The Caledonian Castaways. A hell of a lot of fun!

By Geoff King.

Caledonian Castaways – Caledonian Castaways (Independent)

How much fun can a Melbourne group of experienced Scottish expat musicians have when they get together? A hell of a lot if this debut under the moniker of ‘Caledonian Castaways’ is any evidence. The basic concept is brilliant – get the blokes together and write songs reflecting on being a “castaway” from your home country. There aren’t too many Australian citizens where that concept is unfamiliar, from their own first hand experience or those of older family members.

The range of topics from nostalgia to life in the (once) new country covers a lot of territory, and the music, stylistically adapted to the needs of each lyric, pulls it all together.

Clearly, the musical flow dictates the order of tracks, but for the purposes of this review I’m looking at the way the songs are lyrically linked.

The title track ‘Caledonia Castaways’ reveals the background to the decision to emigrate from an Alex Burns vocal in a ’50s country style with some classic country piano from Ken Howden. I really enjoyed the call and response vocal chorus. ‘If Yer Leaving’ is a soulful tune also sung by Alex, with nice big brass, lyrically about the remaining family and friends saying you can always come home if it doesn’t work out.

‘Schizo Scot’ recounts the immigrant experience of trumpeter Stuart Ferguson’s school days in a sung-spoken manner. They have a go at you for your accent then have a go at you when you lose it. Alex’s chromatic harp is featured.

Then there’s a bunch of nostalgic tracks. ‘Polly Mcgrath’ is about early- and thoroughly enjoyable- sexual experience from Steve Boyd; ‘Oor Wullie’ is a print cartoon character in the Ginger Meggs vein. Why ‘Wullie’ always has a bucket is beyond me, but its beautifully sung by Steve Montgomery.

‘Barrowlands’ is about a Glasgow dancehall in the post-war years when and where drummer Tom McEwan’s parents courted. In the late 60s, a series of women’s murders in the area helped it fall out of favour and be run down until revived in the early 80s helped by Glasgow band Simple Minds, whose singer Jim Kerr’s parents also met at the dance. It remains a crucial  indie venue. The music takes us back to those post-war years.

Of course, as with all big cities there’s a dark side. The ‘tartan noir’ novels of the likes of William McIlvanney and his successor, Alan Parks, reveal much of the early seventies underbelly of Glasgow, the language and references. Two songs here explore that a little: the character in the opening song, ‘Glasgow Latino’ is a lothario who carries a knife – a song with a cute mariachi horn line- and ‘Fat Boy Doyle’ is the cruel tale of an ice cream seller who knocked back the demand to sell marijuana from his van and  was subsequently incinerated with his whole family. An early version of the Victorian tobacco wars!

‘Black Pudding’ is a really catchy ska track sung by Steve Boyd extolling the virtues of hangover amelioration and ‘Bonnie Koori Lassie’ is another reggae infused tune.

The final track, ‘Wee Dram’ is an old timer in a bar prepared to tell a tale for a drink or two but, really, it’s the Caledonian Castaways spinning the yarns here and we’re all the better for it. I’m buying.