There’s nothing like a sell-out 60th birthday concert at the Royal Festival Hall to remind a record label that there’s life in an old dog yet. OK, that’s a bit mean, as Ralph McTell hasn’t exactly been idle since Streets Of London gave him a number two hit in 1974 and won him an Ivor Novello Award. But it all seems a bit neat, re-releasing Red Sky – recorded in 2000 but previously only on limited release – just as his autobiography comes out in paperback…
The 19 tracks on Red Sky span a wider spectrum than the very English folk-rock sound that marked his early career, but the songs reflecting that heritage are the most successful. Opener Up is a classic. If you speeded up the intro it could almost be The Travelling Wilburys, with some lovely heavy guitar, but the lyrics are very much the introspective product of a life-long songwriter.
In The Dreamtime is simply lovely, very much a straight folk song, with a lyric based on an Aboriginal myth and some rather lovely backing vocals adding atmosphere. One thing that hasn’t changed since the ’70s is the McTell voice – soft, rich and warm, infinitely caressing. I’ll Keep This With Mine – presumably a nod to the classic Bob Dylan song I’ll Keep It With Mine, covered so memorably by Sandy Denny / Fairport Convention – also shows it off to perfection.
Lost Boys has an early Dylan feel to it with terrific uptempo fiddle; Bicker And Rue features some splendid real life lyrics – “Old lovers fuss and they fight / they scratch and they spit / warring into the night / then they reach for each other / turn out the light…” Easter Lilies and Saucers are little beauties that must get a warm welcome at the Cambridge Folk Festival, at which McTell has made more appearances than any other artist.
The excursions into other styles are sometimes triumphant, sometimes best not mentioned. Fin is in the first category, a Jacques Brel style song about the nostalgia of French films of the ’50s and ’60s. Any song with Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo in it gets my vote.
Curiously, the title track is a real disappointment. Is he trying to outdo Leonard Cohen? The result is just dull, I’m afraid. Another dud is One Day Away From You, which I can only hope is a joke – it certainly seems like a parody of the twee country song, though the slide guitar intro is worth more than the trite song that follows. And that song’s good in comparison with I Love Driving West.
Other experiments are much more fun. Wagon On The Motorway is also pure country but it works well; Icarus Survived is simply brilliant, taking us into calypso territory. “It was not pride or vanity / that robbed me of my goal / I blame inferior materials / when things grew hot / Instead of saying how I blew it / look how near I got…”
The real curiosity is Ralph McTell singing Raining In My Heart. Once you get over the shock it’s actually quite charming… but I think he’d be better sticking to his own songs.
So what is a fresh young audience going to make of this, an audience that is more likely to remember Ralph McTell from his songs on the ’80s children’s programme Alphabet Zoo? That same decade saw him presenting his own music series on BBC Radio 2, and there are certainly tracks here that are obvious Radio 2 material.
But he’s still a legend in his lifetime on the folk scene and has a BBC Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting. The voice is still extraordinary. This is a lovely album for quiet listening and who knows, maybe it won’t just be the matin�e crowd that enjoy it. Me, I could do with a bit more bite.