Rab Noakes released his first solo album in 1970. He’d already been playing professionally for three years, had songs recorded by Archie Fisher and Barbara Dickson and, along with Gerry Rafferty, was a founder member of Stealers Wheel in 1972. More than 40 years and 20 albums later, Rab remains a prolific songwriter, a hugely popular performer; and one of the leading lights of the Scottish music and broadcasting industries. Having reached his 68th birthday back in May you might expect Rab to begin taking things easy for a while, but he’s showing no signs of that. Recent successes include a re-issue of his 1974 album Red Pump Special, the Reunited EP with Barbara Dickson and Demos And Rarities Volume 2 – Adventures with Gerry Rafferty. All supported, of course, by a string of live appearances. Early 2015 saw Rab preparing for the release of this eagerly anticipated double CD – I’m Walkin’ Here.
Unfortunately, that release was delayed due to illness. Last February, Rab was diagnosed with tonsillar cancer and has since been undergoing, and recovering from, some extensive treatment. Happily he’s now on the mend and the album is ready for release, set for 16th October. Rab’s also gearing up for a series of live dates, which began with an appearance at Roddy Hart’s 70th-birthday tribute to Neil Young, at Aberdeen’s True North Festival in September.
In a general, but far from arbitrary, division of resources the first CD contains mostly Rab’s own songs, which he lovingly refers to as 21st Century skiffle. The second is comprised of songs he’s collected for interpretation (Rab abhors the term ‘cover versions’) and a few to commemorate lost friends.
It’s worth starting with the lively, attention grabbing opening track, Slippin’ Away. Instantly reminiscent of the sound that made Stealers Wheel such a success. Along with piccolo from Emma Roche, Stuart Brown’s irresistible percussion and more 70’s R&B references than you can shake several sticks at, it’s a great opener that’s immediately followed by the forward looking, positive Out Of Your Sight: Una McGlone’s bass and harmonies from Hilary Brooks underline the 21st century skiffle tag that’s apparent throughout the album.
And if you’re wondering what Rab’s 21st Century skiffle is all about, Out Of The Blue should answer any questions. Lively and questioning, an addictive mix of electric and acoustic guitars, with lively percussion from Stu, and Roddie Hart’s harmonies. I can’t wait to hear this one live.
Where Dead Voices Gather drifts towards New Orleans jazz with Richard Merchant’s cornet in a song inspired by a 1920’s blackface minstrel.
The myriad of musical influences Rab has assimilated during his five decade career are well represented, of course. As if proof were needed he’s a contemporary of Dylan at his best, It Happened All The Same takes a swipe at the emotionally insensitive with a deliciously unhurried vocal and Roddie Hart’s tenor harmonies. Or there’s the challenge to political lethargy, One Dog Barks (featuring Emma Pollock); a more upbeat delivery and a lovely big bass drum.
When received ideas are on show
nobody takes a chance
when they hear stop they will lie low
when they hear go they’ll dance
There seems no need to question
what’s this path they’re being led down
One dog barks at a shadow, many dogs bark at the sound
Some of the tracks stand quite simply on their own. (Don’t Say) Money Doesn’t Matter with its electric piano, piccolo and handclaps echoes 1960s West Coast pop. The title track, I’m Walkin’ Here takes Dustin Hoffman’s classic sequence from Midnight Cowboy as inspiration in a song packed with subdued outrage. There are too many to go into more detail, but every one comes across as a modern classic.
A Little Time Left provides a sublime instrumental break. A bitter-sweet steel guitar accompanied by Ula Kinderyte’s violin. The tune preludes No More Time; a variation of the same melody in an emotional memorial to Rab’s friend and co-founder of Stealers Wheel, Gerry Rafferty. A sleepy song of memories and regrets for a lost future.
We were in it for the long-haul
but you chose not to stay
The only other instrumental track on the album, Two Days In May closes the first CD and is a summery dream to lose yourself in.
