Music interview: Rab Noakes on celebrating 50 years at the forefront of Scottish folk

The anniversary of his debut gig coincided nicely with Noakess 70th birthday. Picture: Carol Ann Peacock
The anniversary of his debut gig coincided nicely with Noakess 70th birthday. Picture: Carol Ann Peacock
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A half century since his debut gig Rab Noakes remains vital … like vinyl, writes Jim Gilchrist

Fifty years ago last May, an unknown youngster took the stage of Glasgow Folk Centre in duet with a banjo player, Robin McKidd. For the singer, one Rab Noakes, it was his first properly billed and paid gig. He would go on to carve out a distinguished career as a solo singer-songwriter as well as collaborating with the likes of Gerry Rafferty (in an early incarnation of Stealer’s Wheel), Barbara Dickson, Lindisfarne and, in recent years, has played key roles in such major Celtic Connections productions as the orchestration of Martyn Bennett’s Grit and commemorative concerts for Rafferty and Michael Marra.

The half-century of that debut gig coincided nicely with Noakes’s 70th birthday, also in May, and, having ridden out a worrying brush with cancer, he has been marking the anniversaries with a series of appearances, the next of which is at Leith Folk Club on 1 August. “I’d done plenty of floor spots and all of that,” the Fife-born, Glasgow-based singer recalls of his debut, “but this was it all formalising itself. So, 50 years on it seemed worth sticking the two together – 70/50.”

Songwriting – maintained in tandem with a career as a radio producer – first kicked in as far back as his schooldays in Cupar, when he and a pal concocted a parody of Jimmy Dean’s 1961 hit Big John, which became Big Jane, to the embarrassment of a hapless classmate.

Returning to his folk club roots for the solo Leith gig, he reckons that songs are coming into their own again, following a period when the folk scene was instrumentally-weighted. “It’s always been songs for me; I’ve loved pop songs since I was a wee boy and the Scottish song thing has always been a part of that, from Robert Wilson on the radio to Robin and Jimmie [Hall and Macgregor] on the telly.

“When I first got interested during the 1960s, songwriting started to become a bit more serious, with Bob Dylan pointing the way. But then the whole scene became much more instrumentally based. Now it’s good to see songs and songwriting enjoying a resurgence.”

The stuff of life is grist to the song composer’s mill, and Noakes’s diagnosis in 2015 with tonsillar cancer was no exception. Two years on from a rigorous course of radio and chemotherapy, he seems in the clear, pending further checks. “When something like this happens to the likes of me at least I know I’ll probably get a couple of songs out of it,” he muses wryly, agreeing that state of mind is all-important in such circumstances – “but I always couch it in the plural. This was something that came into the household and Stephy [his wife] and I tackled it together. If anything it gives you a wee bit of focus and reminds you that life doesn’t last very long, so just get on with it.”

Sure enough, his songwriter’s response came at the beginning of this year with an EP, piquantly titled The Treatment Tapes, featuring six life-affirming numbers written during the post-treatment period, such as Fade (to shades of black), or the defiantly finger-picked blues That Won’t Stop Me. Then there’s an unabashed love song to his wife, support and organiser, Stephy Pordage, who often has input into his lyrics – not least the neat line in Mindful, “Stay vital / like vinyl.”

Noakes’s 70/50 schedule includes Perth’s Southern Fried festival next weekend, an “in conversation” session during the Edinburgh Fringe and a concert at Pitlochry Festival Theatre with his auld acquaintance Barbara Dickson. A recording with his eight-piece band from January’s Celtic Connections will appear next year; in the meantime, October sees the re-release of three of his albums from the Seventies and Eighties on a double CD titled Bridging the Gaps. No vinyl, but inarguably vital.

Rab Noakes plays Leith Folk Club on 1 August. In Conversation with Rab Noakes is at the New Town Theatre on 10 August. See www.rabnoakes.com