The Man From Leith is a collection that spans 20 years and the seven studio albums made by Scottish singer/songwriter Dean Owens. Drawing from his own experiences, family and travels this new release presents his talents as a natural storyteller. Whether slow acoustic ballad or uptempo with one of his several bands Owens connects with his audience through his tales of love, loss and just, well, life that should strike a chord with anyone. Certainly Bob Harris and author Irvine Welsh, who wrote the sleeve notes, count themselves as fans.
Title track and opener is where it all begins. Owens grew up in Leith, Edinburgh’s port,
‘Man From Leith’ tells the story of his father’s life starting in the shipyard, then the army before working the roads of Scotland. Though often apart physically theirs was a close bond. Owens makes clear his gratitude for the important lessons in life he learnt from his dad.
Family plays a huge part in Owens’s life and songwriting. ‘Dora’ is about his grandmother, Dora Salvona Owens whose family had a travelling circus. Having visited her grave in Inverness Owens delved into his family tree, “you never know what’s there/ Way up in the family tree/ That’s where you’ll find her/ Dora from the River Dee”. You’ll also find a few others, the owner Ambrose Salvona, Charlie the Boneless Wonder and Koko the Clown.
Owens’ has deep reserves of sensitivity as he deals with loss and its consequent grief that never goes away. ‘Evergreen’ looks back to happier times with his sister who passed away a few years ago. Accompanied by Kim Richey Owens sings in a voice that aches with that deep sadness but as they soar, you feel they tie a bond with that past, never to be broken.
A knack for setting is a feature of Owens’s songwriting. “My Town’ from 2004 is a rueful lament for the city where he grew up now being torn down. But what will never change are the friendships from those years gone by. ‘Up On The Hill’ moves to a part of Edinburgh where he’d walk with his beloved and, sadly recently lost, dog Alfie. Everything about the song is uplifting. You become that lovely little fella, skipping along without a care. The man from Leith also spent happy times 45 miles to the west. ’Raining in Glasgow’ is an Owens classic. Written in Australia his yearning for a bit of rain is palpable. Likewise, ‘Virginia Street’ reminisces about where he lived in that same fine city.
Two songs stand out that mark the two main influences that run through much of what Owens has released. ‘Strangers Again’, a lovely duet with Scottish folk singer Katrine Polwart, marks his Scottish roots. From his album Cashback- Songs I Learned From Johnny ‘The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin’ is homage to his love of country music. In a scarily similar drawl to a perfect “boom chicka boom” The Man From Leith turns into The Man in Black.
Of all seven solo albums his most recent Southern Wind best combines these two forces. Described as “Celtic spirit, country soul’. his collaboration with Nashville heavyweights Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough fuses roots from both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Elvis Was My Brother’ shows how American music filled family gaps in Scotland. ‘Southern Wind’ starts with a modest breeze that works up into a full blown gale. “Feel the wind blowing/ feel the wind howl/ Southern wind blowing” sending The Man From Leith to Music City.
For the established fan, The Man From Leith is a very well-selected collection that spans the breadth of Dean Owens’s work. For the newcomer it is an ideal start to explore the previous seven records. Whether old or new, this is a sumptuous package, particularly for the vinyl buff, and we can all look forward to much more from this first-rate Leith troubadour.