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Edinburgh Songwriters in the 90's…

An article written by Norman Lamont in 1997 about the original Edinburgh Songwriters scene…

The Edinburgh Songwriters Showcase

I was there at the start. Well, not quite the first session, but back in 1993 in the Gallery Bar (now the Car Wash) at the top of the Mound – near enough to count as an elder of the ESS. I’d seen an ad somewhere for Workers In Song – Songwriters welcome to perform original material only, open stage. This was a revelation. Apart from the title – a Leonard Cohen reference with suitable Scottish Socialist overtones – it was the idea that someone actually wanted you to play your own stuff.

For years I’d played folk clubs where original material was at best tolerated, at worst dismissed as self-indulgent or pretentious. The warmest applause was always for a well-known tune, be it traditional or a cover version, turned out well. You could get round it by being a) famous or b) an excellent guitarist, neither of which I was. Outside the folk clubs my small experience of band life was that pubs wanted bands playing what people knew; original material had to be sneaked in between crowd-pleasers.

I thought ‘This sounds too good to be true – you probably have to have written something Scottish and political on a par with Dick Gaughan. I’ll die.’ But you hadn’t and I didn’t. I went along and gave of my best to a small but warm audience. I met Tom McEwan (T G McEwan he was then) and realised I’d seen him before. This was the six-string terrorist who had assaulted the otherwise polite and traditional Folk Club Songwriters Competition with an anti-Scottish Nationalist diatribe called Ethnic Cleansing, a belt of harmonicas like ammunition round his waist.

Soon afterwards Tom took over the club from his co-host Niall McDevitt and in October 93 moved it to the Tron, under the less elevated but more descriptive title of Edinburgh Songwriters Showcase. At this point it began to flourish. A core of regulars – Tom, Damien, Dominic, Kors (see the end for the full Roll of Honour) – would perform a 15-minute set each week but more important, they actively welcomed and listened to a range of wannabes (yours truly included) who were – and here’s the point – not always that good! This was an audience who would tolerate forgotten words, fluffed intros, off-mike vocals, stolen chord sequences and floor-aimed mumbling, because we knew we’d all been there and how else were singers to get the experience?

Not that it was always rapt attention – some performers held us more than others, but everyone got a round of applause, somewhere on a scale between encouragement and downright astonishment, and an invitation to return. The only sin was doing a cover version.

It’s been scientifically proven (Lamont, Spriggot & McMarkham, 1997) that six weeks regular appearances at the ESS, with a receptive audience, lights and a sympatico soundman would give a new songwriter the equivalent of 65.5 months singing into a cassette machine in a bedroom. The sociological benefit has been unquestionable.

Some brought other musicians to the stage; some brought backing tapes. Some recited poetry over tapes or MIDI files; some took their clothes off; some brought sing-along words onto the stage on huge posters.

After a few years there was even a one-off covers night. Tom leapt on the furniture to do ‘Born to Run’, Woodstock Taylor did a note-perfect ‘Life on Mars’ on piano, and I got to do the ‘I’m crying’ backing vocal to Scott Fraser’s ‘I Am the Walrus’ – at last a reason to live.

Tom backed out in ’95 and a succession of dedicated souls made it continue to happen until 1998. Two CDs were produced, and Woodstock Taylor and Polly Phillips introduced the Showcase to the Edinburgh Festival each year with a showcase linked to London clubs and songwriting competitions.

In its final years I was a much less frequent visitor to the Showcase, and a much less frequent performer. Having long gaps between my visits has brought home to me rather strikingly the hothouse effect of the ESS on new performers. There have been times, friends, when it has been painful. I’ve watched performers who I thought would be better advised to take up employment as pillarboxes or party balloons.

And yet… and yet … I’ve come back months later and found these same people turning out songs I’d love to have written, and putting together from their range of influences a style of their own, with confidence and originality I would never have predicted from first seeing them. The difference, as they say, is striking.

And while it’s great to see the ‘graduates’ of the ESS – Dominic Waxing Lyrical, Khaya, Polly Phillips and more – make a name for themselves outside, the value and lasting contribution of the ESS was to give many more singers and writers 15 minutes to be themselves, week after week, until they reach the point where they know – and their audience knows – they’ve got it right!

At the time of writing, the ESS exists only in the history books (exaggeration), but it lives on in everything but name in the open mic spots run by Acoustic Underground, in several venues across Edinburgh and in the excellent Out of the Bedroom at the Waverly.

Roll of honour from the early years of ESS (with thanks to Tom McEwan for reminders):

  • Damien Sullivan (sorry I can’t do the Gaelic spelling!)
  • Dominic Harris (the brilliant Dominic Waxing Lyrical)
  • Kors
  • Nikki Sbaffoni from the USA
  • Stewart Hanratty
  • Sophie Bancroft
  • Julianne McCambridge(?)
  • Al
  • David’s Baby
  • Ewan Burke
  • Gordon McDonald
  • Alan Ness
  • Polly Phillips
  • Jason Pillay (now Nobody Jones)
  • Alex the Poet
  • John Hicks
  • Martin Morrey
  • Scott Fraser (Scott and Pod)
  • Christina and Alan
  • William George
  • Q
  • my own band, Hungry Ghosts

also too famous to claim but regulars for a while:

  • Christine Kydd
  • Lorraine Jordan
  • Fjaere

© Norman Lamont 1997

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