Iain MacKintosh has been playing Caffe Lena every autumn for an even dozen years–although he’s not quite certain whether it’s a baker’s or an accountant’s dozen. The Scottish folk-singer and banjo-player has also been touring the world collecting songs and stories for over thirty years — although he’s not quite certain whether he enjoys life on the road yet or not. The full house at the coffee house Saturday night sat packed at our little tables for almost three hours — and we were all quite certain that we liked we saw and heard, regardless of (or maybe because of) the number of times it had been done before.
MacKintosh is truly a folk-singer’s folk-singer. His ripe, reedy, softly polished voice makes him sound something like Pete Seeger with a highland burr, and his understated delivery puts the focus squarely on his material: he stood virtually motionless through all of his songs Saturday night, feet together, eyes roving slowly, rooted, barely there as he channelled deep content and emotion through deceptively simple-sounding vocal and banjo arrangements. There was very little flash in how the songs were delivered–but once they wafted off the corner stage and bumped against the charged audience members, big-time sparks went a-flying.
The most beautiful thing about MacKintosh’s performing style is how well it lends itself to both the most heart-breaking material and the most light-hearted fare. In the first category, Peter Jones’ “Kilkelly” (based on a series of potato-famine era letters from a father in Ireland to a son in Baltimore) may have been the most devastatingly effective, although “The Capitalist’s Dream” (greed-head dreams of his own mortality, then wakes . . . in a buying mood) and “The Bulldog Breed” (father and son debate the merits of aristocracy) were both gut-wrenching in their own rights. MacKintosh deftly kept the evening from getting too heavy, though, by balancing each poignant, weepy moment with something like “Billy the Squid” (who asked Clammity Jane for hand, and found she had none) or “Dancing Around in the Nude” (starring 80-year old Edna) or “Run the Film Backward” (the only happy-ending song MacKintosh purported to know). There were also a bevy of between-song jokes: space precludes summarization, but there were some vintage groaners.
MacKintosh only made two significant deviations from his default stylistic approach and both were winners. In one, he put aside his banjo and played an Elizabethan-era reel (allegedly one that Mary Queen of Scots danced to in prison) on concertina and harmonica. In the other, MacKintosh upped the octane and the bile for Brian McNeil’s biting “No Gods (And Precious Few Heroes)”, which was written in the aftermath of Scotland’s last, unsuccessful attempt to devolve itself from the United Kingdom. This musical condemnation of the Anglophilic Tories who took to the television to invoke Scotland’s past as an excuse for selling out its future may have been the most powerful, bare-knuckled protest and call-to-arms song I’ve ever heard. If we’re lucky, MacKintosh will play it again when he comes to visit the Caffe again next fall. Keep your fingers crossed and watch the calendar.