Book Review: DOUG MACLEOD –The Authorized Compact Biography by Vincent Abbate

DOUG MACLEOD - Vincent Abbate

Create Space Independent Publishing Platform [Published 18.09.18]

Vicente Abbate’s 143 page paperback ‘Doug MacLeod: The Authorized Compact Biography’, takes a unique approach in his appreciation of his blues hero.

Abbate dives straight into the first time he came across the acoustic musician’s emotive storytelling blues in Dresden 2002, when: ‘his music spoke to me’.

It isn’t until page 82 that MacLeod’s transition from electric to acoustic in 1994 is mentioned and the author notes: ‘he invigorates the country blues by incorporating all his musical influences’.

And it’s those very influences that the author sets to uncover, albeit in a very circuitous manner. Abbate digs deep to get to the kernel of McLeod’s lyrics and playing style, but a lack of rigorous structure gives the book an impressionistic conversational feel, which probably reflects the artist’s way of communicating.

Abbate sets out the book’s mission statement thus: “I hope to bring you a little bit closer to the man.” He helpfully adds: “I hope you feel his spirit.”

He mostly achieve that aim, by getting MacLeod to open up about a troubled past and the way his songs provide a cathartic release for what’s gone before.

Abbate cleverly uses the lyrical meaning of MacLeod’s album ‘Break The Chain’ to show us how it: “expresses one man’s fractured relationship to his own distant past.”

He gathers together snapshots of a chequered career that his subject sometimes delivers in an almost ironic flashback. There are droll moment, when for example, MacLeod realizes the potential for attracting women by being the guitar player and fronting the band, not an easy move given his stutter. But it was the blues that gave him his voice.

Then there’s the towering figure of Ernest Banks in his life, with his enduring dictums: “Never play a note you don’t believe” and: “Never write or sing about what you don’t know about.”  And that pretty well sums up MacLeod’s approach since the mid 90’s, though it’s tempered by a  survivors instinct: “If women aren’t dancing, the men ain’t buying them drinks. And if the men ain’t spending money, then you ain’t getting paid.”

Small illuminating moments like that tell you a whole lot more about the man than any scholarly research would.

MacLeod cut his teeth on the early 80’s west coast blues populated by the likes of Albert Collins, Smokey Wilson a young Rod Piazza, Pee Wee Crayton, Big Mama Thornton Hollywood Fats, Walter Trout and his mentor George ‘Harmonica’ Smith.

Given a bigger book the author might have said more about that 80’s scene West Coast scene, though he does briefly focus on Pee Wee Crayton in a later chapter.

The books suddenly dips into the making of MacLeod’s 2017 album ‘Break The Chain’, an album about the human condition, which features a title track that specifically focuses on his own experiences in breaking the cycle of family violence and abuse.

Overall, McLeod takes a positive view of the music he plays, viewing blues as ‘overcoming adversity’ and not ‘subject to adversity’. Significantly, he also calls blues musicians entertainers rather than artists.

The book works hard to balance the author’s intuitive approach with a lack of flow due to its staccato structure. This is exemplified by 8 pages of photos, which had there been a clearer chronology would surely have been included in the text.

We’re then dropped into autobiographical tales which give an insight into MacLeod colourful past and seasoned playing techniques: “what I’m doing with my right hand: That’s my personality.”

There are meetings with Chuck Berry, BB King, Robert Lockwood Jr. and his mentor George ‘Harmonica’ Smith, as well as his own tales from the boudoir. It makes for an interesting life that now suggests contentment, both as a songwriter or performer.

Deep into the book, MacLeod meets Willie Dixon who covered one of his songs. And it’s Dixon who neatly sums up the reason why you suspect the author Abbate was drawn to his subject in the first place: “blues is the true facts of life.” ***

Review by Pete Feenstra

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