Dougie MacLean in a soulful moment. Photo by Rob Weir.

The usual standards for reviewing a concert require that one make generous allusions to the set list, sling a few adjectives about musicianship, and interject a snide remark or two about missed opportunity, a technological glitch, or an awkward stage moment.

None of that would be applicable to describe Dougie MacLean’s September 20 show at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts, so let’s get it out of the way quickly—his was a flawless performance that struck all the right literal and metaphorical notes. As a songwriter MacLean stands astride his Scottish peers. Like his lyrics, MacLean’s playing avoids surfaces and dives for deep emotions. His multiple open-tunings create space for him to use his guitar as a magical mood machine—fluid, liquid runs to evoke wild oceans; swooping figures that suggest flight; bass/treble alternations that take us from gloom to hope in a split second….

But cleverness and craft don’t come close to capturing the essence of Sunday night’s show. Both MacLean and the audience were in such a groove that he could have chosen material from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and everyone would have sung along. MacLean commanded the stage like an elf wielding enchantment, as if he knew precisely when to flash a smile, snap off witticisms, or orchestrate the room. To remark that MacLean conducted a musical healing ceremony sounds clichéd and odd but, dammit, it’s true. How many performers could get 150 people to sing a line like “You can fall/But you must not lie down” with force and conviction? Moreover, who could convince them to believe it when the lights came up and it was time to go home?

I’ve been listening to MacLean’s music for three decades and he’s never sounded better, connected more deeply, or been more charming. This was not only the best concert of the year—it ranks among the greatest shows I’ve ever attended. Forget the old standards; Dougie MacLean ascended a different plane.


Letters from a Flying Machine

Signature Sounds 2074

Give Peter Mulvey major eco props—for his fall tour he’s riding his bicycle from his home in Milwaukee to the East Coast. And give him some creative props as well; in an age in which single-song downloads rule, Mulvey’s new CD is a theme album—an integrated song/spoken word narrative. Mulvey also rubs against the cultural grain in that he thumbs his nose at the snarky, self-absorbed cynicism of modern society. The central concept is that of Mulvey playing Socratic sage to his young niece. Letters to her from Mulvey’s road travel frame songs that explore adult themes that kids wonder about: fear, technology, death, the meaning of life, humankind’s place in the cosmos, beauty…. But lest you think that Mulvey has gone mushy-headed, give a listen to “Vlad the Astrophysicist” and you’ll see that he’s still more off-kilter than centered. If you need more proof, "Dynamite Bill" reminds us that the Mulvey family tree has some strange fuits hanging from the branches. All of the music is unpacked by Mulvey’s trademark gravely vocals and folk blues licks that land somewhere between Chris Smither and Greg Brown. This album may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s thoughtful, gentle, and wise.



Brian McNeill gives the mandocello a work out. Photo by Rob Weir.

It’s easy for a musician to go with the flow when there’s plenty of it. I’ve seen under-the-weather performers ooze into a crowded hall, feed off the collective energy, and play like they’d been extruded from the mouth of a volcano. The opposite is much harder. What do you do when you’re primed for action but walk into a near-empty hall with a sound system set to absorb non-existent bodies?

The latter was the situation facing Scotland’s Brian McNeill on Saturday night when he took the stage to an audience of 17 in the 200-seat East Hartford Community Cultural Center. McNeill came armed with a new album, The Baltic to Byzantium, the story of Scots émigrés to Europe and the sequel to his highly acclaimed 1991 release The Back o’ the North Wind, which traces the triumphs and travails of Scots in the Americas. A less-experienced performer might have simply plowed ahead, a temperamental one would have sulked through the evening, and a less-confident one might have walked away with a wounded ego. Luckily McNeill—a cofounder of Scotland’s seminal Battlefield Band and a veteran of four decades of touring—has been around the block enough times to know how to improvise on the fly. He salvaged what could have been a very uncomfortable evening with a savvy combination of improvisation and respect for his audience.

McNeill switched back and forth between fiddle, mandocello, and guitar and pretended as if the setting was more intimate than it was. Instead of forcing his way through material designed for a different purpose he drew from a vast repertoire and served up songs from his backlist, some appealing instrumentals, and a few judiciously selected songs from the new album. Those who think of McNeill primarily as a fiddler were startled to discover his considerable prowess and range on guitar—a modified rag composed in Texas was a real gem. (The Taylor guitar he borrowed for the evening had a gorgeous tone.) Above all, McNeill donned the raconteur’s hat. Each of the concert’s selections came prefaced with stories—some from past days with Battlefield, some from history books, and quite a few from what the history books haven’t recorded but should. His tales were as grandiose as those drawn from the exiled court of Bonnie Prince Charlie—who McNeill thinks was an abusive, spoiled brat who never got over the fact that he wasn’t a king—to those as literally down-in-the-dirt as miner songs. Interspersed were family stories, wry jokes, and invitations for the audience to participate.

McNeill played seventeen selections—one for each of us. Although that was probably unintentional, what was not was his decision to honor those who showed up, give them their money’s worth, and spend time chatting with them. As a musician who draws from the traditional music well, Brian McNeill understands that part of what it means to honor the past is to regard those in the present—no matter how they are aggregated. McNeill racked up substantial karma points on Saturday night. --LV


In the Shadow of Van the Man

The Acoustic Album
Dunphy Productions

Ireland’s Barry McCabe has spent much of his opening for or playing with headliners such as Bryan Adams, Molly Hatchet, Ten Years After, ZZ Top, and Van Morrison. Comparisons to the latter are inevitable in that, like Morrison, McCabe’s Irish folk roots peek through even when he jumps genres. The Acoustic Album is a blues album shot through with folk influences, though amped rock and roll seems to be the direction to which he leans heaviest. In fact, many of his songs, vocals, and guitar work are more reminiscent of unplugged Mick Taylor than Van Morrison in either his trad or blues garb. Like Taylor’s post-Rolling Stones work, McCabe’s solo act is uneven. The Acoustic Album has flashes of promise, but it’s a tad monochromatic even though it’s just eight tracks. The album is technically superb, but it feels listless and controlled—as if McCabe wanted to kick out the jams with some crunchy rock riffs. As blues, The Acoustic Album is too folky; as folk music, it’s too bluesy. McCabe is definitely worth a listen, but he has a long road to walk before Van Morrison comparisons have weight.

Those in western Massachusetts who want to check out McCabe for themselves can catch him at the Ashfield Community Hall on September 24 (7:30 pm). Call 413-628-0313 for ticket and concert information.