News Archive - 25th January 2005
New Year's resolutions? I make dozens of them, and abandon them usually by around the 2nd January. Life has a terrible habit of getting in the way. But this year I made none as the New Year came and went and I hardly noticed it. Probably because, for the first time in my life, I spent Hogmany outside Scotland. On the other side of the planet, Queensland, Australia, to be precise. And, for someone to whom Hogmany has always meant bitter cold, harsh winds and very short dark days, and no performances of any kind between mid-December and the 2nd week of January, standing on a stage in blistering heat and sunshine made it psychologically impossible to acknowledge that this was indeed the turning of the year.
This visit to Australia was a very short trip but I'm glad I made it. I did Woodford Festival in Queensland then took the chance to visit my cousins in Brisbane before heading south for a gig in Sydney and one in Melbourne.
The gig in Melbourne was stunning, one of the best I've ever had. I seriously overran in the second set, a sure sign I'm having a ball, and could have kept going all night. I don't know why it should be, but Melbourne - together with Dublin, Liverpool, Belfast and Glasgow - is a place I feel completely at home playing in. Normally, it takes the first two songs before I feel I know who the audience are but the first second I ever walked on a stage in Melbourne a few years ago and said, "Hello", there was instant two-way communication and the high-voltage energy which comes from that.
This time in Melbourne, the night was opened by a younger Australian singer with whom I've worked before, Tonshi McIntosh (pictured), whose background is half Scots, half Mexican, but he is 100% Australian and he's just getting better all the time.
His songs are about Australia and the first time I heard him I thought, "Thank you, I understand the soul of Australia a bit better after listening to you." Well worth going out of your way to hear.
If that gig has set the standard for the rest of the year, I'm going to have fun.
Looks like I'll be heading back to Australia for a proper full tour next year and I'm really looking forward to it. I like Australia, very much.
2004 was a very odd year. As years go. And they do, with increasing frequency.
It was my 56th on the planet and I had cause to spend the odd minute or two wondering where the other 28 had gone. One minute it's 1976 and I'm standing on a stage playing a Telecaster with Five Hand Reel, grinning at Bobby Eaglesham as we rejoice in singing together over the passionate, wild noise we're making, and the next I'm at his funeral and realising that he was 61 when he dropped dead. How the hell did he suddenly get to be 61? And why did he check out in such a hurry without telling anyone he was going?
Every generation has to learn it, I suppose. Enjoy what you do while you do it and don't spend too much time looking back at where you've been or forward to where you might be going - the view from where we are right now might be all we're going to get. Or it might be the most important one of our lives and we miss it because we're too busy looking at something else. There's nothing fatalistic or morbid about realising that, it can actually be quite liberating, in the sense of Si Kahn's great "What You Do With What You've Got".
I suppose I've been thinking about stuff like that because of two events, Bobby's death being the first. The other was one of those near-life experiences I had in the late summer.
I'd been in Canada to a bunch of festivals, starting out in Winnipeg on the 8th of July and ending up at Edmonton on the 9th of August. I had a wonderful time of it, marred only by a huge number of what I thought were mosquito bites around my ankles in Winnipeg; I stopped counting at 40. I didn't bother too much about them as they usually go after a few days. But these turned black in the middle and I developed a severe allergic reaction to them.
I didn't let it get in the way as I was having a ball otherwise. Got to spend some time with old friends, made some new and heard some phenomenally good music. There were some real high spots, like getting to be on a stage with people I've revered and respected all my life - like Odetta, Enoch Kent and Martin Carthy - and with people I seem to have known forever, like Martin Simpson, Utah Phillips and Tony McManus.
And with people of the next generation like The Duhks and the Mammals who helped allay some of my fears as to where it's all going to go once my generation are retired or dead. With people like them and Tonshi McIntosh we have nothing to worry about.
