Last Call? First rate!
The Secret Commonwealth's latest CD "Last Call" celebrates the band's twentieth year, and quite a celebration it is. It's hard for me to be anything like objective in writing about it, because they've been a part of my life for all twenty of those years. A sea of ale has passed through all of us in that time, distilled with raucous laughter and comingled with more than a few tears. And in the center of it all was the late, sometimes great Jack Hunter Daves. He was a prime mover in starting the band, writer of many of its songs, inspiration for many more, player of pennywhistle, banjo and bodhran, raconteur, and singer extraordinaire. He was at the heart of The Secret Commonwealth. He was also notoriously hard to get to practice, often moody, and frequent flyer of the path of least resistance. He was my friend, and I miss him.
So perhaps it is not so hard to understand how I hear him in every song on this album. I don't think it's just my Jack-colored glasses (an unfortunate turn of phrase, but it's all I could think of. God, the scatological jokes Jack would have made of that). No, I think anyone who knew Jack at all will see how he pervades this album. But it's more than that, of course. It's filled with the history of the band, anchored firmly to their roots, yet still living in the present.
Because of my own peculiar proclivities, TSC's second CD "The Uninvited Guest" will probably always be my favorite. Filled with songs of Halloween and the supernatural inspired by mutual fascinations and shared experiences, this album was right up my alley. Hell, I wrote the liner notes. But I have to say that I find myself listening to "Last Call" just as much, if not more than The Uninvited Guest. It's just that good. Songs like "Til Jamie Comes Hame" and "Field of Bannockburn" hail back to the band's early roots in Scottish history. I had not heard Bannockburn in years, and the steady build of its power and momentum into a driving ballad is the best I have ever heard it rendered. The tracks "High Over France" and "Dubhachas (I'll Dream of Times Like This)" celebrate other often-visited early favorites of TSC and bring back a powerful nostalgia to those who frequented their shows in those years. Dubhachas especially evokes a great deal of emotion, for it has often marked endings and transitions among my group of friends. I will never forget weeping openly over this song at the last show they did at the Sherlock Holmes pub before the band broke up in October of 2003. Obviously it was not the end of TSC, but none of us knew that at the time. It did turn out to be the last time Jack would perform there. This is a song that crystallizes in amber some of the happiest times of my life. "The Lion's Breath" and "Springtime Unknown" celebrate Jack's love of all things British and bring a lump to my throat just about every time I hear them. Jack never went to the UK, but he lived vicariously there for most of the years that I knew him. These songs capture that so well. "Isle of Man" is a rarely heard instrumental in that same vein and very reminiscent of another of their favorite instrumentals, "Frost on the Pumpkin." "In the Old Ruins" evokes the origin of the band—twenty years ago on the run up to St. Patrick's Day when Jack, Troy, Rob, and I immersed ourselves in all things Irish, including the movie Darby O'Gill and the Little People, on which the song was based. "My Highlander" kind of sums up all of what I've been saying about Jack. It's a beautiful tribute written by mutual friend Linda Wylie, and I'm very glad to have it on the album. I recently joked with Troy that TSC's running gag was to have a different version of "Scarecrow Walking" on every album they made. That is, in fact, exactly what they've done. Every version has had qualities to recommend it. This version is a bit more down-and-dirty than other renditions (as one friend calls it, the Tom Waits version) and features the "Ho Lawd!" audience response that has become popular at their shows.
The three (four actually) remaining songs I have purposefully waited until last to mention, for they are the counterbalance for all this nostalgia. "One Shot" is a song written by Jack for a cameo he did in a film called The Shelter. I only got to hear him sing it once (maybe twice). As previously mentioned, Jack had an extraordinary voice, and many is the time that I recall him hushing a noisy pub by belting out an acapella song with those legendary pipes of his. Doesn't really sound like I'm moving past the nostalgia, does it? Thing is, Jack may have written the song and performed it amazingly, but it's Don Clark who delivers it here. And I mean he owns it. It's some of the most soulful blues you're ever likely to hear. In an Easter egg at the end of the CD, Don also croons in the best singing cowboy tradition a last loving tribute to Jack, who loved westerns every bit as much as Britain. "Man Overboard" and "All These Years" are relatively new songs to TSC's repertoire, but they sound like they've been performing them for years. They are a perfect fit and they reflect the here and now of the band, very much alive and kicking and ready to keep a pub full of fans well entertained over several pints.
Jack was at the heart of The Secret Commonwealth, but it's not his band anymore. It belongs to the remarkable talents of Troy Guinn, Rob Campbell, Franko Hashiguchi, and Don Clark. I'm very happy that they've honored Jack's legacy so well, but they do not live under his shadow. Well done, guys. Very well done. Last call? Not hardly.