Shelagh McDonald

TrackAlbum
Waiting For The Wind To RiseAlbum
Peacock LadyAlbum
Silk And LeatherAlbum
Jesus Is Just All RightLet No Man Steal Your Thyme 2CD
Rod's SongStargazer
Lonely KingStargazer
Dowie Dens Of YarrowStargazer
Canadian ManStargazer
OdysseyStargazer
The Road To ParadiseStargazer CD

 

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Shelagh McDonald playlist

 

Contributor: Martyn Fallace

Take my hand sunshine manlittle blue boy … … so sang Shelagh McDonald on her unrecorded track, For You. But more of that later.

 

Shelagh McDonald photo 1

I’m going to assume that anyone who clicks on the link for the Shelagh McDonald Toppermost is broadly familiar with Shelagh’s music and her unusual story, summarised as, an original and emerging artist in ‘folk/folk-rock’ circles in the late 60s who recorded a brace of albums for Sandy Roberton’s September Productions before disappearing, and I mean totally disappearing, for over 30 years … before re-emerging back into the public eye. A lot has been said around Shelagh’s sudden departure from the music industry, just when things where going well for her artistically, but it’s best to read the circumstances in her own words in a Guardian interview from 2013.

 

Shelagh McDonald photo 2

Prior to recording her own albums, Shelagh recorded two songs for the 1969 Dungeon Folk compilation, Hullo Stranger and Street Walking Blues. After Shelagh’s re-emergence in the 2000s, she also released a third album, Parnassus Revisited, which was only available to purchase at gigs. For this Toppermost selection, I am going to focus on her two albums recorded for September Productions and released on the B&C label, the first of which was simply titled Album released in 1970, and the second, Stargazer, released in 1971. If you are new to Shelagh’s music and want to investigate more, then the excellent compilation Let No Man Steal Your Thyme is definitive (almost!) in terms of Shelagh’s output in the later 60s and early 70s.

On her first two albums, Shelagh was backed up by many notables within the English folk rock scene, including Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks, Danny Thompson, Keith Tippett, Keith Christmas, the Fotheringay rhythm section, as well as Ian Whiteman, Roger Powell and Michael Evans, then members of the now legendary Mighty Baby. Shelagh recently reminisced to me: “Mighty Baby did indeed back me on my first album; great musicians to a man. In those days they would have been given very little inkling of what was expected of them when entering the studio; daunting for any musician to learn another artist’s material, work out an arrangement and come up with the finished article within the allotted studio time. So their musicianship was truly astounding, and of course, without exception, lovely guys.” (Note: Mighty Baby woodwind and keyboard player Ian Whiteman also contributed to Shelagh’s second album Stargazer)

So, here we go in no particular order:

Waiting For The Wind To Rise is a song given to Shelagh by her then friend/boyfriend and September Productions stablemate Keith Christmas (Keith also released this song, but I prefer Shelagh’s rendition which is a great piece of folk rock, sorry Keith!) The treatment has a building intensity and finishes with a brilliant drum and piano interplay. A difficult first choice and a toss up between this and Shelagh’s own folk rock composition Mirage.

 

 

Shelagh McDonald photo 3

Shelagh benefited from having access to Robert Kirby and his fabulous pastoral arrangements. (Kirby worked in a similar capacity for other Sandy Robertson acts, along with Nick Drake whose work he is synonymous with). Kirby provided arrangements for two tracks on Shelagh’s debut – Ophelia’s Song, and my choice here, the beautiful Peacock Lady, where Shelagh’s vocals and timing are absolutely gorgeous. You have to listen to the track several times to really appreciate her vocals, and of course Kirby’s arrangements are first class, with oboe to the fore.

 

Silk And Leather gives us a great introduction to Shelagh’s fingerpicking style, where the quick tempo of plucked strings on the introduction reminds me of Nick Drake’s guitar playing to a degree. It would be easy to imagine, with the Kirby connection, that Shelagh had listened to, and possibly even been influenced by, Nick’s playing, even if their paths did not cross as such. Shelagh’s vocals are also delivered at a fast tempo, leaving the listener breathless trying to keep up with the words!

 

 

Shelagh McDonald photo 4

I chose the next track, Jesus Is Just All Right, which was a demo and not released on the debut album, as it shows Shelagh in playful mood and demonstrates her rockier side with a sumptuous multi-tracked vocal delivery. We all know the song from the Byrds, and then later the Doobie Brothers, but Shelagh’s version is very much unknown, but great nonetheless. You can just imagine they were in the studio late at night and about to wrap up, when Shelagh said, “let’s have some fun and a bit of a blow out”. Not sure who played the guitar riffing, but probably Ian Whiteman on organ adding his usual quality playing. All in all, a great fun track!

 

 

Shelagh McDonald photo 5

Rod’s Song is the first in my selection from Shelagh’s second album Stargazer, an uplifting song with just Shelagh and her guitar and some marvellously evocative lyrics that conjure up strong images …

The wind blew through our seaside town, summer is almost gone,
the cafes and amusement halls are empty and forlorn,
the little theatre on the corner looks so warm inside,
and now we are trudging through the autumn leaves,
better get back before we freeze,
trees look down so bare and black,
Oh tell me when you’ll be back, Oh when you’ll be back.

