Half Awake in a Fake Empire …

The National, Usher Hall Edinburgh, 21st of September 2017

I am half awake in a fake empire …, I could be anyone/where in the present political climate, in the UK with the neoliberals chasing post Brexit trade deals with former colonies. In the US trading insults, a dotard to a rocket man. Instead I am watching “The National” at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. With the name like “The National” one might expect them to be a political band in some way, though clearly it is not the same as the type of nationalism promoted by Trump, it is probably more akin to the constitutional patriotism suggested by writers like Habermas (see here ), the inclusive sense that looks beyond ethnicity or citizenship to pluralistic values, the nationalism claimed by people in Plaid Cymru and the SNP. Which, given the intellectualism of the band, they have probably read.

Figure 1: Matt Berninger from the National, Edinburgh Usher Hall 21st of September 2017: Credit Hollie Taylor, CC BY SA 4.0

While we waited for them to come on, the screens at the back of the stage provided a glimpse backstage, they didn’t appear to be sitting around reading the New Yorker, all was strumming, stretching and guitar picking. At the front, there was no pushing, once the band came on I didn’t feel myself pinned to the barriers at the front, and indeed the only drink that was thrown was from the stage itself. At one point I went to the bar, “IPA please”, “sorry love, sold out”. Only at something as middle class as “The National” could you go to the bar in Scotland and find the only thing left was the Tennent’s Lager.

Getting back to the front was easy, polite and without a drop spilled. If the crowd was polite, the bands carefully constructed sounds, building waves of noise seemed in rude health. As the gig progressed the drummer shed layers, his brother head down sweating the bass. With the Dessner brothers on guitar/piano watching each other cool and knowingly, as the singer become more and more of a dishevelled angry middle aged man. I note the Guardian suggested this new album was their middle aged album , to me, on that evening, it was the older ones like “Mistaken for Strangers” that seemed filled weary melancholy. And anger, the first time I saw them live (not on YouTube) was 2008 at the Green Man. I remember the musicianship, the tightness of movement, but I don’t recall the rasping anger of now.

Figure 2: The National in Full Flow, Matt has a moment by himself to scream into the mic, Credit Ronald Macintyre, CC BY SA 4.0

As he sang the opening lines of “Fake Empire” I was reminded of a poem I had read years ago, called the “Mushroom Gatherers”, all together in the woods, passing, not talking,  written in the 1950’s, inspired by the work of Polish poet Mickiewicz, it is often read as a comment on the performance of political process. To me it seemed to speak to the way without care we can sleepwalk through ill times.  If you scroll to 13:30 you can listen to a reading of it here.  And learn more about Donald Davie here.

Of the songs that seemed most filled with angry sadness it was “Mr November”, with the band thrashing about and Matt foetal on the floor. For me it seemed to capture this strange feeling one has these days – what the fuck is going on!?!. Mr November was Obama, and even though they claim to be not too political, Obama went to their songs time again for a bit of hope.

Now, how are we to feel constitutionally patriotic, soaked in shared values, when our systems have thrown up odd these odd replacements.


Green Man Festival Aug’08

The ultimate wet weekend in Wales. From Scotland to the Brecon Beacons by public transport with a couple of backpacks and our trusted Terra Nova tents – a voyager (2 person) and a solar minor. We slept in the voyager and took erected the flysheet of the solar minor as a store for food and wet clothes.

Last year we came with kids and our family tent. Was not totally enthused by the line up this time. However James Yorkstone, King Creosote were a must see. The Fence Collective are a bunch of acoustic musicians (with occassional twiddling electronics) fae Fife. Playful in an what can be a serious beardy folk scene – KC’s set ended with a comedy song, and James Yorkston invited an Green Man regular on stage to do vocals – backing provided by his son in arms.

I was also keen to see the national – the highlight of this particular wet weekend.  I will admit to listening to this band repeatedly while cleaning the house and washing up as the kids bounce around.

Also on Sunday was Little Wings I was looking forward to this lo-fi brocken vocals set. Cool, wet, the green man cafe with smuggeled ale we expected it to be busy. Only a handful of people caught this shambolic set. Out of tune borrowed guitar, forgotten vocals, but somehow endearing, somehow despite the thin crowd and damp atmosphere it was a nice way to finish the festival.

