A Dick Gaughan gig is not for the faint-hearted.
He performs for ninety minutes straight, not singing so much as snarling. His voice has become more and more like a growl as he's got older, but that suits the angry tone of the songs. Fine old rabble-rousers like Tom Paine's Bones jostle with melody-free rants about former comrades who abandoned the Cause. ("I used to see you salute that poster of Che Guevara / I guess it wouldn't look too chic in the house you live in now"). But just when you are starting to wonder if he Dick an endless supply of shouty revolutionary anthems he sits down, chats about General Humbert and the 1798 rebellion and launches into an exquisite six minute Irish lament on his acoustic guitar.
The invective kicks in early. He starts, as he always does, with the non-specifically inspirational battle hymn "Now what's the use of two strong legs if you only run away and what use is the finest voice if you've nothing good to say...." and then sings a story, new to me, about a man who finds that his vast wealth is no use to him after a shipwreck. ("Think of your favourite banker!") And thence to another new one about some unspecified people entirely failing to notice that their world is collapsing around them. "They all sang Hallelujah as the waves engulfed the land..." "At the time of the last election I decided to write a song venting my anger at a wee institution called New Labour" he explains "but I realized you couldn't write a whole damn song about New Labour..."
Although he claims not to use a set list the evening covers most of the most famous musical bases: we get Song for Ireland, Now Westlin' Winds ("I couldn't imagine not singing it"), Games People Play and the incomparable Both Sides The Tweed. He says he stopped singing the latter for a decade because he couldn't quite work out what it was about: the penny dropped when he heard the quote about it not being our differences which divide us, but our inability to embrace those differences. Prejudice is the most contemptible thing in the world: the one thing he really hates. (Well: one of the things he hates. He's half Irish and half Scottish and thus a passionate advocate "of English independence." The best thing about getting old is that no-one tells him he'll become a Tory when he grows up. "I hate all that patronising shit." But God escapes relatively unscathed this evening: no Pastor Jack or Stand Up, Stand Up For Judas or Son of Man although Old Tom Paine does tell us to kick off religion and monarchy.)
Any performer in this vein risks turning into the parody folk-singer who hates poverty, war and injustice "unlike the rest of you squares". You hate prejudice do you? Pretty controversial. And don't think much of rich bankers? Or New Labour? Very brave of you to say so. His signature song -- which, astonishingly, he says he hasn't sung for years -- assures us that he could sing happy songs if he wanted to "But that wouldn't help those in trouble / That wouldn't help make their pain disappear / And the homeless, the workless, the hopeless and helpless / Wouldn't be any happier, would still live in fear." Indeed, and will Sir be walking on water after Sir has finished singing?
But it doesn't feel like that when you're caught up in a Gaughan performance. Because the anger is so genuine and unaffected. Because the songs are so perfectly crafted. Because for every full-blown rant there is a lyrical traditional poem and that authentic snarling voice soars above the delicate guitar melodies and Robert Burns seem to become a living presence in the room.
Let virtue distinguish the brave
Place riches in lowest degree
Think them poorest who can be a slave
Them richest who dare to be free
We read that Mr Dylan was unhappy with the job-title of "protest singer": he thought of himself as just a singer. Dick Gaughan quite happily proclaims that it's his job to make people feel angry and sad in order to make the world a better place. There's a thin line between protest singer and preacher; between bard and prophet. But isn't the really great preacher the one who reminds us of the platitudes, the obvious truths that we're always in danger of forgetting?
When you're called for jury service
When your name is drawn by lot
When you vote in an election
When you freely voice your thought
Don't take these things for granted
For dearly were they bought...
Thank god that there are still guitar wielding prophets like Dick Gaughan.
Angry Scots-Irish Playlist