Rab Noakes is a force to be reckoned with in the world of music in Scotland and beyond.
So, 2014 has been busy and productive for Rab. A sold-out January concert at Glasgow's Celtic Connections featured the whole of the 1974 album 'Red Pump Special' in the first half followed by selections from his forthcoming album 'I'm walkin' here' in the second.
Rab's first fully-professional engagements were in 1967. Over 40 years and more than 20 albums later he remains a vital, popular, prolific and acclaimed songwriter and performer.
In his history are such highlights as being a founder-member of Stealers Wheel.
His own ‘occasional’ band, The Varaflames, is a loose grouping of highly-accomplished musicians.
Rab is also to be found in creative collaborations with artistes as diverse as Barbara Dickson, Allan Taylor Kathleen MacInnes and Fraser Speirs.
He has also enjoyed successful co-writing with the likes of Sweden’s Johanna Demker and Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright.
Rab is hard to pin down in terms of influences. His celebrated interpretations feature songs from sources as diverse as Elizabeth Cotten to Beck Hansen.
His professional life also embraces such activities as media production.
It’s clear Rab Noakes is no ordinary performer as his voice, at age 67, is at least as good as it’s ever been and his creativity is clearly flourishing. No leaning back on retreads and crowd-pleasers here. A Rab audience comes expecting to be included in the here-and-now event that his shows are. As he was about to perform in BBC Scotland’s 2011/12 Hogmanay TV show someone suggested he had been singing at parties at the festive season for some time now. He thought for a moment then replied, “Yep - 60 years”.
Rab's first album ‘Do you see the lights?’ was released in 1970. Thirty years later in the year 2000 he, along with his wife Stephy, formed their own record label, Neon, and produced a couple of new releases. In the intervening years he has made his presence felt as a creative entity across music and media. From being one of the singer-songwriters of the 1970s to his present activities he has released several acclaimed albums and toured extensively. The once sought-after hit single remained elusive but didn't significantly impede his progress. In the longer term that can even be regarded as advantageous. In recent years he has been involved in a rich mixture of production, writing and performance.
Before he and Stephy set up Neon in 1995 he spent an eight-year spell at the BBC where he produced music and entertainment shows radio in Manchester for Network Radio and subsequently headed the entertainment department at Radio Scotland. A formal job in that medium was appropriate as the radio had played a major part in Noakes's creative development from an early age.
Born in 1947 Rab Noakes enjoyed the benefits of growing up as rock'n'roll was born and of being present as new sounds - from Little Richard to Woody Guthrie drifted across the Atlantic.
Impressed by the success of Scots Bert Jansch and The Incredible String Band he dusted down an old guitar and began touring in Britain and Denmark with a set embracing pop, country and folk. Prior to the release of his first album in 1970 five Noakes songs appeared on albums by Archie Fisher and Barbara Dickson.
A relationship with Gerry Rafferty continued from the time Rab was a founder member of Stealers Wheel. He played guitar on one of Rafferty's later albums, 'Over my Head'.
Lindisfarne and Rab met in the North East of England when they were each playing regularly in that part of the world. The group demonstrated its respect for Rab by recording one of his songs on each of their first two albums. They also shared a producer in Bob Johnston who had introduced Bob Dylan to working in Nashville with the Blonde on Blonde record. Rab himself recorded in Nashville in 1973 with acclaimed producer Elliot Mazer. The resulting album, 1974's Red Pump Special, remains a collectors' item and is cited as an influence by several young upstarts.
In the ’eighties Noakes teamed up with some young Glaswegian musicians including Brendan Moon, Lorraine McIntosh and Andy Alston to form Gene Pitney's Birthday. Into the 'nineties this grew into The Varaflames whose members have included harmonica ace Fraser Speirs, Rod Clements of Lindisfarne, guitar hero Jerry Donahue, Pilot’s David Paton, Hilary Brooks, Jim McDermott, James Mackintosh, Kevin McGuire, Colin Macfarlane, Deacon Blue's Ewen Vernal and Pick Withers, ex-Dire Straits.
Rab Noakes has also been involved with some high-profile music production activity on shows such as John Byrne's ‘Your Cheatin' Heart’ and Elaine C. Smith's TV series. Neon continues to provide quality TV and radio programmes from its base in Glasgow's Kinning Park. The unique knowledge and abilities in the Neon team continue to give the programmes an edge.
The first record on the Neon label to become available was 'Throwing Shapes' by The Varaflames. That was followed up with Rab and Fraser releasing 'Lights back on', an album which won him many new admirers. The strong mix of carefully selected versions of others' songs paired with Noakes's own eloquent compositions helped create one of the best albums to come out of Scotland in years.
A limited edition release of the 'stuffhouse ep' has made 750 numbered copies of this future rarity available. 'Demos and Rarities Volume One' was released in 2002. Neon partner and Rab's wife, Stephanie Pordage volunteered to go through the many hours of recordings and has dug out the best and most appropriate material.
