At the grand age of 71 Rab Noakes‘ profile is probably higher now than it has been since his days as one of the UK’s premier folk and rock artists back in the seventies when he was recording with Gerry Rafferty, providing songs for Lindisfarne and having his own albums produced by the likes of Bob Johnston and Elliot Mazer in Nashville with various Dylan veterans in tow.
Noakes went behind the desk to become a respected producer of radio programs but a reissue program of earlier albums and a double CD, I’m Walking Here, along with regular appearances at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections Festival had raised his profile in the first half of this decade but this was almost derailed when he was diagnosed with tonsillar cancer. Following successful treatment Noakes released The Treatment Tapes in 2017, a six song EP inspired by his journey from diagnosis via treatment to recovery. 2017 was indeed an auspicious year for him as it marked his 70th birthday and 50 years of performing and to mark this Noakes appeared at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections with a band he called the 70/50 in 2017 with many commentators noting the show as a highlight of the festival. Since then Noakes has been on the road much of the time, often in tandem with Jill Jackson, one of the prime movers of the 70/50 band with the pair playing a sold out show at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival and now he offers us this splendid album which is a culmination of sorts of the many celebratory aspects of last year.
In his informative sleeve notes Noakes describes the album much better than anything you will read here but its genesis was in the Celtic Connections concert as Noakes, having a well rehearsed band on hand, decided to go straight into the studio and bang out some songs, as he says, on the Nick Lowe principle of bash it out now, tart it up later. They laid down 15 of the 17 songs we have on hand here and it has to be said that the band – Stuart Brown (drums), Christine Hanson (cello), Jill Jackson (vocals, guitar), Innes Watson (guitar, fiddle), Una MacGlone (double bass), Lisbee Stainton (banjo, guitar), and Kathleen MacInnes (vocals) – conjure a finely loose limbed sound ranging from folk infused melodies to almost skiffle like strum-a-longs. Further recordings saw band members and others refining the songs over a fairly lengthy period of time but the end result is a very cohesive and eminently enjoyable listen.
The 17 songs are a mix of old and new written by Noakes along with some interpretations of others which have had some significance to him over his adventurous lifetime. Again, Noakes explains in the notes why each song was chosen with some of the entries mini essays which are most enlightening with his explanation of Tramps and Immigrants our favourite. Some of the anniversaries are fairly straightforward as in his choice of the number one song in the sheet music charts for his birthday in 1947. Coincidentally enough it was Anniversary Song, written by Al Jolson and riding high in the charts back then performed by The Billy Cotton Band and Noakes and his band turn in an excellent gypsy like waltz version of the song. It all Joins Up (in the End) meanwhile was written by Noakes when he outlived the age his father was when he died and it’s a finely understated reflection on the vagaries of life with Noakes recalling his rock’n’roll touchstones and reminding us to live our life by the full. With Watson’s fiddle leading the ensemble and Jackson adding fine harmonies the song is given a sublime reading while it is a reminder that at his best Noakes can write as well as McCartney or Rafferty.
Listening to many of the songs one is reminded of the spirit of Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance in the band’s playing especially on the opening numbers. Together Forever is a song Lindisfarne covered on their second album and it’s a welcome opportunity to hear it again in this new version. Let The Show Begin and Oh Me, Oh My and London Town stroll along in similar fashion, all of them eminently listenable. Lost friends are eulogised in the stripped back Gently Does It with Noakes in singer/songwriter mode recalling Alex Campbell while A Voice Over My Shoulder returns to the fiddle and banjo fuelled ensemble sound on a tribute to Robin McKidd, a musician friend who accompanied Noakes on his first professional engagement back in 1967.
TCB (Working Man and Working Woman) finds the band in slight rockabilly style as Noakes kicks out at politicians and celebrates the working class, the song influenced by a visit to the RCA studios where Elvis recorded (TCB being an Elvis catchphrase – Taking Care of Business). There’s some more politics as he revisits another earlier song, Jackson Greyhound, a reminder of the civil rights movement in the 60’s as several freedom riders were arrested and beaten as they boarded buses in defiance of the Jim Crow laws. Here Noakes is just astounding as this Fifer totally inhabits the spirit and sound of the times, the song imbued with the sweetly sticky sounds of the south as he comes across like Loudon Wainwright. Adding another string to his bow Noakes avails himself of his collaborations with Kathleen McInnes in the more traditional field of Scots music on several songs. The Handwash Feelin’ Mairket finds him using a Rabbie Burns like idiom to describe a local carwash which runs on hired immigrant labourers while The Twa Corbies/ An Dà Fheannaig allows him and McInnes to delve deep into Scots traditional music on a song which is as haunting as anything one might hear on any collection of murder ballads. Following on is Tramps and Immigrants which Noakes sings in broad Scots emphasising its origins while incorporating the Dylan song, I Pity the Poor Immigrant which poached the melody and is here sung here by McInnes thereby joining up all the dots. It’s simply fantastic. McInnes also has a starring role in the closing song, that old chestnut, Tennessee Waltz, which she first sings in the Gaelic before reverting to English. Noakes explains that the song is, “a piece of first class songwriting… with something truly deep at its heart wrapped in the lightness of a waltz with a sing-along form.” He’s right, McInnes sings wonderfully and the band play as if they were perched on an Appalachian porch.
Hand on heart this is one of the best albums we’ve heard all year and it should be issued to anyone with a pair of ears and a beating heart. When we reviewed The Treatment Tapes we wrote, “Overall the EP is a two fingers to the big C delivered with a life affirming sense of spirit,” and it’s spiriting to see that on the cover art here Mr. Noakes, resplendent in his two tone suit, is indeed offering that two fingered salute. He’s on top form here and hopefully there’s much more to come from this venerable Scots musician.