Tim Dalling - paying tribute to the bard of Lochee
They had much in common. Both Scottish, one west coast, one east, they shared a liking for a certain blues and boogie piano style and common interests in art and theatre work and for writing pithy songs about characters.
Indeed, as the put-upon fall guy in Newcastle madhouse the New Rope String Band, Tim Dalling might well have found his way into the Michael Marra songbook in the same way that former bandmates and in one particularly brilliant stroke of songwriting genius, the Dundee blues and soul singer Dougie Martin’s dog, Julius, stirred Marra’s muse.
The roles, however, have been reversed and with Marra’s passing, Dalling has written and released his personal tribute, Mr Michael Marra, one of a number of simply expressed but beautifully realised songs on Dalling’s new album, Eve’s Bonie Squad.
As Dalling recalls, he’d heard Marra’s name a few times but when Ian Carr, the guitarist who plays on Eve’s Bonie Squad and its predecessor by a dozen years, Blossom, gave him a copy of Marra’s Silence EP in the mid-2000s, time stopped. “Within the first two lines,” he says, “I knew a huge missing section of my personal musical jigsaw had been completed.”
It’s a matter of regret for Dalling that his and Marra’s paths only crossed twice.
“I saw him once with Liz Lochhead in a wee village hall in Yorkshire and had a cup of tea and a blether with him and then I saw him doing A Wee Home from Home with the dancer, Frank McConnell,” says Dalling. “But everyone I meet who knew him talks about his genius and I suppose, like them, I wanted to spend more time with him in the hope that his genius might rub off on me. I was really sad to hear he’d gone and the song actually started out as a tune that I wrote for him, then the words popped out.”
Dalling became a songwriter by accident but also out of necessity. Born in Ayr, he grew up listening to jazz and learning the piano but before he went off to Glasgow Art School, where he started in the sculpture department, he became co-opted into friends’ rock and blues bands. In one of those, he says, they only needed a piano so that they could play Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird. The rest of the time he was inaudible so he just jumped around and discovered he quite liked being in front of an audience.
Sculpture gave way to performance art and by the time he left art school the piano had been replaced by something much more portable, an accordion that he took busking as far as Greece. Fetching up in Cornwall, he put the mask-making ability he’d acquired latterly at school to good use with the nascent Kneehigh Theatre Company.
“Some of the shows we worked on used folk music, so I gravitated to that, and then as the company went full-time and progressed from a kind of over the top anarchic pantomime into something slightly more serious, the shows needed songs and I sidled into being a songwriter,” he says. “I think the turning point was when Boris Howarth, who’d been involved with the Welfare State theatre group, when we were working on a pay about Cornish myths and legends and got us to do it like an opera. The idea that music could carry the dramatic dynamic was a revelation to me, and songs poured out.”
Moving on to Newcastle to be with his girlfriend, now wife, Dalling continued to work in theatre and also fell in with what was to become the Old Rope String Band, where folk music met theatre and where one of his trademarks was playing the accordion with his head in a fish tank.
“We were always looking for new ways of presenting the music and making it entertaining,” he says of a schtick that involved a clockwork fish and theatrical blood caps. “It was scary at first but it grew into a nice peaceful moment for me, relaxing in the middle of the show.”
Similar shenanigans continued in the New Rope String Band, formed after ORSB’s guiding light, Joe Scurfield, was killed in a hit and run incident, but after ten years of entertaining audiences all over Europe with bigger and bigger props assembled in Dalling’s garden shed, the band is currently winding down.
For Dalling, the release of Eve’s Bonie Squad is the start of a new chapter and he’ll have no trouble keeping busy. He’s already involved in a songwriting project at Newbigging by the Sea in Northumberland and is preparing a solo show.
“I felt, when I got together again with Ian (Carr) and Neil (Harland, bass), that we had unfinished business from Blossom and the new album came together quite quickly, so I want to do more,” he says. “I have other work that’ll help keep the wolf from the door but the main thrust of what I’ll be doing is stuff that has my name on it. It’s quite exciting really.”
Eve’s Bonie Squad is out now and available from www.timdalling.co.uk
From The Herald, April 1, 2015.