25 January 2016
The Songs of Ivor Cutler
with Duglas T. Stewart, Aidan Moffat and The Glad Community Choir
The Glad Café, Glasgow, Friday 22 January, part of Celtic Connections
Appropriately, tonight’s tribute to the outsider poet and surreal songwriter, Ivor Cutler, ends with a greeting. A jaunty version of “Good morning! How are you? Shut up!”, accompanied by a brusquely perky piano closes the show. With it, the ghost of Mr Cutler seems to usher his fans out the Glad Café with an affectionate shove, before there is time for anything resembling fawning or gushing.
The nonsense-peddling sprite was born in Glasgow, close to Ibrox stadium, ninety years ago. After dabbling in the RAF, primary school teaching and studying at Glasgow School of Art, Cutler began recording his own ‘never knowingly understood’ stories in the 1950s, which led to regular performances on BBC Radio. He went on to release 12 albums and scores of books of weird poetry, absurd prose and Lear-like fiction for children. He also caught the attention of Paul McCartney, John Peel and Robert Wyatt, and worked with them all.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of his death, and loyal fan Duglas T. Stewart, frontman of jangly guitar pop band BMX Bandits, assembles friends for an homage evening as part of Celtic Connections folk and world music festival, stitching Cutler’s eccentric songs around poetry readings and projections. Among the visuals is a sign for the Noise Abatement Society, encouraging the audience to show moderation in their appreciation; a nod to Cutler who was a lifelong member of the NAS. While playfully stubborn in many ways, he was genuinely sensitive to loud noise, and asked his crowds to applaud at half volume. Possibly less genuinely, when he toured as a musician, his rider reputedly insisted on a two-bar electric fire to heat him up backstage.
Warm compère Stewart and fellow fan Aidan Moffat choose to focus on very different trademarks of Cutler’s work. Stewart, who has performed in tribute shows to his musical heroes in the past, including Serge Gainsbourg, Ennio Morricone and Brian Wilson, picks cover versions that hold a candle up to Cutler’s romantic side. While Cutler’s underplayed poignancy is one of his most devastating skills – generally managing to convey his heartfelt tenderness in the most brutish and insulting ways – Stewart’s delivery seems perhaps too earnest, too tuneful, even on songs about insects and death. He admits he’s hesitant about imitating Cutler’s recognisable thick, plaintive Glaswegian brogue though, sticking to his own melodic singing voice on the likes of the excellent ‘I Love You But I Don’t Know What I Mean’, reserving a couple of very competent impersonations for the storytelling bits in between songs. In one he recalls meeting Cutler in Virgin Megastore on Glasgow’s Argyle Street, and showing him a poetry zine he’d written with Norman Blake.
By contrast, spoken word artist Moffat, and former member of Arab Strap, homes in expertly on “the racy bits”, treating the crowd to choice readings of stories from 1990’s Glasgow Dreamer, where Cutler tells tales of a “fifty-foot cock” and run-ins with an ex. “You say predictable, I prefer ‘reliable’,” deadpans Moffat, himself no stranger to a puerile or daft confessional. Following on from Moffat’s readings of Cutler’s mutated lullabies and botched suicide attempts, a 20-strong team from the Glad Community Choir huddle on the stage for their grandiose, yet poker-faced reimaginings of ‘There’s a Turtle in My Soup’ and ‘Muscular Tree’.
The magnificent, casually urgent rally cry, ‘Women of The World’ from Cutler’s 1983 album Privilege gets an outing, with an apology to the great man, who apparently hated Jim O’Rourke’s subsequent cover version of it, which the choir have taken inspiration from tonight. ‘Beautiful Cosmos’, the inspiration for the title of National Theatre of Scotland’s 2014 play about the cult songwriter comes as a late highlight to the evening, before ‘I Worn My Elbows’, another dazzling example of Cutler’s ridiculous take on the love paean.
Celtic Connections runs until January 31.
Read online at The Times here (subscription needed).