100 best covers: #81 The Pogues “Dirty old town”

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Ok. So it’s been quite a while since I’ve posted one for this series, well over three months for sure. And this is another that I didn’t know was a cover for the longest time. The Pogues recorded “Dirty old town” for their second album, 1985’s “Rum, sodomy, and the lash”, and it’s here that I’ve heard and sung along to these words countless times.

It was originally written in 1949 by actor, poet, playwright and songwriter, Ewan MacColl, who is, incidentally, the father of Kirsty MacColl. (I’m sure you all see the connection.) He wrote it for one his plays, “Landscape with chimneys”, as an ode of sorts to Salford, the town of his birth. He later recorded it in 1952 and it has become a folk classic, apparently covered dozens and dozens of times. Perhaps it was most famously done by The Dubliners in 1976, whose version (check it here) was upbeat and raucous, with banjos, fiddles, and shout along vocals, and likely influenced that of The Pogues.

MacColl’s original, at least the recording in the video below, is by contrast scratchy and hissing and full of cobwebs, sounding forgotten in the darkest corner of your grandparents’ attic. It is a soft strum on the guitars, almost an afterthought to the sorrowful vocals, MacColl warbling all over the place. It is only 2 minutes 45 but feels a whole lot longer.

The Pogues’ cover is also sad but decidedly more upbeat. It is not hoarse and roaring like The Dubliners do it, nor as punk-influenced as other tunes in The Pogues back catalogue. It is a song to sway to with a frothy pint in hand, the band off in the pub’s corner, a harmonica crying sadly, the mandolin waffling and sniffling, the fiddles creaking like a squeaky old door, and Pogues’ vocalist Shane MacGowan slurring roughly, as he is wont to do. All in all, there’s plenty of memories and regret in each note and tap on the drums.

So in sum, I think all three of the versions here are great but the one by The Pogues is my preference. Thoughts?

The cover:

The original:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.

Live music galleries: Spirit of the West with the NAC orchestra [2007]

(I got the idea for this series while sifting through the ‘piles’ of digital photos on my laptop. It occurred to me to share some of these great pics from some of my favourite concert sets from time to time. Like my ‘Vinyl love’ series, these posts will be more photos than words but that doesn’t mean I won’t welcome your thoughts and comments. And of course, until I get around to the next one, I invite you to peruse my ever-growing list of concerts of page.)

Spirit of the West with the NAC Orchestra, July 2007

Artist: Spirit of the West performing with the NAC orchestra
When: July 21st, 2007
Where: Orchestras in the park series, Lebreton Flats Park, Ottawa
Context: For the longest time, Spirit of the West was the band I had seen the most times live (that mark recently was surpassed by Stars), not just because they were a Canadian band that toured its own country frequently but more because they have long been one of my favourite bands. The second time I saw them live is also quite memorable because it marked the night Victoria and I got together and the rest of the times I saw them after that, we saw them as a couple. But I’m now talking about the final time we saw Spirit of the West and it was all the more special because they were performing a free show with the NAC orchestra as part of their Orchestras in the park series. The much loved Canadian Celtic folk rock band had released its final album, “Star trails”, three years before and was one year removed from releasing a career retrospective collection called “Spirituality”. That night, though, the majority of the set came from 1996’s “Open heart symphony”, an album they had recorded with Vancouver’s symphony orchestra, because, as they said, they didn’t often get the chance to perform those songs live as they were meant to be heard. However, they did perform a handful of their hits as ‘encore’, like “Home for a rest” and the song referenced below, “And if Venice is sinking”. As a special bonus, if you click on that link below, you can actually watch the performance of it from this very show through the magic of YouTube. Enjoy.
Point of reference song: And if venice is sinking

Hugh McMillan, Vince Ditrich, and John Mann of Spirit of the West
Geoffrey Kelly and Tobin Frank of Spirit of the West
Vince Ditrich, John Mann, and Geoffrey Kelly of Spirit of the West
Vince Ditrich and Tobin Frank of Spirit of the West – “That’s amore!”
John Mann of Spirit of the West

(P.S. For those of you living in Toronto or within striking distance, I strongly recommend you consider a tribute show being held a week from today at the Phoenix Concert Theatre, in the name of lead singer John Mann, whom many of you know is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s. Last I checked, tickets are still available here. I would love to go myself, unfortunately, it’s just not feasible.)

Best tunes of 1991: #19 Spirit of the West “D for Democracy (Scour the house)”

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I’ve told this story before on these pages but I’ll tell it again.

“D for Democracy” is the first Spirit of the West song I ever consciously heard. Yes, all of this began while I was watching a special, all-Canadian edition of “Good rockin’ tonite” one Friday night in 1991. They finished the show with this particular video (see below) and I noticed at some point during it that the accordion player, Linda McRae, was wearing a Wonder Stuff long sleeved T-shirt. For those that don’t know, I was a huge Stuffies fan back in those days and didn’t know many others who shared my enthusiasm. Luckily for me, I happened to be video taping the entire episode as I watched it so as soon as it finished, I rewinded the tape to watch the video again. And again. Shortly after that, I also managed to video tape the video for the re-recorded “Political”, for which I also fell hard, and then, decided to buy “Go figure” on cassette tape.

So I guess I came for The Wonder Stuff shirt and stayed for the music.

Linda McRae likely got the shirt when Spirit of the West was on tour in England with The Wonder Stuff and the two bands became friends. They recorded a cover of “Will the circle be unbroken” together and McRae (and her accordion) appears on “Welcome to the cheap seats”. It was actually while on tour with The Wonder Stuff that Spirit of the West decided that they wanted to add more of a rock edge to their sound. To that end, they enlisted a drummer before recording the follow up to 1990’s “Save this house”. Enter Vince Ditrich into the picture. The new sound didn’t sit well with all of their existing fans, some of whom preferred the more traditional Celtic folk direction, but it did win the band more radio airplay and new legions of alternative rock fans.

As its title suggests, “D for Democracy (scour the house)” is a political song, an attack on the Brian Mulroney-led government of the day, as are many of the songs on “Go figure”. Musically, Vince Ditrich’s impact is noticeable here, right from the outset. The drums are flexing their well-oiled muscles but not to be outdone, so are Geoffrey Kelly’s flutes. It’s like the band’s two directions came to a head on the intro to this song. The celtic folk becoming celtic folk rock in one jump up-and-down riot. Of course, the vocals come in and up the ante, John Mann singing loud and clear to “Scour the house, flip the wig, shake the tree.”

Indeed.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.