The word ballad has the same root as ballet. Ballads were originally dance songs, but overtime became more associated with storytelling.
Though you couldn’t breakdance to his music, and you don’t feel like bursting into a drunken reel, Alasdair Roberts’s folk accompaniment style has traces of the balladic dance tradition.
The opening bars of his version of The Cruel Mother, from his 2005 album No Earthly Man, have the feel of a courtly dance – the composed, restrained drama of the baroque.
The first stanzas seem to tell of a violent birth, ominously expected, a royal birth even, that may throw a nation into chaos.
The creeping percussion, and abrasive lilt of the accompaniment, paint their own picture of tragedy and moral outrage.
As a solo performer of ballads, it is easy to fall into repetitiveness, and rely the recurrent simplicity to create hypnotic effect.
Alasdair does not do this. This song, already lyrically complex and epic in its scope, is arranged so that the subtle shifts of narrative suggestion are given an added, hidden momentum by the music.
The Cruel Mother ballad has a lot of variants, but each version of the song tells of a murder, and the haunting of the mother by her dead children.
When she sees the ghost of her child, the mother says she would give him fine silks, dress him like a prince. However, she didn’t see fit to dress him that way when he was living flesh.
In this version, there seems to be something political in the song’s currents, a prophesy of disorder and war.
Either that, or the song itself is a curse, and the symbolism of the lion, the fish in the flood, the streaking sun across the walled city, are images that contain dangerous spiritual power.
In any case, it doesn’t matter. Alasdair’s arrangement and performance bring a song otherwise clenched in the museum of British heritage, into full bloom.
Alasdair’s voice is a reedy, sometimes scorching, but always versatile, storyteller’s voice. There is a crooked, Germanic, gothic texture in his phrasings, but also a luxurious wit and self-awareness.
His instrumentation and musicianship demolish the assumption that to be powerful and create an intimate experience, the arrangements should be “stripped back”.
Rather, it is the the space, and carefully measured emotive pace of the arrangements, that give a song its power.
Alasdair makes traditional songs like this seem worryingly immediate. You can’t hide behind the abstractions of tradition, you have to face the murders, the betrayals and sickly heroics in real time, as they occur in the moment of the story’s telling.
Alasdair Roberts doesn’t do folk songs as historical curiosities, but as works of art with tangible, jugular, theatrical impact.
Roberts is the closest thing the Scots tradition has to a genuine blues singer. Not in the sense of white-man-sings-the-blues, but in the sense of an individual voice reigniting a tradition with each phrase and carp.
Alasdair Roberts plays London’s Slaughtered Lamb pub in Clerkenwell tonight. He will be touring a great deal in the New Year with various collaborations. For more information visit alasdairroberts.com/live