John Goldie - picking a winning combination
John Goldie had a vision. It was no ordinary vision – this one came complete with a soundtrack. It happens often. Some might call it second sight. But Goldie calls it composition. Sitting with his guitar in hand, Goldie pictured a children’s playground that had been trashed in an explosion. The roundabout was still spinning but there were no children anywhere to be seen, just a bedraggled rag doll sitting, going round and round in time to the music that Goldie’s fingers found on his Martin acoustic.
Eleven similar experiences later, the Airdrie-based musician had his latest album, Open 4 Closure, ready to record. It’s an album that’s opening new doors. A few weeks ago, Goldie, who has worked all over the world, doing solo gigs alongside some of Nashville’s greatest pickers, playing second guitar in jazz wiz Martin Taylor’s Spirit of Django band, working in theatre pits and on television shows with Motown stars, encountered his first folk club audience.
“I’d never even been in a folk club before that night in Leith and I hadn’t a clue what to expect,” he says. “But I felt right at home after the first number because I couldn’t believe how responsive the people were. They just seemed prepared to listen to whatever I wanted to play – even when I played my version of that well known traditional song, Smoke on the Water – and that was great for me because I’ve never fitted into a category.”
Smoke on the Water, which was the first tune he learned to play, has become Goldie’s ice breaker. Just before that night in Leith he played five sell-out concerts in Korea, where the Deep Purple classic is still a massive favourite, and given Goldie’s acoustic treatment, it had the Koreans going nuts. After the concerts they would come up and check to see that the lead from the pick-up on his guitar really did feed directly into an amplifier with no pedals, gizmos or any other electric tricks involved.
Goldie started playing guitar at the age of six, picking out Bob Dylan songs as well as Deep Purple riffs, and from then on, he says, he was pretty much in a little guitar world of his own. Records were bought and worn out as he dropped the stylus on to the guitar solos, learning them phrase by phrase in the time-honoured tradition. By his early teens he could hold his own with the guys three or four years above him in school who used to put on lunchtime concerts and parade their Brown Sugars, Freebirds and Allman Brothers numbers.
“Lanarkshire seemed to be full of bands back then,” he says. “You could hang out with musicians at school or in music shops and there were studios where people were actually recording their own songs, guys like Hue & Cry and the Big Dish, who were only a few years ahead of me and were great examples. Here were guys from down the road who were showing that it was possible to go off and be a professional musician – you didn’t have to be from wherever it was that the big names came from.”
Goldie’s first venture into professionalism, with a band kept busy with functions and social club gigs, almost stalled before it started.
“The guitar I had at the time was an old acoustic that doubled as a cross-bow,” he recalls. “The strings were about a foot off the fretboard, so I didn’t bother taking it to the audition and when the guys asked where my gear was, I lied and said my electric guitar had a warped neck and my amp had blown a speaker. These blokes were all in their thirties and they just laughed at this pathetic fifteen year old and told me to use the spares they had. I got the gig, played on a borrowed guitar for about two years and started saving every penny I earned to buy decent equipment.”
Thus began an odyssey that included taking a further education course in chemistry to appease his parents, who didn’t trust the idea of a musician’s life (“I’m not sure they trust it yet,” adds Goldie jovially), and has led to friendships with fellow guitarists including George Benson, Australian showman par excellence Tommy Emmanuel, and of course, Martin Taylor, who is the subject of an affectionate and deeply soulful tribute, An Honorary Scot, on Open 4 Closure.
Benson’s Breezin’ album was one of those records that Goldie wore out in pursuit of learning and he tells an insightful story of meeting his hero at a tribute to jazz guitar great Wes Montgomery in the tiny Zinc Bar in Manhattan.
“A friend of mine, Dave O’Rourke, a guitarist from Cork who now lives in New York, invited me to come and play at this gig he was organising,” says Goldie. “So I was sitting watching as the drummer and bass player, who turned out to be the jazz singer Betty Carter’s rhythm section, set up. I thought, Okay. Then Russell Malone, who at that time was working with Diana Krall, appeared, played a few numbers and was pretty hot. But then, everyone was pretty hot because this was the hard core New York guitar team.”
