The McCalmans The Greentrax Years Review

Compilation. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

A stirring reminder of the versatility of the different McCalmans line-ups

Robin Denselow 2010

Folk music is booming in Scotland thanks to young singers like Julie Fowlis and Emily Smith. But this timely release from The McCalmans shows that the country’s veterans shouldn’t be forgotten.

In 1964 Ian McCalman, Hamish Bayne and Derek Moffat met at the Edinburgh School of Architecture, and soon found that they enjoyed making music rather more than studying (though it would be four years before the long-suffering school finally asked them to rethink their vocation, and they officially became ‘professional musicians’). The trio is still going strong today, with founder member McCalman now joined by Nick Keir and Stephen Quigg, and this 46-track, two-CD retrospective is a stirring reminder of the versatility of the different line-ups.

For the past 24 years the trio has recorded for the Edinburgh-based label Greentrax Recordings. This selection starts, suitably enough, with their first Greentrax release, Tullochgorum, which was written in the 18th century by the Reverend John Skinner, and praised by Robert Burns himself as “the best Scotch song ever Scotland saw”. The upbeat treatment here is typical of The McCalmans’ style, with acoustic guitar and mandolin matched against rousing harmony vocals.

The McCalmans are very much ‘folk old school’, in the sense that they concentrate on acoustic styles and subtle vocal work rather than experimenting too much. But they have covered a remarkable range of material, from angry political songs to poignant ballads and thoughtful comedy pieces. The emphasis is, for the most part, on all things Scottish, with just a handful of traditional songs – like the rousing, a cappella harmony treatment of sea shanty Highland Laddie – matched against the new material, much of it written by members of the band.

McCalman’s own songs range from the cheerful yet bittersweet Scots Abroad to the melodic, gently rousing Highlands Tomorrow; he throws in an anthem in praise of recycling and a wittily angry story of W.M.D. searches in Iraq. The songs from Keir include the sad-edged tale of touring and boredom Festival Lights, which sounds like a Scottish answer to Simon and Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound.

As for the rest, there’s a bit of everything, from a Richard Thompson song about a Scottish hero, Don’t Sit on My Jimmy Shands, to The Proclaimers’ Scotland’s Story. And for complete contrast, there’s the unexpected inclusion of the Shel Silverstein song Still Gonna Die, which gives The McCalmans another opportunity to show off their glorious harmony work.

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