Back to the future with the Cauld Blast Orchestra

Three decades on from the release of their first album, the Cauld Blast Orchestra still sound as inventive and groundbreaking as ever, writes Jim Gilchrist

The Cauld Blast Orchestra

It is a faintly worrying 31 years since that wonderfully protean entity known as the Cauld Blast Orchestra released its first album, Savage Dance, a second, Durga’s Feast, following four years later. Once described as “uncharted territory, born in Scotland but without frontiers,” the band played its last gig in 2005 and both albums have long-since been unavailable. However, Cauld Blast saxophonist Steve Kettley has now re-released them both as digital downloads on Bandcamp – “Not so much as a money-making venture but to once again make this great music available.”

Both downloads include unreleased bonus tracks – Durga’s Feast featuring three from a never completed third album and two on Savage Dance including a rumbustious collaboration with the late Michael Marra.

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The feverishly eclectic eight-piece was formed by composer and clarinettist Karen Wimhurst in 1989 to play her music for Communicado Theatre Company’s “surreal bacchanale” Jock Tamson’s Bairns, which opened the newly converted Tramway during Glasgow’s Year of Culture in 1990. While fusion may now be the order of the day, back then nobody had sounded like this – and, frankly, nobody does still.

Steve Ketley PIC: Louise Kendall

The CBO combined personnel from the folk, jazz, rock and classical worlds, with Kettley and Wimhurst joined by violinist Anne Wood, pianist and tuba player Iain Johnstone, cellist Ron Shaw, guitarist Jack Evans, concertina player Norman Chalmers and drummer Mike Travis.

Kettley can boast wide-ranging credentials of his own. His jazz-rock outfit Orange Claw Hammer recently released its second album of Captain Beefheart covers and he’s currently recording with harpist Savourna Stevenson. A founder member of the popular Salsa Celtica, his theatre work has included collaborations with playwright and former Makar Liz Lochhead.

He retains, however, a particular fondness for the CBO, whose music hasn’t dated, “simply because it was such a mixture of genres. We were one of the first cross-genre groups.” Although attracting critical acclaim, he reckons that it was possibly the band’s gleeful genre-crunching that hindered it from gaining the wider popularity it deserved.

One only has to listen to the albums to appreciate their inventively multifarious nature. The darting busyness of Wimhurst’s Reels Within Wheels might give way to a muscular Kettley excursion such as his wonderfully titled March of the Undecided. There is the Satie-esque amble of Shaw’s Belvedere, then the swirling drama of Johnstone’s Tango for a Drowning Man, while an enraged snorting of sax leads to the hypnotic delicacy of African thumb piano for The Quaich – the number with which the group closed both the Communicado show and its own gigs.

“As a composer it was an amazing instrumental palette to work with,” Kettley recalls. “You might think that a composer thinks of a tune first. With that band, I would think of a combination of instruments first. The tune would come out of that.”

Continuing in retrospective mood, the Scottish folk label Greentrax marks its 35th anniversary by re-releasing a compilation it first issued in 1989, the same year as the Cauld Blast’s formation. The matter-of-factly titled Music and Song of Scotland was a showcase for the fledgling label established by newly retired police inspector Ian Green.

Greentrax went on to release almost 500 albums. The advent of digital downloading and streaming has seen the company retrench, however, and it’s a sign of the times that many of the albums from which these 19 tracks have been selected are now deleted or available on download only.

Here, however, are fiddler-piper and prolific composer Ian Hardie, singer-songwriters Archie Fisher and Iain MacKintosh, the peerless Jean Redpath, sets from the McCalmans, Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham and Catherine-Ann MacPhee’s magnificent Canan Nan Gaidheal, while the band Ceolbeg pays tribute to the late Gordon Duncan with his Sleeping Tune.

The fact that Redpath, Hardie, Duncan and MacKintosh are no longer with us adds a certain bittersweet quality. Happily, their music flows on, and this compilation offers a snapshot of a moment in time in a burgeoning Scottish music scene.

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