Rab Noakes, now aged 70, is one of Scotland’s musical heroes. Since the early seventies he’s been a fixture on the music scene, an early member of Stealers Wheel and recording with legendary Nashville producer Bob Johnston. Blabber’n’Smoke first became aware of him when Lindisfarne recorded two of his songs on their first two albums in their brief moment of glory and there’s a back catalogue of delights to be heard for those new to his music. His last album I’m Walkin’ Here (2015) was a fine collection of his own songs along with his interpretations of several songs that had influenced him in his youth. The release of that album was delayed by a diagnosis of tonsillar cancer and the ensuing treatment, radiotherapy and chemotherapy which was a tough road but which seems (thankfully) to have worked well enough to allow Noakes to return to performance.
The Treatment Tapes is a chronicle of sorts, six songs written throughout the treatment process and then recorded with little fuss over two sessions. Aside from the lethal fears of a cancer diagnosis the site of Noakes’ lump could have been a death sentence of sorts to a singer no matter how well the treatment worked. On the evidence here his voice has survived the illness and the treatment (although his candid sleeve notes detail some limitations) allowing him to deliver the set in his recognisable style. There are plaintive introspections which recall Loudon Wainwright and the late Alan Hull along with more jaunty folk blues numbers. The songs stand proud without any knowledge of the story behind their genesis; the deeply affecting love song, I Always Will coming across like a Townes Van Zandt number cosseted by a wonderfully woody cello and the opening Fade (to shades of black) a Gene Clark like fatalist ballad. However Noakes’ detailed notes on each of the songs pins them to a particular stage in his treatment process allowing the listener an insight into the trials he faced and it’s a measure of the man that the notes, the words and the songs all coalesce into a triumph of sorts. He’s still here and still singing. He champions the NHS treatment he received on Water Is My Friend as he sings, “There are people looking after me who don’t get paid enough while bankers take a big reward for far less useful stuff”, the title taken from advice from his radiographer to keep his mouth hydrated (and delivered with a nod to The Sons Of the Pioneers cowboy classic, Cool Water). Overall the EP is a two fingers to the big C delivered with a life affirming sense of spirit.
Rab Noakes celebrates his 70th birthday and his 50 years in music on his 70/50 tour which opens at Celtic Connections on February 2nd. From there on he tours the UK with all dates here.