Old Blind Dogs have been one of Scotland’s most popular folk bands – and one of the Scottish trad scene’s most successful exports – since they formed in Aberdeen in 1992. Through successive personnel changes, these twice winners of the Folk Band of the Year title at the Scots Trad Music Awards have maintained a readily recognisable identity as carriers of their own north-east tradition while incorporating contemporary ideas and influences from further afield.
Fiddler Jonny Hardie, now the sole remaining founder member, met singer-guitarist Ian Benzie and bass guitarist and cittern player Buzzby McMillan at a time when the ceilidh scene in Aberdeen was taking off. An experienced singer in Aberdeen traditional music circles, Benzie had a great repertoire of locally sourced songs and these, together with traditional and original tunes and fresh arrangement ideas, became the bedrock of Old Blind Dogs’ music.
Things happened very quickly in the year the band formed. Singer-guitarist Dave Francis briefly joined Hardie, Benzie and McMillan before his move to Edinburgh presently coincided with percussionist Davy Cattanach’s return from London in time to play what Hardie remembers as the Dogs’ first significant gig, at Premnay Hall just outside Insch in Aberdeenshire.
Shortly afterwards, an opportunity to play in California arose and was grasped with enthusiasm, the idea of a first U.S. visit spurring the band to rehearse hard and make their first album, New Tricks, to take with them. Once in America the band quickly made contacts as well as a strong impression which resulted in them touring there for two months a year for the next twenty years.
Back home they continued to work hard as they developed a 120-gigs-a-year schedule and recorded consistently, going on to join Connecticut-based Green Linnet Records’ roster of Scottish and Irish musicians. In 1997, Benzie became the first of the original Dogs to withdraw from the band’s rigorous workload and Jim Malcolm accepted the lead singer’s role without a second thought. At the same time, piper and whistle player Rory Campbell arrived to replace Fraser Fifield, who had strengthened the band’s melodic presence and established a line of fine Old Blind Dogs pipers that continues today with Ali Hutton.
Over time, as with almost any band of such longevity, the Dogs have faced a number of personnel changes but without losing any sense of continuity. Jonny Hardie puts this down to the band’s repertoire suiting successive singers, who have all had characterful, distinctive voices, and instrumentalists alike.
The band’s music has also benefited from being refreshed and reinvigorated through the various members’ involvement in extracurricular projects. Hardie himself has taken on production work, as has Hutton, who is a busy studio musician as well as having success with his duo partner, Ross Ainslie and Treacherous Orchestra, and singer-cittern player Aaron Jones and percussionist Donald Hay work with their respective partners, flautist Claire Mann and harpist Mary MacMaster.
Ties with old Dogs remain strong – Hardie and Benzie still enjoy working together on occasion – and the quality of the current band can be witnessed by their latest album, Room with a View, their first since 2010, attracting the best response of any of their thirteen releases. As they celebrate the band’s 25th anniversary Old Blind Dogs go into a busy spell , with another American tour followed by a trip to Germany, and have work in the diary as far as 2019. As Jonny Hardie says, “I’m glad we stuck at it.”