Goldie noticed that any time he went to the bar, he was given whatever he asked for and told that, because he was a visitor from Scotland, he didn’t have to pay.
“That wasn’t quite the truth but, anyhow, George Benson eventually got up to play and on the first tune, he was on a par with the rest of the players. On his second tune, he probably topped the best player in the room but on his third tune, he opened up this gear box that nobody else has and was just unbelievable.”
When he was sitting in his bedroom back in Coatbridge, trying to steal Benson’s licks, Goldie never imagined he’d ever meet him, let alone be having breakfast with him after the Wes Montgomery tribute – Benson took the entire crew out to eat after the music finally stopped and he’d quietly arranged to pick up the bar tab – or be asked to play for Benson when he appeared at Glasgow Jazz Festival a year or so later.
“I thought, He’ll never remember me from that night in New York, so when he walked right up to me in Glasgow and said, Hi, John, how’re you doin’? I thought either this guy has a fantastic memory or someone’s given him a script. But it was genuine and he’s the living contradiction to the ‘never meet your heroes because they’ll always disappoint you’ rule.”
For a time Goldie tried to have a jazz guitar career of his own, at a slightly more modest level than Benson’s, but he felt he didn’t have enough of his own thing to bring to the guitar, bass and drums format. He loved playing in Spirit of Django and still works on and off with Martin Taylor. But it was while working in a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s company that he found his own voice as a composer and guitarist.
“We were staying out in the country and I was sharing a cottage with the drummer, who was a real night bird,” he says. “I’m completely the opposite and I’d get up in the morning and take the acoustic outside and play, and that’s where I had my first experience of this visual image with an accompanying tune come into my head. It just seems to be the way composition works for me, as a complete package, and I put a few things together on that tour.”
He sent a demo of these ideas to German guitarist and label proprietor Peter Finger, who was part of country blues picker Stefan Grossman’s acoustic guitar stable in the 1970s, and Finger immediately invited Goldie over to his studio in Osnabruck to make a solo album. Released in 2002, the result, The View from Here, was Goldie’s passport onto the world acoustic guitar circuit. It also marked the beginning of a productive relationship with Nick Turner and Mary Ann Kennedy at Watercolour Music in Ardgour, where some additional tracks were recorded.
A further album, This Time and Place, cemented both Goldie’s reputation as one of the major new voices of acoustic guitar and his relationship with Watercolour, and when he felt ready to work with other musicians on Open 4 Closure, he was able to trust Turner and Kennedy’s recommendations. Enter accordionist Angus Lyon and double bassist Duncan Lyall, who are busy as both musicians and record producers on the traditional music scene. Also, as anyone who has heard Lyon’s magnificent 18 Months Later album in partnership with fiddler Ruaridh Campbell will attest, these are players with open minds and imagination.
“There were sounds I heard in my head for certain tunes and when I described what I was after, Nick and Mary Ann said, We know the very guys,” he says. “And they were spot-on. I got together for a run-through with Angus and Duncan and told them, Just do your own thing because I don’t play your instruments, and they came up with exactly what I was looking for. I’d describe the trashed playground and the ragdoll scenario to them and they had the decency not to burst out laughing, which was nice, and everything fell quickly into place.”
This is an understatement. You’d never know from hearing Open 4 Closure that it was recorded in a day, with drummer Jim Drummond, cellist Pete Harvey and tuba player Andy McKreel fitting in as naturally as Lyon and Lyall. It’s a mixed bag, with funk, soul-jazz, Cajun and folk influences and Goldie going back to the blues playing that occupied much of his teenage years. Goldie’s theme for BBC Scotland’s comedy series Dear Green Place is also included and more soundtrack work would appeal. Such was the chemistry during the recording, however, that it’s continued and Goldie is in danger of becoming a band leader as well as a composer-guitarist.
“We’ve done about half a dozen gigs together since we finished the album and when we played the British Guitar Festival particularly, I felt real potential,” he says. “The guys were really going to town and they can bring their own material, too, although I wouldn’t mind learning it before we play it. When we played as a duo at Leith Folk Club, Angus said, Here’s a couple of my tunes, one’s in E, the other’s in F – but he didn’t tell me which was which.”
From The Herald, December 20, 2008.
John Goldie - picking a winning combination