On the way there I had to change planes in Toronto. I got to the gate for the flight to Winnipeg and still being a smoker at that stage, I was standing wondering if there was such an archaic thing as a smoking zone to be found when I was tapped on the shoulder by a young woman who introduced herself as Tania from the Duhks who'd recognised me and said we were doing a workshop together at Winnipeg. And she knew where the smoking zone was! So off we trotted and I grabbed a coffee and sat down in a spare seat, next to a woman.
She was speaking with a Scots accent which betrayed traces of having lived in Canada for a long time. We exchanged pleasantries and I asked her where she was from. She replied "Edinburgh" so I told her I was from Leith.
She said, "Actually, I'm from Leith, too."
She replied, "Graham Street". This was a surprise, as I'm from Graham Street but I didn't recognise her and our street was like a village, typical Scottish tenements.
"That's odd, I'm from Graham Street, too - which number?"
At this I was stunned - that's the one I grew up in! She was a bit older than me and had left Graham Street before I was born but she knew all the older members of my family and her aunt Peggy lived in the flat above us while I was growing up and I knew most of her family. Two people from a scruffy wee tenement street in Leith sitting talking half a century later in Toronto airport. One of those moments when you feel the planet shrinking.
Anyway, that trip was full of highlights, the most inspiring musically probably being the set Jerry Douglas and band did at Edmonton. I rate him as about the most technically brilliant and creative musician, on any instrument, I've ever had the privilege of working with and his set at Edmonton was superb.
But the bites on my ankles were refusing to improve and I began to feel generally very ill. By the time I got back to Scotland I was feeling dreadful but put it down to a mix of jetlag and tiredness after the tour. By the second day home, I was vomiting constantly, had a bad fever and the worst headache I can remember. At 2am next morning, Dorris decided it had gone far enough and phoned for a doctor. He was baffled by it all but decided to take my blood pressure. He took it a second time then said, "Excuse me, I'm just going to call an ambulance."
So I ended up in the casualty ward with tubes and electrodes sticking all over me and a bunch of people in white coats standing around looking at me with those "Why aren't you dead?" expressions at which people in white coats excel. My blood pressure was 250/140 which I'm told is rather higher than we're meant to have without all kinds of bits exploding or falling off.
The verdict was inconclusive. No neurological problems, no evidence of circulatory or heart disease, no obvious cause at all. And nobody was interested in my story about the bites. We don't have poisonous things in Scotland, apart from the usual kind on two legs. And adders, incredibly shy creatures which most people will be extremely lucky to ever catch a glimpse of. Oh, and midges, of course, but the worst damage midges can do is to drive you into a mental hospital. So nobody took seriously my guess that the fever, sickness and high BP were connected to the bites.
I have since heard of a small poisonous spider which lives in Canada and, replaying the mental videotape of events, I've realised that the worst of the bites seemed to have appeared mysteriously on the 3rd morning I woke up in Winnipeg. So my guess is that somehow or other one of these small beings found its way into my bed and reckoned it was actually a larder, with my ankles providing an unexpected bounty. The venom from those bites, combined with the fact that Canadian mosquitos seem to be very partial to a bit of Scots blood, had caused my immune system to wave a white flag and gradually go into freefall. While I was working I managed to fight it off but once I relaxed, it all went haywire. Maybe there was already an unnoticed increase in BP, but I think it was launched into critical by the accumulated reaction to all the poisons.
Whatever, I'm still around and apart from a small revolution in boring stuff like diet and exercise, and taking several pills a day, I'm fine again. My main difficulty was that all my life I've been very robust with little ever going wrong apart from the usual flus and colds and such. And the routine signs of aging, like eyes and teeth not working like they used to. But for the first time in my life I felt physically vulnerable and I didn't appreciate it at all. However, I'm regarding it as a wakeup call to certain things that needed some attention and I'm back to getting on with life again.
Mosquitos and spiders notwithstanding, I had a great time in Canada, a place I am also very fond of. Got to spend the best part of two weeks wandering about in the Rockies. If you're going to wander about, the two best places on earth to do so have got to be the West Highlands of Scotland and the Canadian Rockies. Unless you hate mountains in which case you should go to Holland or Lincolnshire. Or Saskatchewan. But that's a story for another time.