Next year – probably not. I think we might try ‘End of the Road’

Bill Calahan emerges from Smog- 29thMay’07

I had woke on a whaleheart on preorder from Amazon and eagerly awaited the first installment of Bills story. After the dreamy nylon string folk of ‘A River …’ Whaleheart is a strange record. It sounds a little like ‘Supper’ and ‘Red Apple’, but an overproduced ‘Supper’/’Red Apple’. It lack the unstitched quality of ‘A River’, their are joins and you can see the joins, sense the shift in musical tone and content. Listen, and listen again, Bills voice remains, as does the folk baritone.

On the way back from the bathroom in Glasgow ‘s Mono I noticed a poster with Bills picture, he was touring, ABC 2 in a couple of days and it was not sold out – strange but true. On tour the songs were pared down and without the embellishments seemed to live anew. Bill played a small steel strung guitar that sounded tiny and vulnerable. He stood on the stage eyes front legs akimbo and played song after song, no interaction, pure stagecraft.

Touring an album can often be a less than satisfying experience for performer and audience. Either, the record is better, or its the same as the record, or on rare occasions its better. This was better than the album, it gave you a chance to feel Smog thicken and disperse and see how the music is changing and evolving. Space to listen and wonder what is next.

Bill Callahan plays as himself at the Green Man in August.

Bonnie Prince Billy and Harem Scarem – Glenuig Hall, 22nd of April 2006

For a bunch of ‘local boys’ leaving Sunart and delving into Moidart is to retrace musical markers. The Salen, the Sheil, the Clan Ranald (hotels), and all the tigh na ceildh’s, before finally arriving at what was my teenage musical Mecca – Glenuig. Tents pitched between showers we headed of the pub, its sun lounge windows steamed by damp campers – time to see what ‘Bonnie Prince Billy’ (Will Oldham) fans look like.



My wife and I went to see Will Oldham tour ‘SuperWolf’ last year. In a hot Queens Hall he rocked out songs to a pre convinced set of trendy artistic types who made me wish I hadn’t wore my welly’s (actually I hadn’t). Here, on the geographical and musical fringe was a chance to locate the legendary dedication of Oldham fans. But, how to spot it?


“Are you here to see Harem Scarem or Bonnie Prince Billy”, someone asked, I looked at them, “Bonnie Prince Billy” I said somewhat confused. Having never thought of myself as dedicated to anything, I was beginning to wonder if my friends and I were ‘the fans’.


The music starts with surprise additions ‘Jimmy Joyce Rolls Royce’, a Scottish Balkan band who played a laid back South American style Jazz. Then on come Harem Scarem. It was then I began to appreciate why someone asked who I was here to see. I really started to take note when accordionist Inge Thomson began to sing, there is a fragile broken quality to her vocal. At the time I was reminded of pop-punk Cyndi Lauper. However, when Will Oldham came on and sang about his own strange and vulnerable world, Inge’s and Wills voice seemed to recall the mountain music from the Smithsonian archive I picked up last year in Tennessee.


Bonnie Prince Billy


Harem Scarem members connect all corners of the Scottish music scene. From, fiddler Sarah McFadyen with Aberfeldy, to Inge with Karine Polwart, and guitarist Ross Martin playing in Cliar and Daimh. Not forgetting fiddler Eilidh Shaw, who plays with ceildh bands and John Rae’s Celtic Feet, and the Gaelic song of flautist Nuala Kennedy. These busy cross references bring a sense of musical urgency to Oldham’s lo-fi early songs (from ‘Ease on Down Road’ and ‘I See a Darkness’), and complement the instrumentally polished songs from ‘Super Wolf’ and ‘Bonnie Prince Billy Plays Palace Music’.


I often think about Will Oldham’s songs as akin the male existential angst that pitched Albert Camus ‘The Outsider’ at the top of men’s most influential reads. Well until I saw the rapture with which a young dark haired woman regarded him. In between the screams she leant forward wrapped in the songs, eventually it seemed too much and in tears she was led outside by her companion. I was just glad their was one obsessive fan present.


An encore was demanded and came. A man strode towards the stage, “come on, you’ve got the play ‘I see a darkness”, Will’s hand came out ‘Pound’ he said. The man desperately searched, ‘anyone got a pound’, hands went to pockets and one was found- a suitably strange and comicbegining to the next part of the evening…


This article originally appeared on the BBC ‘Celtic Connections’ website