wed 12/05/2021

Barbara Dickson, Union Chapel | reviews, news & interviews

Barbara Dickson, Union Chapel

Barbara Dickson, Union Chapel

Folk songstress provides a transport of musical delight to her native Scotland

Mention the name “Barbara Dickson” and everyone remembers “I Know Him so Well”, the duet with Elaine Paige which hit the top spot in 1985, the era of big hair, shoulders pads and dry ice. That song didn’t feature in Dickson’s concert at Union Chapel, but those who came to hear her other top 20 hits – “Answer Me”, “Caravans” and “January February” – weren’t disappointed. The last was the appropriate opener on a frigid February eve, but like everything she played, it was totally reinvented.

Quite deservedly, Dickson has enjoyed considerable commercial success and won awards for her acting (“Tell Me It’s Not True” from Blood Brothers was one of the evening’s many high points; “Across the Universe” from John, Paul George, Ringo… and Bert, another Willy Russell musical and the one which made her a household name, provided the encore) but her heart has always remained deep in the Scottish folk scene from which she emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s, along with artists such as Archie Fisher, Rab Noakes and Gerry Rafferty.

Nothing beats good musicians playing and singing their hearts out

Whichever Barbara drew people to Islington, no one would have returned home disappointed, for she touched all bases (“Some of you are nearly as old as I am”, she joked as the audience applauded the opening bars of golden oldies) in a generous performance: generous in what she gave of herself, generous to her band, and generous in her proper attribution of credit to those behind the songs. Her voice is impeccable still, a rioja gran reserva where once it was a tempranillo, and she’s gifted with astonishing vocal control, including an unexaggerated portamento that allows her to deliver a song in a slow tempo that brings forth all the emotion.

That enviable ability comes to the fore in the Scottish folk songs she performs with both reverence and deep knowledge – the poignant “Palace Grand”, for example, learned from the late Jean Redpath, the singer and collector who left Fife for New York as the 1960s revival drew a callow Bob Dylan to that city (Joan Baez recorded the song as “Lady Mary”.) Other traditional highlights included “MacCrimmon’s Lament”, sung a capella and seguing into an exhilarating Irish jig, which spotlighted Troy Donockley’s Uillian pipework, he riffing on them much as he does on lead guitar, and the majestic “Farewell to Fiunary”, all drums and drone.

There was also Brecht (“The Wife of the Solider”, with its Carthy/Swarbrick lyrics), James Taylor (“Millworker”, a song about sweated labour written before it made headlines for the Broadway musical Working), Dylan, Rafferty, and Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts”, a 1960 hit for the Everly Brothers who so captivated the teenage Barbara (check out her duet with Rab Noakes of "Sleepless Nights", overleaf).

Besides Donockley, who also played the Roland Aerophone, a versatile digital wind instrument, the band comprised Nick Holland on keyboards and vocals, Russell Field on percussion and low pipe, and Brad Lang on bass. Dickson occasionally swapped her trusty Martin guitar for the keyboard.

Nothing beats good musicians playing and singing their hearts out. The Union Chapel – where the lighting played on the stained glass, throwing up purple Scottish heather hues – was the perfect venue.

Overleaf: Barbara Dickson and Rab Noakes sing 'Sleepless Nights'

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters