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Dan McKinnon

Review: Dan McKinnon at Cleckheaton Folk Festival, West Yorkshire.
by David Kidman, The Living Tradition

DanUndoubtedly the hit of Cleckheaton Festival this year, notwithstanding the presence of 'bigger names', was this supremely warm-hearted, warm-voiced singer-songwriter from the Canadian Maritimes. For many, encountering Dan's music for the first time has been a life-affirming and immensely enriching experience that makes them question at once 'why haven't I heard this guy before? He's brilliant!?' And especially considering that here he comes armed with a package of exceedingly fine self-penned songs, almost any one of which would be the envy of many a more well-known songwriter of whatever origin, and you can hear from the moment he steps out in front of an audience that he's one of the most engaging and genuine performers on the scene.Dan is blessed with a gorgeous baritone voice, and an exceptional command of phrasing, light and shade perfect for conveying the nuances and narratives of his uniformly finely-crafted songs. He's been compared with (the late, great) Stan Rogers, and while he's very much his own man the comparison is not inappropriate, for Dan shares that beguiling quality of total artistic and emotional honesty.

Only the night before playing Cleckheaton, he'd received a rapturous welcome from the near-capacity crowd at York's renowned Black Swan folk club, but his energy was undiminished when he took to the stage at the Commercial for the first of his five scheduled appearances at Clecky. Much of the audience, having just endured an indifferent first-half to that particular concert, was on the point of dwindling away, but folks were persuaded to stay and they were sure glad they did, for Dan put them fully in thrall the moment he began to sing, and held their attention expertly throughout his over-too-soon 45-minute set. The mark of a true professional is to be able to perform several sets during the course of a festival with little if any duplication of material, and Dan passed that test with flying colours. The sheer range of his writing is quietly stunning too, from a heartfelt tribute to Canada's 'War Brides' (Kith And Kin) and a heartwarming exploration of long-term relationships (The Same Pillow) to a wry look at the ageing process (This Side Of The Sod) and a lovely nostalgic essay conveying the essence of Aesop's Fables with almost childlike simplicity. In fact, listening to Dan's songs I've been more than once reminded of my good friend (and prolific songwriter) George Papavgeris, especially in terms of Dan's innate and overwhelming humanity and the healthy good sense of his worldview. Comparing the two songsmiths, their musical idioms are equally accessible yet subtly different though both steeped in tradition; as personalities, they share that wonderful quality of deep big-hearted integrity, and it came as no surprise to learn that they've been firm friends since first meeting a few years back.

deadwood danFor many festival-goers, though, myself included, the high point of Dan's visit was definitely his two-hour-plus presentation on the Saturday afternoon, Singing Stan Rogers, during the course of which Dan regaled us with anecdotes and memories, tales of the writing of the songs, and fascinating snippets of background information regarding their creation and performance over in his native Canada. Oh, and superbly realised performances of no fewer than 20 of Stan's songs including a few unpublished or obscure or hitherto largely unknown ones (as well as White Collar Holler, a fun parody-shanty by Nigel Russell which Stan himself frequently performed). Many singers perform Stan's songs (albeit only the same half-dozen) nowadays, such is their potency and sheer quality, yet few really do them justice to my mind.

However, so patently obvious is Dan's intense empathy with Stan's writing that Dan's personal renditions of this repertoire are invariably well nigh incomparable. This long afternoon set was therefore so very special an occasion, one to be savoured at leisure and one to which my memory has since returned often. The unplanned encore (Dan had thought two hours would test anyone's staying-power on such a sweltering afternoon how wrong he was proved!) was a request from the audience: Sailor's Rest may be less often heard than some other of Stan's songs, but Dan's impromptu performance and complete advocacy was utterly winning. Now the crying shame is that to my knowledge Dan's not yet got round to recording any of Stan's songs! Yes, Dan's a truly lovely guy who really cares about his music and those to whom he's singing; you owe it to yourself to discover his talent at the earliest opportunity (and hurrah, he's set to tour the UK again next May!).