burns is said to have collected in Dunblane, Dougie MacLean’s birthplace.
It was during a visit to the site of Fotheringay castle that Dougie felt the pull of history and was inspired to write his empathetic tale of the execution of Mary Queen Of Scots. The cor anglais that was such a chilling feature of his original recording on Who Am I is sustained by powerful arrangement of string, brass and woodwind in a gentle mourning.
As an interpreter of traditional song, and a writer of contemporary lyrics Dougie MacLean excels; but his talents also extend to writing and arranging instrumental pieces. None exemplifies this talent better than The Gael. From the 1990 album The Search, The Gael is best known for its prominent place in the soundtrack of Michael Mann’s 1992 film, The Last of the Mohicans. In this RSNO arrangement we’re treated to a more gentle build-up than Trevor Jones’ film arrangement and a further treat as Dougie takes up his fiddle and delivers the stirring theme as only he could, while a crescendo of strings, percussion and brass builds around him.
Emigration is a regular theme in Dougie’s songs. The intense love he has for his Perthshire countryside is fuelled by an awareness of the hardships endured by his ancestors and a mourning for the losses they suffered in their native land, and in being forced from the land. It’s fitting, then, that Dougie should close this memorable album with his most famous song – Caledonia. Even more poignant is the fact that this was one of Dougie’s earlier songs, written in 1977. The song’s lyrical and emotional power can only come from the fact that it was written from a genuine longing to return home while he was busking around France. Created straight from the heart and with all the sincerity of exile, Caledonia has inspired countless artists to record their own versions. In this special arrangement the orchestra pulls at the heart-strings even more with waves of violin and cello washing over guitar and vocal. There’s no loss of emotion in Dougie’s vocal delivery either. Despite the countless times he’s performed this song, and the anthemic status it’s achieved, there’s still to be heard the voice of the lost laddie and a tangible yearning for home.
Till Tomorrow is an excellent choice as title track, it exemplifies the progression of Dougie MacLean’s career from band member, to solo artist, producer, arranger and ultimately to the status he enjoys today as a national treasure. To choose a handful of songs from such a distinguished career would have been no easy task. In resisting the temptation to limit the collection to his own compositions, and instead include a wide selection of traditional material for this significant release, he affirms his love of, and devotion to, our traditional songbook. Till Tomorrow is a gem – forty years in the making and the perfect way for Dougie MacLean and his substantial audience to celebrate a career that has given so much to tradition-based music in Scotland.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Dougie MacLean With The RSNO – This Love Will Carry (Filmed at the SSE Hyrdo Arena during Celtic Connections 2014)
Till Tomorrow is released via Linn Records, Out Now
Dougie MacLean – Live Dates
01 – The Queens Hall, Edinburgh
06 – Deeside Theatre, Aboyne
15 – 17: Milwaukee Irish Festival (USA)
29 – Lanark Memorial Hall, Lanark
12 – The Corran Halls, Oban
14 – Aberdeen Music Hall
24 Oct – 02 Nov: Perthshire Amber Festival – The Dougie MacLean Festival
Full details and ticket links:
Read Neil’s Live Review: Dougie MacLean & The RSNO – Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow (7th June 2014)
Photo Credits: Life in Frame / Jamie MacLean