Minstrel of Melancholy at the Celtic Festival: Dougie MacLean

dougie_macleanWe were only able to catch the afternoon of the last day of the Celtic Festival this year, so we are now resolved to make it a higher priority next year. We’ll get tickets early for the whole weekend next time, and plan to bring chairs and blankets.

Fortunately we were able to make it to Dougie (pronounced “doogie”) MacLean‘s afternoon “workshop” at the Pine Tree Stage. The roving KVMR MC began the event by addressing him onstage from her microphone in the audience.

She said, “Dougie, most of us here already feel a great deal of intimacy with you.”

As I thought, “My God, what a California thing to say,” he replied from onstage, “That’s scary. We’re shy people in Scotland.”

As the next hour unfolded, though, I realized that there was a surprising amount of truth in what she said. He is a very endearing presence, sharing the backstories from his rural family life in Scotland as he spun out one melancholy song after another. At one point, he said “I could sing sad songs all day long.”

Many people in the audience — some in kilts — already knew the lyrics to many of his songs, and many asked to know his inspiration for this or that song. Someone asked, “What is the meaning of ‘Broken Wings‘ (a beautiful song full of achingly personal-sounding grief) and he answered something like, “It’s about the arrogance of mankind.” I suspect that may be his canned answer to impossible questions.

His most requested song (requested again Sunday afternoon) is Caledonia, which has become through its popularity an informal Scottish national anthem. He referred to it as “this monster song” and explained its birth. He was traveling in Germany with a Scottish band, and they were all homesick. One afternoon, he worked out this new song, Caledonia, and played it for his buddies.

“That was it,” he said, “the next day we all headed for home.”

It’s moving to hear music so loved by the musician himself.

In talking about his place of birth, he explained how it came to be right at the edge of the Roman Empire. He imagined a phalanx of Roman soldiers coming over the hill and discovering a group of fierce pagan Scots all bedecked in terrifying war garb (I thought of Braveheart as he spoke). The Romans, according to Dougie, said “Oh shit, this is far enough.”

And then he added, “I hope there are no Romans in the audience.”

There’s a sweet irony in listening to an artist — one whose work is so completely embedded in a particular place — come around the world to a different place and create in you a longing for home, even though you’re already there.

A suggestion to the organizers of the Celtic Festival:  Next time — if Dougie MacLean is willing to come back — someone needs to give better thought to the coordination of artists and stages at the Festival.

“Doogie” (as I call him now in this newfound intimacy) began his performance on the auxiliary Pine Tree Stage just as the group, “Enter The Haggis,” was starting its usual ear-shattering concert on the Main Stage. It was difficult to hear Dougie, and difficult for him to hear himself.

He paused with a start, and said something like, “My God, that sounds like Pink Floyd! This is gonna take some concentration.”

He continued with grace and good humor, but complained sweetly, “It’s so cold here in California!” Finally, after he made this complaint several more times, one of his fans brought him a warm cup of tea. He sipped it and said, “I’m not used to drinking just tea.”

Immediately another fan rushed up and poured some kind of hard liquor in the tea.

“Now you’re talking,” Dougie said, with a big grin.

He explained that he’d left LA at 5:30 that morning, the last day of a several week tour in North America.

He closed the Celtic Festival later Sunday evening on the Main Stage, to a large crowd of cheering fans shivering under blankets, by which time we were back home and — like some other fans — listening to him on KVMR from the comfort of our dinner table.

I hope he slept well and warmly that night, and is now back in his beloved Scotland.

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