21st Century Reviews

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16 November 2006

Alistair Hulett - Riches And Rags (Red Rattler, 2005)

This review was originally posted in January 2006.

I’d better start by giving this album its full title: Riches and Rags: Modern Music for Wireless and Gramophone Played by Alistair Hulett and Several of His Friends. It’s an old-timey sounding title, which is a pretty fair indication of much of the album’s content. On this, his seventh album since the days of Roaring Jack, Alistair Hulett revisits not only some of his own previously recorded songs, but also some notable songs from the last few centuries!

Riches and Rags sees Hulett joined by three very talented musicians: James Fagan (mandolin and bouzouki), Nancy Kerr (fiddle and viola) and Gavin Livingstone (a multitude of instruments including accordion, dobro and dulcimer). While Alistair’s guitar-and-vocal albums and his work with Dave Swarbrick have produced some truly excellent moments, it’s always inspiring to hear Alistair play when backed by a few instruments. This album is not much like Roaring Jack, but there’s still a great deal of passion and fire in Alistair’s music and lyrics.

Anyone who saw Alistair Hulett on his 2005 tour of Australia would have heard quite a few of this album’s tracks played live. One of these is the memorable opener, 'The Fair Flower of Northumberland'. Gavin Livingstone’s playing adds another dimension to this song: it's warming to hear Hulett backed by an accordion once again, and Gavin also contributes a fine slide guitar solo. Here, like on many of the other tracks, Hulett's picking style is complemented by the addition of fiddle and mandolin.

This album contains a delicate blend of Hulett originals, traditional songs and even a few covers. John Kirkpatrick's 'Old King Coal' sounds like a return to the work Alistair has done with Dave Swarbrick in recent years, and there's a heartfelt makeover of the Incredible String Band's 'The First Girl I Loved' on which the guitars and dobro mesh beautifully. Traditional songs 'The Recruited Collier' and 'The Dark Eyed Sailor' sound as if they were written for Hulett and his guests. The latter has been recorded so many times (Christy Moore, Steeleye Span and Welsh upstarts Boys From The Hill come to mind), but who cares when it sounds this good?

A hallmark of Alistair Hulett’s career is the way in which he revisits his earlier work, adding totally new elements as he goes. So it is with his treatment here of two lesser appreciated Roaring Jack songs. 'Criminal Justice' was the b-side of the excellent single 'Framed' from 1991, and it hinted at the band's change of direction to a less overtly Celtic sound. Here, it sounds breezier and less angry. However, its catchy chorus contains a potent message about fighting back against miscarriages of justice that is just as relevant now as it was fifteen years ago:

Don't get hysterical, negative and cynical
We're gonna change it
Get political.

Conversely, the version of Roaring Jack’s love-gone-wrong song 'Shot Down In Flames', as it appears here, comes across sounding even more bitter and tender than the original version, as if the past fifteen years have done nothing to resolve the situation discussed in the song or to dull the pain one little bit. Gavin's guitar gently weeps and his harmony vocals add a truly bittersweet element to the song. This song felt like an afterthought on Through The Smoke Of Innocence, but on Riches and Rags it is given a prime position and is a real highlight of the album for me. Similarly, 'Militant Red', originally appearing on The Back Streets of Paradise, has a totally different feel here. The new version has elements of western swing and gypsy music, with Nancy Kerr doing a brilliant job on both fiddle and viola.

Something that hasn't really shone through on Alistair’s previous releases is his love for traditional American music. It's always been there though, and was probably most evident in his work with Hunter Owens before the birth of Roaring Jack. In the interview I conducted with Alistair in 2002, he cited legendary bluesman Robert Johnson as a major influence on his writing. On Riches and Rags, we're treated to a generous helping of blues and jug band music with a Glaswegian accent! The title track is an original that is unlike any of Hulett's other compositions. It's not only bluesy, but there are elements of classic American country and folk floating in there as well. Then there's the outstanding 'Stealin' Back To My Same Old Used To Be', a rollicking killer of a track which was originally recorded by Will Shade with the Memphis Jug Band way back in 1926. (Click here for more information on the song and for a brief sample of the original.) You can tell from the vocals that Alistair's enjoying himself on this one, as there's a definite smile in the voice. The closing track, 'Trouble In Mind', is another song from the early 20th century that works surprisingly well in the Glasgow folk idiom.

While it's true to say that no two Alistair Hulett albums are alike, Riches and Rags is the one with the most variety by far. There are musical and stylistic links to all the previous albums, Roaring Jack and beyond. But the new elements – which are really just old elements that have taken a long time to show up on a Hulett recording – make this one a very special release. (AC)

This album can be purchased - along with the other Roaring Jack, Steph Miller and Alistair Hulett albums - directly from the Roaring Jack Archives. Check out our Purchase page for details!


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