Old Blind Dogs – Knucklehead Circus: Album Review

The remarkable renaissance of this Scottish institution continues to enthral and amaze. Old Blind Dogs ascend the heights on Knucklehead Circus.

old blind dogs

Release Date: 19th November 2021

Label: OBD

Formats: CD / Digital / Vinyl (in 2022)

I owe this band an apology, having always lumped them in, unfairly, with an older guard of Scottish roots-related music, considering them august relics of a past era, alongside Five Hand Reel and the JSD Band. And while that is indeed a high bar to attain, a) they are not quite of that vintage, being a mere three decades young, and b) they play on and are perhaps firing on more cylinders than ever were dreamed possible, back in the Aberdeen folk clubs of the very early 1990s.

I blame my father in law buying me a cassette of their second album, New Tricks, in 1992, years later picking up the Collection, 2009’s retrospective collection, and that I assumed meant the end. Anything but, as it was around about then they picked up their secret weapon, the bagpipe maelstrom himself, Ali Hutton, of, often simultaneously, Treacherous Orchestra and Symbiosis, let alone legion production and guest credits across the whole renaissance of 21st century Scots tradition. Having followed his career, it was with some surprise I realised he was part of a still vibrant “Dugs”, as they are affectionately known, and hastily caught up with the intervening years, catching them live at this years Wickham mudfest, where they effectively blew any of their competition away.

But they are way more than a one-man bag, with original singer and fiddler, Jonny Hardie, last man standing of the 1990 band, singing more powerfully than ever, with a fiddle style that sneaks blues and jazz licks into the more orthodox East Coast folk styles. Aaron Jones, on guitars and citterns, together with, for this recording, bass, is a powerful second voice. Newish recruit, on the drums, is Donald Hay, no newcomer he to this sort of music, having been one of the “house band” drummers for Transatlantic Sessions, as well as appearing on records by Battlefield Band, Kathryn Tickell, Sting and both Martin and Eliza Carthy, let alone a live session drummer for Shooglenifty. Probably the foremost and finest proponent of brushes on the folk circuit, he has a deftness that makes this always other than restrained. Add in Hutton, on whistles and pipes, and the cocktail is complete, a heady concoction that punches the sometimes neglected East Coast of Scotland back into the ring, most of the competition currently more West Coast and Islands. This lineup snuck out an EP only a month or three earlier this year, Reimagined, six older songs rejigged and revamped for this line-up, so this new album arrives as a welcome and slightly unexpected bonus.

Opening with the title track, this is a paired set of tunes, Jonny Hardie’s fiddle first to the fore, with a phrasing that nimbly skips over the rhythm, itself slowly building up a steam behind it. As Hutton adds some pipes, the second melody creeps in, the two lead instruments melding together. Jones, Hardie and Hay then add their voices to the melody, as a chorus, the whole reminiscent of a runaway train, a steam train, clearly, on a gentle decline down the glen. The John Barleycorn that follows is, yes, that one, with Hutton’s whistle swoops suggesting as much familiarity with the Traffic version as, say, Fairport Convention’s. Of course, this is song with umpteen versions over many centuries, but the band manage to inject new hops into this well-crafted ale.

Back to instrumentals, with the pipe led Thin Man, another set of two, the first being one composed by his mentor and tutor on the bagpipes, the late Gordon Duncan. Rather than just a standard backing, the others add subtle counterpoint and syncopation, Hardie’s fiddle especially striking. The role of rhythm guitar, or rhythm cittern, is something not always getting as much credit as it ought, needing constant vigilance to detail. And sturdy wrists, which Jones must surely have. A song by the late Davy Steele, of Ceolbeg and Clan Alba, follows, he and Hardie frequently bumping shoulders in the Edinburgh clubs back in the 90’s. A typically wistful lament to the demise of the fishing industry, sung through the eyes of a reluctant recruit to the land, and the vocals, Jones I think, give the necessary pathos required. A lovely song, and the interplay of whistles and guitar is a delight.

A medley of three decidedly Gallic tunes, Suite Bretonne, stately gavottes each, where Hutton allows his whistles full rein, allowing for a change in mood before the social(ist) commentary of Here We Go Again, which calls to mind the mood and, to a lesser extent, the melody, of Brian McNeill’s Battlefield Band song, Sea Coalers. This beckons in the mournful lament of Akins, which features some delicious guitar and fiddle melancholy, the traditional tune, Earl of Jura, breaking into the more optimistic eponymous second half, composed by Hardie. Listen again to how Hay’s percussion slots in so seamlessly and integrally. The whistle and fiddle solos here are almost prog in their direction, thinking Tull, if whistle were flute, and Darryl Way’s Wolf.

Wild Mountainside isn’t that one, or even, entirely, the other one, being a new tune, by Rick Taylor, attached to the older Trashcan Sinatra lyric, the original version thereof entrenched now so deeply into Eddi Reader’s repertoire. Another lament, the exquisite entry of bagpipes at the three-quarter mark sends a shiver into the sporran. From there a trio of tunes by Hutton unfold, The Road, moving incrementally from a whistle caper, through a freer form fiddle and pipe military quickstep march, the fiddle offering warning shots to the side before a final rousing victory salvo that has those goosebumps back.

Those with any fond memory of Nick Burbridge’s McDermott’s 2 Hours will know Harry Brewer, his first world war son. In a more stately and, strangely, less overtly Celtic arrangement, it brings out the horrors depicted with a little more finesse, allowing the construct of the whole to be better appreciated. Which leaves only the paired closers, Highland Lassie, parts one and two. In an album that is so resolutely Scots rather than Gaelic, this may seem odd, but the Highlands extend well over into Scots and Doric territory. The first is a setting of a well-known jaunty traditional tune, rendered a little less white heather club by being taken at a lower lick, Hay’s rhythmic shuffle pulling it back, as the whistles, pipes and fiddle promenade each other gracefully. Part two is a different game entirely, another brace of Hutton tunes, that set the dials to faster, accelerating all the while, the runaway train now on a much steeper clime. Which, as metaphor for how high they have ascended since I last took notice, is very apt indeed.

Here’s some lockdown from Reimagined, Janine’s:

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