Rab Noakes

Live Review | The Regent, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Rab Noakes’ contribution to music over the last four decades has been remarkable to say the least. Mention of Leiber and Stoller, Terry Melcher, Ringo Starr, Lindisfarne, Stealers Wheel, Barbara Dickson and Gerry Rafferty from the past and more recently Karine Polwart from the present, you start to picture a very colourful and interesting musical background indeed. Who Rab has worked alongside, either as a contemporary musician, a fellow band mate or a record producer, becomes secondary to the real value of having someone like Rab Noakes around, that of a wonderful and inspiring song writer. Highly prolific and of a consistently good standard, Rab Noakes writes melodic songs that seem to have that special quality of being perceived on at least two levels; the self absorbed singer songwriter material that typifies most aspiring songsmiths who started out in the early Seventies, but at the same time great and memorable pop songs. Tonight Rab Noakes brought some of those songs to Doncaster and shared them with a decent sized audience at the Monday Music Club at the Regent. Much of the set was centred round Rab’s new album Unlimited Mileage which he recorded with his band The Varaflames. Once again, songs such as “When You’re Not Here” become instantly memorable as in the case of most good pop songs. When I talk about good pop songs I am of course using as a yard stick the likes of David’s Byrne or Bowie, not “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” you understand. “What Are You Doing Here” could easily have been a David Byrne song; the sense of melody and structure is identical but yet it has a freshness that is pure Rab Noakes. Sonically “Light in my Heart” could not escape the notice of someone who has for years lived and breathed all that Rafferty/Humblebakerwheel stuff, but lyrically, the song becomes distinctly Rab’s own: “There’s a record I’d like to hear, I’ll have to flick the dust off the needle first, but it still won’t be all that clear this time”. I was going to say they don’t write ‘em like that anymore, but they obviously do, thank God. Understandably disdainful of the term ‘covers’ to describe songs by other writers in his set (homage’s might be a better term), Rab played homage to some of his fellow writers but rather than presenting his ‘personalised’ take on some familiar songs, Rab gets down to the essentials and strips away all the fuss. On the new album we find a pretty faithful adaptation of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love”, which invites even the most afflicted two-left-footed amongst us to grab a partner immediately. At the Regent tonight, there was at least a fair amount of shuffling rhythmically in seats. Rab doesn’t live in the past. He treats Cohen or Talking Heads or Radiohead with equal respect. “High and Dry” is a wonderfully constructed song that lends itself remarkably well to any genre of music, whether it is performed by a popular indie band, jazzed up by the likes of Jamie Cullum, or just sung at full throttle with an acoustic guitar, it remains a damn good song. Leaping back into the depths of his highly respectable back catalogue, Rab could have plucked any number of familiar songs from the days of knocking around with the likes of Lindisfarne, we’ve sat on benches and ‘turned again’ lots of times to dozens of floor singers over the years, but tonight Rab chose instead to select wisely from the best of his dozen or so albums. “Kill or Cure” from Lights Back On, “Lonely Boy Tonight” from Restless and a few from the recently re-released classic Standing Up “I’ve Hardly Started Yet”, “Gently Does It” and “Open All Night”, all showed a marked versatility in the craft of song writing. Rab finished the night off with a song that appeared on the album he made with harmonica player Fraser Speirs, Lights Back On back in 2000. The Leiber/Stoller/Spector classic “Spanish Harlem”, like the Leonard Cohen and Radiohead songs before it, become not merely hit ‘covers’, but ‘songs’ once again. Hearing “Spanish Harlem” without the big production number treatment or even Aretha Franklin’s gorgeous warbling, makes you instantly re-evaluate the song as something we should have all been singing in clubs for years. I’m just happy to let Rab do that for us. Rab’s albums from the early Seventies are reminiscent of Steve Tilston’s. Two young songwriters with youthful voices and things to say, each with one ear on Bert Jansch and the other on pop radio, and both now fully developed songwriters and national treasures to those of us who appreciate a good song. Will either of them ever be a household name? Well in mine, they already are.