Album Review | Neon Records | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 4/5
Feb 2017, Rab Noakes performed a well-attended acclaimed concert at that year’s Celtic Connections Festival. That concert, its songs and its players form the bones of this album. The songs by Rab, span nearly 50 years of song writing, from 1969’s “Together Forever” to “It all Joins Up in the End” from 2017. Welcome to Anniversaryville as a title is a wry reflection on the passage of time and that the more time passes the more significant dates stack up. Rab’s excellent notes, a fine read on their own, mention a few, 70 years since his birth, 60 since he encountered an inspirational image of Elvis, 50 since his first ‘appear on the billings’ paid gig. “Let the Show Begin” with an infectious beat and Innes Watson’s fiddle is a great opener, a statement of intent. “It all Joins Up in the End” stems from Rab’s realisation that he was now older than his Father when he died in 1985, someone he still thought of as an ‘older guy’. Like Van Morrison, Rab Noakes is a master of mining his own past and experience for touch stones and experiences that resonate with the listener. “It all Joins Up in the End” celebrates the rock and roll lifespan and that the songs of his youth still excite Noakes. I first heard Rab’s “Together Forever”, written on 1969 and a postcard of a trip to Denmark, covered by Lindisfarne on their 1971 Fog on the Tyne album. Rab’s version here is a joy, infused with a buskers punch and bounce. “Gently Does It”, an anthem written for Alex Campbell, proves what a stella songwriter Rab is, with fragility sensitively examined. “Just One Look” a hit for Doris Troy in 1963 cements the anniversary diary aspect of this album, included as a reminder of a significant ‘eyes across the room’ moment 30 years ago between Rab and his wife Stepney. “TCB (Working Man and Working Woman)”, is Rab as protest troubadour over some glorious Rock n Roll guitar, snapping at generations of inept governments with some thoughtful and well-chosen barbs. Commissioned by the Hands Up For Trad project Scotland Sings, “The Hand-wash Feein Mairket” is a brilliant Burns referencing piece of contemporary commentary. Sensitive, insightful and sharp as we would expect from Noakes. Rab and Kathleen MacInnes’ version of “Long Black Veil” is a dark masterpiece, harnessing Johnny Cash’s Sun Sessions guitar twang and the Gothic chill of The Handsome Family. The Murder Ballads continue with the otherworldly “Twa Corbies” here merged with a Scots Gaelic version. The two versions of the story blend into a performance that is dark and atmospheric, proper Acid Folk. A Stark contrast to Kathleen McInnes’ stately version on her 2006 Summer Dawn album. Working with MacInnes has reconnects Rab with the Scottish Folk Song tradition of the revival Folk Clubs. Still in the 60s Clubs Rab and Kathleen run together “Tramps and Hawkers” and Bob Dylan’s masterful “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” demonstrating their shared ancestry. Again the performances and material, still painfully relevant today are powerful. The Cash connection continues with Rab’s take on “Still in Town” that Cash covered on his 64 Walk the Line album. That distinctive electric guitar is there, but Noakes’ jangling acoustic gives it a Folk Country edge and sparkle. “Jackson Greyhound” nods to Dylan with the tempo and tune reminiscent to his “Highway 61 Revisited” or road songs like “National Seven” off John Renbourn’s eponymous 1965 album. Rab of course layers the writing, looking outward and considering the bigger picture, his wonderful guitar joined by some glorious brass and a violin as dry as a 60s Atlantic Records session. “London Town” is a contradiction song, its bright jangly pop sound at odds with the story of Rab’s long association with the City as he contrasts his happy memories with its reputation. “Use of Underground” field recordings makes it sound dreamlike or like a busking performance. Playing what we would now call House Concerts, Rab plays a lot of anniversaries, 40ths, 50ths, 60ths. His own 70th being a first. An accomplished performer Rab likes to add a couple of songs from the Patron’s year of birth, often needing to refer to sheet music charts as well as the record charts. “Anniversary Song” was a hit for Billy Cotton in May 1947, there is little of the smooth lush big band in Rab’s continental troubadour rendering of a song that was a birthday hit. Album closer was the encore at the concert that started the album process off, “Tennessee Waltz” was another 1947 hit, this time for Redd Stewart, but Kathleen MacInnes’ glorious voice leans more to Pattie Page’s seductive and lush version. This album overflows with ideas, sometimes these and the informative narrative makes it feel like a best of or a Compilation. Welcome to Anniversaryville by its nature looks back and celebrates, longevity, significant events and times, but there is as much to celebrate in the fact that, at an age traditionally associated with retirement, taking stock, sensible cardigans and reflection Rab Noakes is on fire, burning with energy and creativity. The album cover is a deftly painted nod to that San Quentin Jim Marshall photo of Johnny Cash giving the warden the bird, with Rab joyfully sticking two fingers up at life and expectations, happily making new anniversaries. Repeated listens reveal touches and sparkles from the band, always deft and sympathetic never showy or attention grabbing to the detriment of strong songs and wonderful performances. It’s difficult to pick out one top song, so many of the tracks illustrate the different strengths of individual songs and the strength of the album as a whole.