Rab Noakes biography

Rab Noakes continues to be an unstoppable force to be reckoned with in the world of music in Scotland and beyond.

In 2020 – The Expedition Continues for Rab. He’ll be out-and-about with a variety of line-ups, solo and collaborative. Upcoming highlights in 2020 include a sequence of dates devoted to the 50th Anniversary of ‘Do you see the lights?’, his debut LP. The shows will feature two sets. One set will be devoted to the LP’s 12 songs, in sequence. The other set will feature songs from the period, many of which appeared on ‘Demos & Rarities Vol One’. They include ‘Turn a deaf ear’, ‘(What would have happened) if I’d stayed around?’, ‘November afternoon’, ‘Long time no see’, ‘It could be you’, ‘Looking up into the sun’, ‘Debts pile high’, ‘Taking the long way home’, ‘Long way round’ and others.

The year began with a full-house for the 50th Anniversary of The Great Fife Road Show plus a trio of Celtic Connections appearances. One of these celebrated Archie Fisher at 80. Another was in celebration of Jimmie Macgregor at 90. The third was a new job for Rab, as Christine Hanson perceptively invited him to narrate/recite the Robert W. Service poem, in her musical setting of ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’. Into March and Rab took part in a festival in Aberdour in Fife devoted to the Fife roots of Johnny Cash called Cash Back and then…

Right there everything changes. COVID-19 shuts everything down and eventually no 2020 dates remain in the Calendar. Rab has appeared on a couple of internet activities but no other performances. His musical activities have mainly been around Musicians’ Union activity where via STUC he has engaged in dialogue with Scottish Government about how to alleviate the precarious nature of the world far too many musicians find themselves in now.

Recent years have seen Rab’s lifetime in music’n’song flourish as he continues to tour and record. In 2019 he has embarked on a 5-year expedition titled ‘Distance No Object’. In recent years he has been receiving awards such as a Nordoff-Robbins Tartan Clef for Contribution to Music and a Hands up for Trad award for Services to Performance. He is delighted to have been included in the Fife Free Press 40 Fifers of 2018. Recent highlights in his professional life include the production of high-profile, commemorative concerts for long-time compadres Gerry Rafferty and Michael Marra. Amongst a number of solo outings, many of 2020’s shows will be in collaboration, in duo outings. The collaborators include Rod Clements, Barbara Dickson, Jill Jackson, Kathleen MacInnes, Allan Taylor and Brooks Williams.

2019 followed on from an active 2018 when the year began as Rab took part in a series of appearances at Celtic Connections all featuring songs from repertoires other than his own songs. They were followed throughout the year with more solo shows under the title ‘Hitting the right note in 2018’ and a few creative collaborations with Rod Clements, Jill Jackson and Allan Taylor, each of which will continue.

In June 2018 the album ‘Welcome to Anniversaryville’ featuring new songs and some revisits to ‘landmark songs’ was released.

In May of 2017 Rab turned 70 and marked the 50th anniversary of his first properly-billed, paid gig. These landmarks were celebrated throughout the year, across the country and beyond. They began with a major concert at Celtic Connections. This featured an eight-piece band and was extremely well-received by audience and reviewers alike.

Recent years have been a mixture of successes and challenges. Early in 2015 Rab was diagnosed with tonsillar cancer. The treatment that followed was, to say the least, rigorous. At the earliest opportunity he was playing the guitar and singing. New songs began to emerge, songs that were based on the experience of the treatment and formed a significant role in the recovery process. Six of them are gathered on Rab’s release – The Treatment Tapes EP. There’s no self-pity though, here you’ll find defiance, resilience, love, support and wit.   

Rab’s previous release was the acclaimed double-CD ‘I’m walkin’ here’. During 2016 he was to be found on tour, mainly solo, promoting that album. He’s also often found in collaboration with others and in his part as a singer and guitar-player in the ‘Grit’ orchestra which played at both WOMAD and Edinburgh International Festivals in 2015 and 2016. That year also saw collaboration with a long-time colleague Barbara Dickson as well as a part in the Neil Young tribute night in Glasgow ‘Long may you run’.

The ‘I’m walkin’ here’ album, which features many new Rab new songs alongside some characteristically interestingly wide-ranging interpretations, was received with high praise in reviews and has attracted positive comment from audience and journalists alike.

These recordings were made in John Cavanagh’s Muirend studio and feature an interesting collection of musicians (mostly selected by John) including Una McGlone, Stu Brown, Harry Hussey and Ula Zoola. Rab is joined by a stellar array of singers including Jill Jackson, Roddy Hart, Emma Pollock, Jimmie Macgregor, Alice Marra and Hilary Brooks.

As far as other recordings go, 2014 saw the CD release of two albums plus one EP. 

The 40th anniversary of ‘Red Pump Special’ was issued, along with ‘Demos and Rarities Vol2 – adventures with Gerry Rafferty’. The EP ‘Reunited’, a performance-based clutch of songs with Barbara Dickson, is also available. 

Back in 2014 Rab was busy and productive. A sold-out January concert at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections featured the whole of the 1974 album ‘Red Pump Special’ in the first half followed by selections from his newer songs in the second. This show was also delivered in a more stripped-down version in June that year.

2014 contained many Rab solo shows and a couple with harmonica-ace and occasional collaborator Fraser Speirs.

Not to mention the other creative collaborations. These include the ‘Reunited’ tour with Barbara Dickson. He has also been touring with acclaimed Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes with a variation on their ‘Love, Ballads and Murder’ show.

In January 2015 Rab played a significant guest role in the prestigious Opening Concert at Celtic Connections, an orchestration of Martyn Bennett’s acclaimed ‘Grit’ album by Greg Lawson. 

In previous Celtic Connections festivals Rab played a pivotal role in the production of a commemorative concert for Gerry Rafferty in 2012 and one for Michael Marra in 2013. Rab had been close to each of those artists for many years.

Rab’s first fully-professional engagements were in 1967. Over 50 years and more than 20 albums later he remains a vital, popular, prolific and acclaimed songwriter and performer. 

Rab is hard to pin down in terms of influences. He is an accomplished songwriter whose songs reflect his lifelong interest in the popular song, in folk song and in songwriting. Alongside his acclaimed performance skills as applied to his own compositions his celebrated interpretations feature songs from sources as diverse as Elizabeth Cotten to Beck Hansen. 

His professional life embraces such activities as media production. Rab is also elected to the Executive Committee of the Musicians’ Union so, at times, he’ll be representing the MU membership somewhere in the world.

Rab’s first album ‘Do you see the lights?’ was released in 1970. Thirty years later in the year 2000 he, along with his wife Stephy, formed their own record label, Neon, and produced a couple of new releases.  

Before he and Stephy set up Neon in 1995 he spent an eight-year spell at the BBC where he produced music and entertainment shows radio in Manchester for Network Radio and subsequently headed the entertainment department at Radio Scotland. A formal job in that medium was appropriate as the radio had played a major part in Noakes’s creative development from an early age.

So, further into the 21st century you’ll most likely find Rab on the road, playing in a town near you, either solo or in one of his creative collaborations. 

It’ll be some time yet until he stops making songs, TV and radio programmes, or some other creative noise.