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A Few New Tricks for Old Blind Dogs' Scottish Folk Music

October 06, 2000|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In some ways, the more things change for the Old Blind Dogs, the more they stay the same.

With the recent additions of singer Jim Malcolm, piper and whistle player Rory Campbell and percussionist Paul Jennings, the Scottish folk music group does have a new look and sound.

Malcolm's vocals are smoother and warmer than those of his predecessor, Ian Benzie, and he's a fiery harmonica player to boot. Campbell's small pipes and whistle have replaced the border pipes and saxophone work of Frazer Fifield. Jennings' djembe (a hand-held African drum) and conga playing mixes in African-flavored rhythms for the first time.

Nevertheless, the Old Blind Dogs--which also features original members Buzzby McMillan (bass and cittern) and Jonny Hardie (fiddle, mandolin, bouzouki and guitar)--don't stray too far from their roots and the distinctive identity they've carved out since forming 10 years ago in the hinterlands of Aberdeen.

"Those new to the group were familiar with the Dogs' trademark sound, and there was no big push to change anything too much," said McMillan by phone from Chico, a stopover for the touring group that arrives Saturday at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library.

"There's been no deliberate attempt to put their own stamp on the music in a way that might detract from the essence of what defines the group as a whole.

"They've brought some personality, which is good, but the whole idea is to maintain continuity," McMillan said. "We were careful about choosing players who would be happy developing within the framework of the Old Blind Dogs formula. We want to grow by refining our style, not overhauling it."

A big part of that formula is focusing on traditional ballads, and the heavier the better. Among several found on the band's new album "The World's Room" (Green Linnett)--its first U.S. release after five on the Scottish imprint K.R.L.--is the chilling "Edward."

First published in 1765, this grim tale of a son who murders his father strongly suggests that mother put him up to the task. "I think a lot of people tie Irish or Scottish music to either jolly jigs and reels or rowdy drinking songs, and that's something we're really not all that interested in," McMillan said.

"We've always leaned to the darker side of the folk songs. We're drawn to the seriousness and drama of the music and words, . . . to mini-stories where characters are complex, unpredictable and, yes, even evil."

Another Old Blind Dogs characteristic is a willingness to experiment. For instance, the instrumental "Roslin Castle"--derived from an old melody attributed to James Oswald about a 15th-century castle in the Midlothian countryside--was reshaped before finally coming together as a stark, fragile piece played on fiddle, whistle and guitar.

"It's quite a sad tune, but we had this strange notion of trying a swingy-type arrangement," McMillan said. "But what we discovered was that sometimes you've got to let a powerful melody have its own life and not inject too much of what it might not need. I think once we pulled back all of the sonic layers, we suddenly realized how melancholy and mysterious it really is."

*

Much like fellow countrymen the Battlefield Band and Belfast's Craobh Rua, Old Blind Dogs respects tradition without being confined by it. Because of each band member's diverse background, subtle traces of reggae, jazz and folk-blues surface on occasion, bringing freshness and color to acoustic music steeped in centuries of Scottish folklore and history.

"It's nice to hear something in its rawest form, but that's not for everyone, and we're certainly not purists," McMillan said. "This music isn't ready to be displayed in a museum. . . . It's got to be kept alive and passed on. You can have fun with it too. It's really not that precious."

SHOW TIME

The Old Blind Dogs play Saturday at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, 31495 El Camino Real. 7 and 9 p.m. $3-$7. (949) 248-7469. Presented by the San Juan Capistrano Multicultural Arts Series.

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