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McCALMANS Final Concert Uncut + The Good Old Days

McCALMANS Final Concert Uncut + The Good Old Days

On the 19th of December, 2010, I arrived in a snowy Edinburgh for 4 nights in a cut price Travelodge.   Imagine my chagrin therefore, to learn that only nine days previously, The McCalmans had been at the Queens Hall performing their very last concert.   I was gutted.

That said, had I fortuitously arrived on the night, I assuredly would not have got in.  Tickets were like gold dust: fans and old friends came from halfway around the world to say goodbye.

But this reviewer need weep no more: for in this wonderful DVD, we have the whole concert (plus some bonus extras), filmed most professionally, with none of the marvellously infectious atmosphere lost.

Not only that, but this DVD means one has the best seat in the house: one that provides great close-ups of the Macs; a chance to spot the celebrity in the audience (from time-to-time); and one that even delivers the occasional upstage “reverse shot” (i.e. through the backs of the Macs, to the audience beyond) .  And all this with splendid sound reproduction, to boot.

I was privileged to be asked to review their double CD The Greentrax Years in TLT #85.   But trust me, if I thought that was a stroke of luck, then it had positively nothing on my good fortune in being sent this glorious DVD.

For a well-made concert DVD can go places where even the best double CD never can.

Just the very act of seeing these three gifted individuals at the top of their game, working their audience with all the assured ease of Harry Corbett working Sooty, makes one suddenly regard an audio CD as positively “old hat”.   Forget that old line about “the pictures being better on radio”: they are only better, if your TV is on the blink. 

And that said, there was no way that I was going to debase this fine DVD by playing it on my smaller TVs.  This got the full “film premiere” treatment at Woosnam Towers: curtains drawn, lights out, the big flat-screen TV switched on and the surround sound and volume up to the max, and for the Macs!   And what a ride it proved to be.

Of course, in any review, one man’s floor is another man’s ceiling.  That is to say that my highlights, will not necessarily have been yours.  But what I can declare incontrovertibly is this: I have not the slightest doubt that any rational, warm-blooded, thinking person with even only half an interest in folk music, would come away from a viewing of this 2 hours and 45 minute DVD, feeling the world was somehow a much better place.

And so what here are my artistic “high water marks”, exactly?

Well, if I say that the 1st set really caught alight with the 4th song The Broom o’ The Cowdenknowes, I might mislead you.   Oh, don’t wilfully misunderstand me: they do a version that is almost a match for Archie Fisher’s.   But no, it is not the song itself that makes the set catch fire: it is the brilliant introduction to that song (Ian’s hilarious “Four Thousand Pounds” story).

And, I think there I have accidentally put my finger on what makes this concert DVD so good: yes, the singing and musicianship are often sublime, but the cement that holds it all together are the occasional forays into the world of the surreal, in these spoken intros.

And never was an intro better than the patter that Ian delivers before song #8, Let’s Recycle.  Brilliant subversive politically incorrect stuff, and a song executed with real aplomb.   (And incidentally, a song that would not have a quarter of the appeal on CD that it has here on DVD, with us thus being able to see their various actions and observe the audience participation.)

Side 2 starts with a song from The Proclaimers that the Macs included on the aforementioned double CD: a song called Scotland’s Story.  Somehow, duffer that I am, this song did not scream out at me back then when I reviewed the CDs.   But now I really recognised it for the belter of a song it really is.  A great message is contained within it, too.

Shel Silverstein’s Still Gonna Die also comes off better on DVD.   Ian’s pointing finger targeted the audience with all the emphasis of a Welsh chapel deacon on steroids.

And of course, Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia never fails, but the real high spot of the concert just has to be Richard Thompson’s Don’t Sit on My Jimmy Shands.  Not perhaps because of the intrinsic merit of the song per se, but rather because of the tremendous brio the Macs bring to their rendition of it.  Nick Keir’s harmonica brings the house down.

And it would be remiss of me if mention is not made of Nick Keir and Stephen Quigg’s contribution to the evening.  Let me tell you that this Macs trio were every bit the equal of the Ian/Hamish/Derek (1964-82) Macs’ team.  Both are fine instrumentalists and sweet singers and perfect foils to Ian on the patter front.

The “Extras” with this DVD of the concert include some very rare video film from way back.  Methinks these are more for the paid-up members of the McCalmans’ fan club than for Joe Public, but they are not without their moments of magic.

There is a particularly striking a cappella singaround harmony version of The Holly She Bears A Berry that would get blood coursing through the veins of Lazarus.   And it was nice to see the late Davy Steele in almost as compelling a singaround, a little later. 

But really, it was the concert that carries all before it here.    A concert furthermore, that I fancy all those who were present will not forget in a hurry.   

And guess what?  Having been so immersed in the drama of this splendid DVD, I actually feel as though – in the words of Max Boyce – “I was there”!    And I now have a hunch that in my dotage, I will take some convincing that I arrived in that Edinburgh snow, nine days too late.

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 91 of The Living Tradition magazine.