For some reason, this song always reminds me of Scarborough in the North East of England on a grey, late October day!

 

On Lonely King we see Shelagh’s sensitive piano playing to the fore with a sublime introduction that makes me want to melt into the floor! Some unusual timings and Shelagh’s vocals are multitracked on the chorus to good effect, to round out an excellent song and one of my personal favourite tracks.

 

Dowie Dens Of Yarrow is a tour de force of a track and one that probably gave rise to Sandy Denny comparisons back in the day. A traditional song that Fairport could easily have covered with a tragic story line not so dissimilar to Matty Groves. Superb drumming and understated guitar accompanying Shelagh’s telling of the story, all underpinned by Ian Whiteman’s brooding organ work with one of his typical flourishes across the keys as the track fades to an end. A total gem of a track and one that shows Shelagh very much equal to Sandy in the singing of a traditional Scottish song, superb!

 

Canadian Man is another beautiful piano-based song from Shelagh; again, evocative lyrics and we get that gorgeous Edinburgh burr on certain vowels; critics often draw parallels with Joni Mitchell and it’s certainly a compliment to Shelagh’s songwriting skills on this particular track.

 

My penultimate selection, Odyssey, sees Richard Thompson add tasteful guitar lines to a uniquely Shelagh McDonald song with storyline lyrics and an unusual chorus. This really is a top class song with first rate musicianship and demonstrates how far she had come since her debut album only a year before.

 

The Road To Paradise has Shelagh returning to a folk rock format with upbeat tempo and simmering organ. For me this track has some echoes of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock in its lyrics … and we gotta get back to where it all began … and sees her in confident form.

 

I’ve missed out some of Shelagh’s perhaps more well-known songs in this Toppermost selection, such as Stargazer, Liz’s Song, Baby Go Slow (again with R. Thompson guesting on guitar) and perhaps her most well-known number, Let No Man Steal Your Thyme.

 

 

Shelagh McDonald photo 6

If Shelagh had been around to promote and tour the Stargazer material, she would surely have gone on to greater critical acclaim; she did in fact get one opportunity to promote the LP, three months after its release, on Pete Drummond’s Radio 1 show, Sounds Of The Seventies. Shelagh performed Lonely King, Odyssey and well as two new tracks: Spin, which had already been recorded at Sound Techniques back in the August, along with the hitherto long-lost track, For You.

Some 50 years after she played it on that Radio 1 session, a member of Shelagh’s Facebook page found an old tape which he had recorded off the radio back in the day … and lo and behold he had captured For You. The sound quality is not so good, but, as the only known recording of what presumably would be a track for her third album, we now have this delightful song, just Shelagh and her piano … Take my hand sunshine manlittle boy blue … enjoy!

 

 

Shelagh McDonald advert

 

 

Shelagh McDonald official website
(several photos reproduced here are credited on her website)

Shelagh McDonald Facebook Group

Ian Anderson interview with Shelagh in 2012

Shelagh McDonald biography (AllMusic)

Martyn’s life changed when a friend introduced him to his music collection at college: Crimson, Zappa, Floyd, Caravan, Hendrix, Iron Butterfly and many others that were unknown artists to him at the time. These days he keeps out of mischief by helping to run the Mighty Baby Facebook page, the last word on all things The Action & Mighty Baby.

More from Martyn: “My second revelation came about when, on a recommendation, I went and bought Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails, Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing At Baxter’s and the Grateful Dead’s Live/Dead, for many, the holy trinity of the San Francisco Sound and the start of my love affair with that period of music emanating from the West Coast. Another huge influence on my musical taste was the marvellous rock magazine Zigzag which introduced me to artists such as Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and Captain Beefheart. Also, it would be remiss of me not to mention the brilliant and esoteric Comstock Lode publication which introduced me to bands such as Kaleidoscope, John Fahey and many others. I discovered Shelagh’s music relatively late on, when investigating the work of the musicians in my all-time favourite English band, Mighty Baby, whose members, notably Roger Powell (drums), Mike Evans (bass) and Ian Whiteman (keyboards), played on a number of quality albums, mostly in the folk rock realm, including artists such as John Martyn, Keith Christmas, Sandy Denny and, of course, Shelagh McDonald.”

TopperPost #1,010

2 Comments

  1. Ilkka Jauramo
    Feb 18, 2022

    Yet another “unknown” artist in Toppermost. Unknown to me, that is. Shame on me!
    I liked the celtic touch: melodies and rhythm in the ballads. Made me pick up my banjo and try to find the chords. Did I hear NICO somewhere. Did I hear another McDonald somewhere: COUNTRY JOE?
    This kind of music is still living in other forms like in death metal. (My favourite is Danish singer MYRKUR.) – The storm from Scotland is hitting our coast next night. Why not listen to Shelagh and her hallowing voice because it is impossible to sleep anyway . . .

  2. Andrew Shields
    Feb 18, 2022

    Not sure how I missed Shelagh up to now Such a fine voice and such a great introduction to her work. Thanks Martyn.

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