Noakes' own record production skills have been much in demand with albums by John Watt and macAlias being released and well-received. In 2003 he recorded with a young group from Aberdeen called Stuka. Fraser Speir's album, 'About Time', was recorded at Glasgow's Celtic Connections festival in 2000 and features guest performances from many artistes, Rab included.
In 2004 Neon expanded to release Karine Polwart's 'faultlines' album produced by Rab. Later in the year Neon released two more Rab productions 'At this Moment' by Karen Dunbar and 'Thai Whisky Tears' by The Cellers.
Rab's 2007 release of new material on Neon was his second album with the Varaflames - 'Unlimited Mileage'
In 2009 Rab joined forces with Allan Taylor for a number of joint shows based on their similar careers and parallel experiences. They have been seen out across Europe performing this show on a number of occasions since and 2014 sees the two of them in various parts of the country.
In 2012/13 CDs were made available of a trio of Rab albums which had been available for a couple of years as download-only.
One is ‘Live at The Reid Hall Edinburgh 2005, a guitar/vocal recording of one his Fringe shows that year.in, one is ‘Just in case’ a collection of songs by Boudleaux & Felice Bryant from 2007 and the other ‘Standing Up Again’ is a new collection from 2009.
2012 was one of his busiest years yet as it began with his prominent participation in three prestigious sold-out Celtic Connections events in Glasgow. The first of these was a two-night commemoration and celebration of the work and life of his friend Gerry Rafferty. The second was his own show, Rab Noakes & Friends. The third was a 40th-anniversary celebration of the UCS Work-in.
2013 started with another commemorative/celebratory Celtic Connections show. This one was dedicated to Michael Marra.
He has been prolific of late and is in the process of completing another album 'I'm walkin' here' which will feature new songs many of which have been cited in reviews and attracted positive comment from audience and journalists alike.
This album was made in John Cavanagh's Muirend studio and features an interesting clutch of musicians, mostly selected by John, including Una McGlone, Stu Brown, Harry Hussey, Ula Zoola and Jim McEwan.
Rab invited a few singers to take part including Emma Pollock, Jill Jackson, Roddy Hart, Jimmie Macgregor, Hilary Brooks, Alice Marra and Barbara Dickson.
On to 2014 and it's yet another Celtic Connections triumph, a tour with Barbara Dickson, a highly-regarded Gerry Rafferty concert in Paisleyn which featured the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO).
So, further into the 21st century you’ll most likely find Rab on the road, playing in a town near you, either solo or in one of his creative collaborations.
It’ll be some time yet until he stops making songs, TV and radio programmes or some other creative noise.
Rab is also elected to the Executive Committee of the Musicians' Union so, at times, he’ll be representing the MU membership somewhere in the world.
Here're a couple of recent press reviews
In addition to 40th anniversary tours, the thing to do live nowadays is to play a significant album from your catalogue in its entirety. Rab Noakes combined the two, billing his show From Nashville To Muirend, with the first half comprising a performance of his 1973 album Red Pump Special, which was recorded in Nashville; and the second, tracks from sessions recently recorded in John Cavanagh's studio in Muirend.
The ever affable Noakes interspersed songs from the album with anecdotes about the circumstances which brought about his working with producer Elliott Mazer, whose work on Neil Young's Harvest album he had admired. He told of running through some of his songs in San Francisco and realising that the bloke clapping in the corner was Neil Young himself. He "took that as some encouragement".
The second half featured the new material, described as "21st-century skiffle". I'm Walking Here was excellent, as were the two cover versions, Beck's Don't Pretend Your Heart Isn't Hard and Garbage's I'm Only Happy When It Rains. John Cavanagh's bravura, if economic, performance on tambourine deserves special mention.
It was an excellent show from one of this country's finest songsmiths.
Rab Noakes’ third album, Red Pump Special was a high budget, Nashville recorded debut for Warner Brothers in 1974.
The two singles from the LP, Branch and Clear Day, became turntable hits, but failed to sell in sufficient quantities to make the charts.
Fast forwarding to Monday 27th January 40 years later, it’s shocking that the songs never made it.
From Nashville to Muirend was the name of Rab’s appearance at this year’s Celtic Connections Festival, a night of the old and new.
In the first half of the evening, Rab and band performed the Red Pump Special album in its entirety, assisted by some fine backing vocalists including Emma Pollock, Jill Jackson, Alice Marra and the wonderful Barbara Dickson.
Highlights were As Big As His Size, Sitting in the Corner Blues and of course, Branches and Clear Day. Listening to the songs now, I fail to see why this album, and its singles, weren’t bigger hits at the time. History did as History done, I guess.
If the first half was history, then the second half was the future, with Rab showcasing material from his forthcoming, working titled I’m Walking Here.
If the first half was Nashville, the second half was Rab n Roll!
Rab’s influences from artists of this time shone through and I was minded throughout of the works of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant (as featured on Rab’s previous release, Just In Case).
