I had to give a short talk at the Scottish Learning Festival (an exhibition-cum-conference at the SECC) a couple of weeks ago: an occasional occupational hazard. It took place in a hotel suite. I was just closing the laptop and turning off the projector when the next speaker walked into the suite, ready to set up for his presentation. Instead of seeing a sallow man in a Next suit (as is usually the case at these events), I was confronted by a tanned figure wearing armour, a kilt and a helmet, carrying a broadsword. Which is something you don't see everyday.
Most people that I've mentioned this to have said "It wasn't Jesse Rae, was it?" And yes, it was. Who hell he? Well, apart from being famous for wearing his kilt and armour at all times, (has anyone ever seen him without it?) he had a number of near-hits in the pop charts in the mid-80s; the video for one in particular (Over The Sea) was played on The Tube a lot (and greatly admired at the time by Martin Scorsese, if I remember correctly).
Now, given Jesse's preferred garb, you'd be forgiven for assuming that his stock-in-trade was twee Scottish whimsy, Donald Where's Yer Troosers-type stuff. Incredibly, however, he's chosen to take his chances in the world of soul and funk. And not just a feeble British pastiche of the genre, either. On his CV, Jesse can list work alongside heavyweights like Roger Troutman of Zapp, Bernie Worrell (that's him in the video for Over The Sea) and Mike Hampton of Parliament/Funkadelic, Jocelyn Brown and Tackhead (see mp3 download below for a sample of JR with Keith LeBlanc, Skip McDonald and Doug Wimbish). Equally incredibly, he also wrote Inside Out for Odyssey, the royalties for which presumably kept the wolf from the door for a few years (though sadly, not enough to prevent the Royal Bank of Scotland from bankrupting him a few years ago. Check the name at the top of the letterhead. I bet Mr. Rae is laughing right now). On top of all this, he seems to be standing as an MSP in 2011, too.
So what was he doing giving a talk an education conference? Well, according to biographies he was an early adopter of ISDN technology, using it to record with musicians around the world from the comfort of his home in St. Boswell's. He's now extending this experience with Brick FM, an online radio station that is forging links with local schools and which similarly connect disparate communities around the world, the global and the local, just as his early videos did. The title of his talk, Be Yer Sel, reminds us that all his work, from the Brooklyn Bridge-to-The Borders video for Over The Sea to the present, is connected with identity, whether his own constructed identity, the fractured self-identity of today's learners, or the identities of other disparate communities around the world. Or something like that.
You can see Jesse's official, record company funded videos on YouTube*, but the best stuff is the privately shot, unofficial stuff on Jesse's own channel. Here you can see an ecological rap by David Bellamy, the late Roger Troutman performing on the back of a lorry in a field in Scotland, and a funk workout on a Scottish patio adorned with upturned children's toys and a disused barbecue. Enjoy, and salute the slightly unhinged, nationalist genius of Jesse Rae.
Download All Souls by Strange Parcels with Jesse Rae (mp3) (deleted Aug 2009)