By Jo Cargill
“Oran Mor, let’s be having you.” And they did. From the minute they came on stage the Three Blind Wolves had us.
Even the noisy gaggle at the bar ssshhhed each other when frontman Ross Clark stopped playing his guitar and stepped out from the mic with aching a capella ‘I am the one you left behind. Pick me up before you leave’. Every word sang with gut wrenching sincerity.
Clark stood backlit at the edge of the stage; a lone wolf howling out to the dreich January night. That track ‘When the Garden Gets Near’ the final song on their debut album is still ringing in my ears. Along with my friend’s voice “Bloody hell are you greeting?” she asked. I couldn’t help it. Clark’s voice. It just gets you.
This might be a good time to confess. I was not going to see the Three Blind Wolves as a die-hard fan. I had never heard of them. All the acts I was desperate to see were sold out. So I picked a local band. And this Glasgow four piece stood out. It was only in part down to the impressive facial hair. Mostly what caught my attention was the description of their music on the Celtic Connections listings as ‘genre defying.’
At first I thought this sounded pretentious. As it turns out it’s bang on. One minute I was just about bopping along to raucous jangly pop of tracks like Black Bowl Park and the next welling up at the velvety harmonies riding over country riffs. In every song the tour de force of Clark’s lead vocal hit me hard. Somewhere between the ears.
There was a little bit of rock, indie, pop, alt country, and even at times hints of barbershop quartet and a gospel feel on performances of songs like ‘I will put you in the ground’, the final and for me the stand out track on ‘Sing hallelujah for the old machine’.
“You’re the man” shouted a fan before requesting a Bob Marley tune.
Clark took this in his stride deflecting it graciously “now that’s only on a Wednesday and you know it.” He has a voice that sounds like it could be from a different era. There is a pure tone to it and a kind of irreverence. At times even a hint of angst that reminded me of Elvis Costello. His vocal ranges between a rasping squeal like an old troubadour that sinks a bottle of bourbon a day and a high, fragile voice that might break any minute.
As a songwriter too Clark leaves his mark. In the sleeve notes of ‘Sing hallelujah for the old Machine’ Clark notes that he writes and owns all the songs. The poetic quality is matched only by the catchiness of the lyrics in songs ‘Emily Rose, I love you down to your toes’ or ‘we are boarding but we are not boring’.
The line up is visually arresting too; all plaid, facial hair and honky tonk. Three men all playing guitars and at times changing instruments could be overkill but it works. Then out of nowhere the whole band including keys and drums will pitch in with a perfect ‘ooh’.
It all came back around to this fresh sound. With every song there is another surprise; the all male harmonies, the staccato mid song moments, bursts of energy in the performances and the sheer range of talent. The bass player trumps up at one point to lead on a blinding vocal harmony.
Another thing that makrd the wolves a real treat to watch is that they have as much chemistry with the audience as they do with each other. “Come on let’s get you moving and grooving.” At one point Clark comes down into the audience to play. When they perform a song by the boss with support act Gabrielle Kelley the on stage chemistry is infectious. They met Nashville singer songwriter Kelley, who describes his own style of acoustic folk as “sad bastard songs” when they toured in the US and ended up back at Kelley’s “super creepy” RV trailer listening to Joni Mitchell.
On the cover of Atlantic City they really hit it out of the park. When I looked around I saw students and people well into their 50s just losing it. Music lovers from all walks of life were up at the front giving it laldy. And it brought it home to me. This is what Celtic Connections is about.
An old friend said they didn’t want to go to a Celtic Connections gig because they lacked knowledge of roots music. I can see their point. But it put me in mind of Gram Parsons. He loved country music and hated the industry because he felt it should be bigger than Nashville. As Keith Richards put it “The music’s bigger than that. It should touch everybody.”
If you like live music of any kind then Celtic Connections has everything to offer. This year the festival turned twenty one and with such an impressive line up and multiple sell out gigs it has proved that it is going from strength to strength.
The 3 Blind Wolves gig on the penultimate night of the festival was their last for a while. After the success of the new album and tour round Europe the band are taking time out to write another record.
I hope they don’t wait too long before they get back to performing live. The videos online don’t do this band justice. Next time you get a chance get out and see them perform and when you go home with one of the tunes stuck in your head you will remember. This is it. This is why I love live music.