As CD2 starts to spin, Buttons And Bows sees Rab in a duet with Barbara Dickson to introduce an interlude of Americana. It’s old timey time, and very little says skiffle quite like Freight Train. Over Stuart Brown’s washboard there’s a delightful vocal duet with Jimmie MacGregor, who was a skiffle aficionado in the early days of the folk movement before his successful partnership with Robin Hall. Two vintage guitars join two vintage singers for a skiffle outing to rival any 21st century offerings, and Travelling Light makes you forget it was a hit for Cliff Richard and The Shadows.
Of course, Rab feels no need to restrict himself to any particular era or genre for new material to interpret. Beck’s Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard makes the most of Alice Marra’s harmonies and Jim McEwan’s electric piano in a fragment from a Beck-a-thon with Una McGlone and Jim McEwan. Trans-Atlantic rockers Garbage provide a surprise influence in Only Happy When It Rains, a sleepy vocal duet featuring Jill Jackson.
All In Down And Out Blues is a throwback to Rab’s 1960s string band adventures with fellow Fife native Robin McKidd (Balham Alligators). It features a lovely finegrstyle guitar and Jimmie MacGregor with beautifully understated bass harmonies; and Goodbye Booze pays tribute to his days (or mostly nights) spent in 1960’s folk clubs. And in particular to Hamish Imlach and Alex Campbell.
Which brings us to the third aspect of this fascinating song collection, Rab’s memorials to lost friends. In addition to No More Time, from CD1, Moonlight and Gold pays tribute to Gerry Rafferty. In 2012 Rab brought this Rafferty favourite to Celtic Connections as part of Bring it All Home, a concert celebrating the work of the Paisley-born singer/songwriter. In an inspired piece of dexterity and technical wizardry, Rab plays both guitar parts. The Guernsey Kitchen Porter is typical of Michael Marra’s oblique views on hardship and acts a fitting tribute to a great man.
Your Clear White Light is superb, in memory of Lindisfarne’s Alan Hull.
Your home town won’t refuse you
The speeches would amuse you
As they try to get everything right.
Can’t help but wonder what you’d make of it all
If you could see it by your clear white light
The mood may be sombre in places but I’m Walkin’ Here is a truly uplifting album. As if to underline the point, Rab brings it to a satisfying conclusion with Bye Bye Blackbird. How he manages to combine jaunty with melancholy we may never know.
I’m Walkin’ Here comprises 26 songs over 2 CDs. And as if that wasn’t enough, there are a host of extra tracks to supplement the album. Download them from Rab’s website and you won’t be disappointed!
Rab initially brought the idea for this collection of 21st Century Skiffle to former BBC Scotland colleague John Cavanagh, whose home studio in Glasgow seemed the perfect recording venue. With John enrolling an impressive array of musicians for the project and Rab drawing on an equally notable pool of vocalists work began on the series of live studio sessions that would form the core of the album. And when Rab Noakes records live, he really records live. There’s a natural rather than strictly controlled tempo that lets the music flow, not a regimented one; and a strong sense of people playing music together; in the same room, at the same time. Of course, there are also good reasons for making the most of the technology available, and the occasional overdub for guitar or vocal goes a long way to enhance the overall sound. In a final twist, and perhaps a nod to the music’s skiffle parentage, the whole album has been mixed in mono (with ‘back to MONO’, proudly printed on the CD). It’s a small stroke of genius that takes the music back from the intricately separated stereo sound and presents it as a truly unified listening experience.
Rab’s sleeve notes are extensive in their detail and make a fascinating glimpse of what drives an album like this, what inspires songs and how they germinate, emerge and flourish. There are countless insights into the recording process, the influences behind Rab’s own songs and those he was inspired to re-interpret; and his fascination for vintage guitars.
Rab’s tour in support of I’m Walkin’ Here is sure to provide some memorable performances (dates below), it’s amazing what one man with a guitar can do live; what this man gets up to in the studio is just marvellous.
I’m Walkin’ Here:
I’ve had enough of feeling like a cork on the ocean
You think you can leave me hanging on a shelf.
Hey, I’m walking here
I can make this journey by myself
I don’t need what you think is help
Go and try to mess with someone else
Review by: Neil McFadyen