Three years on from celebrating their 40th anniversary (they began life in 1973 as a trio, The Run Rig Dance Band), the Hebridean folk rock outfit have decided to call it a day, bringing down the curtain with a farewell tour and one final studio album, their 14th.
I remember first encountering them back in 1985 with the release of Heartland and, in particular, its accompanying single ‘Dance Called America’. This was followed by The Cutter And The Clan and, while it stalled outside the Top 40, it did yield the only Scottish Gaelic language song to chart in the UK Top 20 in the shape of ‘An Ubhal as Àirde’. Things took off on a national scale with 1989’s ‘Searchlight’ which reached number 11 and positively exploded in the early 90s when The Big Wheel and Amazing Things soared to number 4 and number 2 respectively.
I caught them live on several occasions, one memorable gig being at a local university where they had the room going crazy for their rocked up version of ‘Loch Lomond’, always a live favourite. They struck me as a Celtic Folk Rock answer to U2 with their passionate vocals, pounding drums and ringing guitars. But then, in the mid-80s, the bubble burst. Mara stalled outside the Top 20, and, in 1997, singer Donnie Munro left to pursue a career in politics, to be replaced by Nova Scotia’s Bruce Guthro. The follow-up, In Search of Angels scraped into the Top 30 but The Stamping Ground, the first album of the new millennium failed to dent the Top 50. I have to confess that, while there were still occasional flashes, I felt the band had lost its spark. Proterra, recorded in collaboration with Paul Mounsey, failed to register in the Top 100 and their last album, Everything You See, too often sounded like it was just going through the motions.
However, for their final outing they have, as producer and keyboard player Brian Hurren says, tapped into the primal essence of the band, giving it a nostalgic feel that, compounded with orchestral flourishes from the Prague Philharmonic, rekindles those glory days like a phoenix from the flames, sounding like a band at its peak rather than one retiring. As ever, there’s a mix of English and Gaelic, as in the title track opener which, sung by founding member Rory MacDonald, begins low key in Gaelic before switching to English as it launches into a trademark anthemic chorus and lyrics that bear testament to the strong connection between the land, the culture and the people that has always been at the band’s heart.
With a swirling, atmospheric intro and sax embellishments ‘Onar’ (Gaelic for alone) picks up the baton for another surging, nature-themed track with a background of tribal grunts, then it’s into the six-minute ‘Rise And Fall’, a low key ballad with a dawn mist swirl of keyboards and military snare that again speaks of memory and endurance.
Hurren’s brief piano interlude, ‘Elegy’, gives way to the gently rippling ‘Every Beating Heart’, a hymn to love with the title line delivered like a choral refrain, and, sharing the same heart and with yet more nature imagery of seeds and saplings, the pointedly-titled anthemic reflective ‘The Years We Shared’. Indeed, as might be expected, reflection of things past looms large as a theme, and it’s there again on the organ-couched ‘When The Beauty’ with its windswept guitar and melancholic brass, the song ending with a coda of Guthro singing unaccompanied in Gaelic.
Things get slightly funkier with ’18th July’ (“the day when love was leaving”), a midtempo march beat rhythm and bluesy reverb guitars driving the solidarity-themed lyric along with a rousing ‘can we ever stop believing’ chorus that wouldn’t feel out of place on a vintage Journey album.
While the title track is partly sung in Gaelic, ‘An-Duigh Ghabh Mi Cuairt’ goes all the way and, while I have no idea what it’s about (hopefully finished copies will have a lyric sheet) the emotion in its yearning delivery needs no translation.
Revisiting their ceilidh origins, ‘The Place Where The Rivers Run’ brings on accordion, pipes, snare and acoustic guitars for a nostalgic dance tune that looks back over “the treasure in 40 years“, recalling stripping the willow, loading up the van and home driving through the night. The curtain falls in grand style as the Prague Philharmonic step up to the mark for the spiritual ‘Somewhere’ with its cosmic panorama, intimations of mortality and talk of immortal souls, and it’s hard not to feel a lump in the throat as Guthro sings “can’t bear to leave this path of years” and how “somewhere in the dark I’ll find you, somewhere in the light I’ll meet you again“. Until then, slàinte mhath.
Artists’ website: http://www.runrig.co.uk/
‘The Story’ – official video: