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Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Blair Dunlop hits the open road

Blair Dunlop is quite a confusing proposition if you don't know anything about him. I'd been vaguely aware that he was on at Cropredy last year and what I heard seemed extremely competent - as you would expect from someone on a festival's only stage - but I was only half listening.

Then there's the fact that his website comes with a quote from Q magazine, which suggests that he's been around for a while - lots of bands would be delighted to have one of those, even though it's short. I also remember thinking that he was in a different league musically when I saw him do something assured alongside Ashley Hutchings at Cecil Sharp House last year but didn't realise he was Hutchings' son until some way through the set and, as a result, put that particular issue to one side.

However, since it's relevant now, here's what I think: you can't help who your family is. I've sort of followed in my father's footsteps - as has my sister - so I have some empathy. When you see people making a living doing something, it's easier to consider it for yourself than a trade of which you have no experience. Also, life has a way of telling you whether you're any good at what you do, which is a separate issue to why you started and - especially in a very competitive field - early advantages soon melt away. I'm going to shut up now.

Anyway, I had an idea that Dunlop was quite young - the elfin stature and hair gel issues gave it away - and associated him in an Americana-ey way with the wonderful ahab who I guess are hovering somewhere around their late twenties, early 30s. That was especially the case after listening to what is described on his website as Dunlop's "new" album a few times, with rising excitement.

So it came as a bit of a shock to realise that it is, in fact, his first album. And that he is only 20.

I say it was slightly shocking because Blight & Blossom would be an excellent record for someone who has ten years on Dunlop - for a first outing it is nothing short of miraculous.

OK, everything about the production values, from the mixing to the memorable cover art by Elly Lucas, speaks of a lifetime's experience - presumably not his - and the sleeve note thanking Richard Thompson personally for the dark, dark song Seven Brothers, as well as the picture of the two of them on Dunlop's website, well... I guess it would be worse to be ungrateful.

Yet there's so much here that can be nothing except Dunlop's that these trappings are as a beach hut to a tsunami.

Two major points.

Firstly, although there is a version of Black is the Colour on here, there is nothing niche about this album. Folk may be where his family comes from but it took me a while to realise that the open road, big sky feel to several of these tracks is not exactly Americana, although there's definitely a slide guitar on Less the Pawn. It is the sound of gilded youth and ambition in the 21st century, the noise that goes with having everything to play for and the wind in your hair. It's the sound of being young, Dunlop makes it resonate and it is, quite simply, thrilling.

Secondly, this is only possible because he is already an extremely accomplished guitarist. And because when you put this together with sinuous musicality, a precocious wisdom, lyrically speaking and some terrific arrangements, the result is an album that rings like a bell. With Blight & Blossom he seems to have made something true.

The standout tracks for me are Bags Outside the Door - a statement of intent par excellence - and Less the Pawn, which is a young man's song about a world that was already fucked up when he got here. But there's plenty more where that came from. The album as a whole is a grower and I predict that Blair Dunlop will go on to write some songs that will outlive him by a great many years, which seems like an odd thing to say at this early stage. But still...

* There are three more songs from the album on Soundcloud.

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  1. Thank you Emma,
    It was a pleasure making the album with Blair and we are both grateful that others are now enjoying it! Lovely to get a pat on the back for my production too! :-)

    Mark Hutchinson

  2. The pleasure's been all mine. I'm listening to it again right now x


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