Second fiddle to none

In the world of Celtic music, ’twas the Irish who discovered America. So pity the poor Scotsman, then, his pipes a-blazin’?

“We’re kind of in the slipstream of the Irish in a way,” Jim Malcolm of celebrated Highland band the Old Blind Dogs noted by phone recently from a tour stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “They’ve really gone out and sold and performed their music much more successfully than we have. Sometimes, we feel like second-class Celts! Everywhere we go, we’re always the second country there!”

“It’s like Capt. Scott going to the Antarctic and finding the Irish had gotten there before him,” the square-jawed singer adds with a chuckle.

In large part, Malcolm attributes the greater popularity of Irish music worldwide to the shamrock land’s earlier separation from England. “Scotland is only now establishing its political autonomy,” he observes. “Whereas the Irish, you know, had about a century’s start on us, really.”

Too, he adds, the Irish, when abroad, “tend to hang together, whereas the Scots — and there are just as many Scots in America — have assimilated more. Much more.”

But even though the Irish got here first, the Scots are not about to play second fiddle.

American audiences seem genuinely smitten with Highland music, Malcolm relates. Some fans at the band’s first Cedar Rapids show had driven from as far away as Oklahoma.

“They really identify with us, and it makes touring America a wonderful experience,” he gushes.

Well, mostly.

Four days into their current U.S. tour and the five-piece is already sick of winter, Malcolm confides with a laugh. Back home in Scotland, spring “is beginning to poke its head,” he explains. Meanwhile, in frigid Cedar Rapids, the forecast is for another 6 to 9 inches of snow before the band leaves town.

The Dogs are touring their newest recording, the superb The Gab O Mey (Green Linnet, official release date April 1). The album name, ironically, translates from Scottish dialect as “the last throes of winter.”

Atraditionally yours

The Old Blind Dogs are no mobile museum piece; tradition is a cuff link, not a set of handcuffs.

The band’s sound is, in a word, lovely — though worlds removed from the treacle that often passes for Celtic music in America (and even more so in central and eastern Canada). The Dogs’ music is haunted by an almost palpable sense of past — the kind that pushes the best traditional music into that rarefied realm surpassing simple craftsmanship (witness the muffled chant that kisses the sad border pipes on Mey‘s “A Wild Rumpus”).

And in the Dogs’ case, these are spirited spirits indeed.

Malcolm brings a solid, bluesy harmonica to the mix; his raucous harp romp enlivens Mey‘s “The Whistler.” Percussionist Paul Jennings gives the Highland burr some equatorial ballast via African djembe on the Dogs’ pipes-driven version of the Robert Burns standard “Is There for Honest Poverty,” from Fit (Green Linnet, 2001).

“We have upset people in the way that we have done things,” Malcolm admits. “We do always attempt to do something new, because we feel it’s important to move the music on. Sometimes we do go out on a limb, and sometimes we fall off the wall, as it were — sometimes it doesn’t work. But that is all part of the excitement of it.

“We have this great icon in Scotland of [poet/songwriter] Robert Burns,” Malcolm continues. “He was both a creative and also a preserving force. He actually kind of codified all the Scottish music; he brought all [the songs] together and arranged them. So there have always been these twin ideals of preserving and creating within our musical culture.

“These are the two roads that we hope we’re always traveling.”

“Lads o’ the Fair”

The Old Blind Dogs date to 1990, formed by Jonny Hardie (fiddle, mandolin, bouzouki, guitar), Buzzby McMillan (bass, cittern), Davy Cattenach (percussion) and Ian Benzie (vocals).

That lineup proved remarkably stable for a Celtic group, with but one change in seven years — the addition of Fraser Fifield (pipes, saxophone). In 1997, Graham “Mop” Youngson, ex of Wolfstone, took over for Cattenach; two years later, the real musical chairs began. Both Fifield and Youngson left, replaced respectively by Rory Campbell (pipes, whistles), ex of Deaf Shepherd, and the world-beat-driven Jennings (whose slot was recently filled by the like-minded Fraser Stone).

But those changes paled against Benzie’s departure that same year; many critics called him irreplaceable.

When the band asked Malcolm to step in, he already had a solid history as a Scots-music balladeer of both traditional and original tunes. Malcolm’s warm, lush confection of a voice, velvet-smooth phrasing and narrative-songwriting prowess made him a perfect littermate for the revitalized Dogs.

Like other band members, Malcolm came to traditional music through family (particularly his mother, he notes, who traced her own love of Scottish folk songs through his grandmother).

“Once you get involved in traditional music, it has so much, eh, body” — except he pronounces it “bawdy”; his brogue is dead sexy — “so much strength in it, it kind of takes you over. I’ve always been really attracted to the music because it’s all about places I know. It’s all about towns or characters or people that are still there. It feels very comfortable.

“You’ll never get to the end of folk music,” Malcolm adds. “There’s just so much of it.”

The luck of the Irish

In more ways than one, geography distinguishes the Irish and Scottish folk-music traditions, Malcolm asserts.

“The melodies for Irish music tend to be flatter, more duh-dibi-duh-diddle-duh-dibi-duh-duh,” he explains. “Whereas in Scotland, the melodies tend to be more vaulted, reflecting that we have more hills, more mountains.

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