I found myself throughout the night with my eyes closed. Not because of the aesthetics of the venue or the performers, but due to the sheer pleasure of the evening and allow my brain to process the music without the visuals.
The second half also saw a couple of interesting cover versions, firstly I’m Only Happy When It Rains (originally performed by Garbage, from Wisconsin) and a joint performance with Barbara Dickson of Buttons & Bows (from the film The Paleface with Bob Hope and Jane Russell). Both very different songs, showing the breadth of Rab’s material.
I concur with Rab, that having “favourite songs” is not relative, as it changes so often. Picking a favourite part of the night is therefore irrelevant too.
That said, I can’t wait for the forthcoming album from Rab Noakes and indeed to the tour planned with Barbara Dickson, coming your way in April.
Noakes to treasure, past and future
Besuited and bespectacled, Rab Noakes bounds onto the stage to warm applause from an audience that had obviously been listening to his songs most of his career.
Split neatly into two halves, the first is a complete run-through of the iconic Red Pump Special album, first produced in Nashville by Harvest producer Elliot Mazer. Now 40 years old, Noakes has rereleased an anniversary edition to mark this milestone.
The songs sound as fresh now as when they were written, with the singles from the original album Branch and Clear Day still the stand out tracks.
Noakes is helped by a surrounding galaxy of talent from Alice Marra to singers Emma Pollock and Barbara Dickson.
In addition to this anniversary reissue, the busy Mister Noakes has also been putting together an album of brand new songs recorded in Glasgow's Muirend, and these are showcased in the second half.
While they don't have the familiarity of the earlier set, they resonate with the imagination and experience Noakes has, in particular the rock'n' roll Out Of The Blue and the Alan Hull tribute Your Clear White Light.
The standout though is the title track of the new album I'm Walkin' Here, due for release in a few months time. Named after the famous line from Midnight Cowboy, it's supplemented by the Scottish singer Jill Jackson who shares Noakes's folk/country/rock pedigree and has a grittiness that somehow defines much of the new songs on offer.
All in all, it's a concert giving a real lease of life for a long-standing talent who has more than paid his dues and he clearly enjoyed it. So did we.
Here're a couple of additional recent press notices:
A previous preview piece in The Herald went like this:
And a couple from the Gerry Rafferty nights in 2012
Bring It All Home - Gerry Rafferty Remembered
With a revolving door of guest vocalists, ranging from old stagers Jack Bruce and Tom Robinson to an ensemble of Rafferty’s nephews and nieces, the logistics of this undertaking hardly bear thinking about. Yet this touching tribute succeeded wholeheartedly in placing Rafferty’s music front and centre, from his early days as Billy Connolly’s straight man in The Humblebums through Stealers Wheel to his own sporadic but inspired solo career. Early highlights included The Proclaimers’ spirited Mattie’s Rag and Ron Sexsmith’s innately soulful Right Down
It fell to Paul Brady to front a wonderfully rich rendering of Baker Street, crowned with Collins’s powerhouse sax solo, before a massed finale of Stuck in the Middle with You. Maria Muldaur announced that she has adopted Rafferty as her new guru – after this labour of love, the entire audience were under his spell.
Bring It All Home - Gerry Rafferty Remembered
Amid all the guests and big band numbers one man stood out, however, Scotland's own Rab Noakes, whose voice and acoustic guitar telling of Mississippi and its infamous one regret - staying there a day too long - caught the atmosphere of the song and the mood of the night to perfection.
What, you may ask, about stand-outs? Rab Noakes, less familiar to a younger generation, in particular shined with his solo rendition of Mississippi, which showcased his own finger-picking skills and that of its songwriter’s lyrical self-reflection.
Legendary Scottish singer-songwriter Rab Noakes has announced an upcoming live solo show on Saturday. The show promises to be an incredible opportunity for lovers of roots and folk music to experience a truly mesmerising living legend at work.
His intense and compelling style always works its magic on audiences and never fails to inspire. It would be easy to compare Rab's guitar work to that of 1960s artists such as Bert Jansch and Fred Neil, however it is his own unique vocal and intelligent turn of phrase that have kept him at the cutting edge of songwriting for the best part of thirty-five years.
Rab Noakes And Friends,
Backed by an excellent band, which included ex-Pilot Davey Paton on bass, Rod Clements from Lindisfarne on guitar and mandolin, and Fraser Speirs on the mouthie, he played songs from his first album, Do You See The Lights, released in 1970, all the way through to his latest, Standing Up, released in 2010. He shared numerous tales of his experiences in the business and some of the most compelling work was when he played solo. No More Time, a beautifully poignant tune for and about Gerry Rafferty, was particularly impressive.
There were turns from his friends, too. Clements played a solo Meet Me On The Corner and folk veteran Jimmie Macgregor revisited his skiffle roots with Freight Train, a song he recorded with the Chas McDevitt Group in the 1950s, leaving before the song became a huge hit. One of the highlights came in the encore, with an excellent reading of Dylan’s Mississippi and, all told, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening from one of Scotland’s great songsmiths.