Eric Bogle, At This Stage (Rouseabout, 2005)

Over the years since he emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1969, Eric Bogle has developed an enormous reputation in folk and Celtic circles. It could be argued quite compellingly that nobody has written better songs about war. Bogle's songrwriting covers many facets of the human condition, though, with plenty of humor to counterbalance the sadness. The original version of the album At This Stage consisted of a concert from 1984 and contained most of what would be considered his greatest hits. This two-CD set, released in 2005 with the same title, contains all the material from the original version along with some performances of newer tunes.

Every song except the very first one ("Hard, Hard Times," about the plight of aboriginals) is preceded by an introduction on a separate track. The listener thus has the option of skipping all the talking, which gets quite lengthy at points, but the introductions do provide a considerable amount of insight into Bogle's personality and songwriting, along with the true stories behind most of the songs. "A Reason For It All" was inspired by an article about a woman whose body was found in her house nearly a year after her death; nobody, not even her two children, had checked up on her during that whole time. "No Man's Land," a classic song about the brutally pointless waste of an entire generation of young men in the First World War, was written after a visit to a hopelessly vast French graveyard. Bogle's trademark song is the often-covered "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda," a song about an ANZAC soldier critically wounded by a Turkish shell in Gallipoli. In the introduction to this song, Bogle mentions a letter received from somebody who identified himself as A. Nonymous. This person felt that the song was crippling the moral fiber of Australian youth and preventing them from opposing communism. When the yellow tide reaches Australia, the writer went on -- Bogle wasn't sure if the "yellow tide" referred to the Chinese or Russians with jaundice -- he hoped Bogle would be among the first to get shot. On one level, I suppose it's reassuring to know that crude comments from ignorant right-wingers preceded the internet by at least a decade or two.

Bogle also has written some very humorous songs, which provide some needed relief from the very weighty material in his typical set. "Nobody's Moggy Now" was inspired by a truck route into the outback that evidently runs through some residential areas, leaving colorful displays of feline roadkill along its sides. (Cat lovers might consider skipping this one, but if you know the song and like it, Bogle's flub on the word "masticating" is worth the price of the CD.) Giving equal play to dogs, "Little Gomez" tells the tale of a rather horny chihuahua who meets his match trying to mate with a St. Bernard. His set closer is "I Don't Know Any Bob Dylan." It was the curse of folkies in Bogle's generation to be asked to sing Dylan songs everywhere they brought their guitar, whether they wanted to sing Dylan or not, and Bogle vents his frustrations in a very funny way with this song.

The performances on At This Stage are quite solid throughout, and at least match the studio versions that I've heard. As Bogle's "best of" CD's are much harder to find presently than this album is, this is as good an introduction to Bogle's music as you're likely to get. Certainly "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda" and "No Man's Land" (also called "The Green Fields of France" by some of the performers who've covered it) are songs that everybody should know. Of the newer songs, my favorite is a light-hearted song about continuity in life called "The Dalai Lama's Candle," originally recorded in 2002. Eric Bogle is a master of eliciting powerful emotional responses from his audiences. Sometimes he'll make you laugh, and sometimes he'll have you reaching for the kleenex. At This Stage brings together most of his best songs in a live context, complete with the stories behind them. Any fan of Bogle, and anybody interested in hearing a great singer-songwriter, will like this recording.

Overall grade: A

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