A Lighter Side of Life – Barbara Dickson and Rab Noakes – Portsoy Traditional Boat Festival, Wally Green, Portsoy – 21st June, 2019
Barbara Dickson and Rab Noakes have known each other since the 1960’s, long before her illustrious musical career during the 1970’s and 1980’s when she was rarely off the television. Their original musical influences are similar, they have a shared musical heritage in the Scottish folk circuit, they are both Fifers and good friends. Both, however, have ploughed their own particular furrows musically over the decades and these furrows have been distinctive. In 50 years, they have only released one EP together, the acoustic six song Reunited in 2014. It was always going to be interesting to see how they worked together, and although they both gave good individual performances, it is difficult not to feel that they would have both been stronger still as separate acts in preference to the sum of their parts together.
The show opens promisingly with Do Right Woman, an Aretha Franklin cover and the title track of Dickson’s first solo album in 1970. But, the points where they gel best as a duo are on a couple of songs (Sleepless Nights and the better known Long Time Gone) from their shared childhood heroes, the Everly Brothers, where the sounds of their voices are following Don and Phil’s sound and tone virtually note for note. With many of the other choices of song, the interplay sounds less cohesive or convincing since their voices are quite different. They are probably aware of this since during the show, one of them will sing whilst the other takes a back seat (sometimes literally) with alternate songs of their own choice.
The show therefore develops as a review of their favourite songs introduced at length by each of them alternatively. This is not without interest although whether anyone is any wiser about Gerry Rafferty as a person after two lengthy introductions of songs dedicated to him (No More Time, Wise As a Serpent) is a moot point. Noakes is the pithier of the two. Both speak highly of the treasure trove of folk songs from the North East of Scotland but Noakes nails it by comparing his trip up the road to Portsoy passing such signposts for Fyvie, Auchterless, Turriff, all famed in Scottish folk song, as driving through the Mississippi delta in terms of all the vast number of rich associations that permeate the places touched by the blues tradition. In fact, fans of the dapper Noakes, dressed in an electric blue suit, will probably have enjoyed his selection of songs since he does not stray too far from his own well-loved repertoire. He includes Branch, The Handwash Feein’ Mairket, Money Doesn’t Matter, and It’s all Joined up (in the End).
It is more difficult for Dickson given the material that she is known for the world over. She doesn’t put a foot wrong in terms of her singing (despite having a slight cold). However, her eclectic choices of song during the set are the aforementioned Do Right Woman and Wise as a Serpent together with Something’s Wrong (a James Taylor cover and another song from her 1970 album), The Palace Grand (a Jean Redpath cover), The Laird of the Dainty Dounby (a traditional song) and Que Sera Sera (a Doris Day cover). Meaningful though those choices are to her, the only one which gets the whole audience involved is the latter, and that is the last song of the main set.
It is only at the encore that the audience gets a gorgeous rendition of Another Suitcase in Another Hall. For any in the audience there to hear Dickson’s formidable songbook (and there will have been more than a few since this is a festival event as opposed to a folk club evening), this will add up to a paltry return when Answer Me, January February, The Caravan Song and I Know Him So Well, to name but some of her many hits and songs that she is strongly associated with, are all left on the shelf for this performance – despite this roll call of extremely popular songs being inevitably mentioned in the promotion for the event.
The show is also notable for another element. It is held in a long tent. The sound at the back of the tent is not that loud. In fact, there had been complaints right from the outset during the support acts that people at the back could not properly hear what was being said and the sound quality is never satisfactorily full-bodied. Whilst that situation seems to improve slightly during the evening, it is still far from ideal. Whilst those in the front half are clearly very much involved and not distracted from the performance, the back half of the tent contains an increasingly more restless group of people and on occasion, this spills over into open dissatisfaction although it is fair to say that one woman’s expletive-ridden dissent is well out of order and the stewards, if they had been doing their job, should have intervened well before Ms Dickson’s husband is unfortunately confronted and forced, quite rightly, to tell her where to go in no uncertain terms.
By the end, both performers have provided a good evening’s entertainment and are gracious enough to spend time signing merchandise after the show.