Farringdon is a good place for a winter walk. At night the streets empty of office busy-bodies, and the closes, vennels and crooked church gardens are bathed in a cold, sleepy stillness. Mists rise up from the grasses, and Victorian streetlamps burn in muffled light.
St. Andrew’s Day for me is always a day of transition, a day for going inward. Advent is a time of contemplation.
When St. Andrew’s Day comes you know it is time to climb back inside yourself, to refuse the duties and dissatisfactions of modern living. It’s a time to reconnect with the ancient culture that keeps you alive, to let the sounds and voices in your bones deliver you a message for the coming year.
Alasdair Roberts returned to London last week to play a beautifully intimate and poetic set at Farringdon’s Slaughtered Lamb pub.
Kicking off his set with Pangs, which is a track from his new album set for release in 2017, Roberts channeled a more physical, rock and roll stage presence than the previous gigs I have seen him play.
Typically, Roberts’s music is a refreshing tonic to the overabundance of Americana in the folk world, but Pangs is positively Dylanesque.
It’s also a perfect piece for Robert’s folk trio, a kind of Glasgow supergroup with Alex Neilson of The Trembling Bells on drums, and Stevie Jones – AKA Sound of Yell – on bass.
If Pangs doesn’t get serious 6 Music radio play I’ll eat my bonnet.
Following that came renditions of The Fair Maid Of Northumberland, In Dispraise of Hunger and The Whole House is Singing.
The Fair Maid Of Northumberland is a regular feature of Alasdair Roberts’s sets. However, I have heard him do it a cappella and I prefer it.
In Dispraise Of Hunger, from his last album, came alive in this performance. The trio format, with a rhythm section and a front man on guitar, places a lot of emphasis on the vocalist. As a result the lyrical texture of this mysterious and deeply philosophical song was put centre stage.
There is no doubt that Alasdair Roberts inherits a great deal from the “folk baroque” tradition. His accompaniment style is a fingerstyling, articulate mode of playing in the line of Martin Carthy.
A song like In Dispraise of Hunger, however, shows that Roberts is far more than just a cerebral instrumentalist. It’s not all about the obscure chords and tunings.
Roberts has a poet’s relish of wordplay, a witty and even sarcastic way with folkish images, and In Dispraise Of Hunger is an example of his ability to deliver complex ideas and delve fearlessly into the knotted conflicts of the human heart.
Roberts’s songs are complex in their structure, but his lyricism is also deeply sophisticated, and grounded in a bardic beauty.
His performance of The Whole House Is Singing was a highlight of the evening. The mischief and courageous idiosyncrasies of his writing are again present in this song from his 2003 album Farewell Sorrow.
It was the performance itself that stuck with me. Roberts is a singer who draws on hidden powers to drive home his point. In the singing of this song there was rage, fragility, belly-laughing absurdity and spiritual honesty, all combined at once in each stabbing phrase.
A rasping, Viking cry punctuated the characteristically brittle and jagged tenderness of Roberts’s normally composed and restraint vocals.
In the second half of the set The Amber Gatherers was a beautiful highlight, again benefiting from the spartan, direct playing from the band and the emphasis on the vocalist brought out by that format.
The poet Robin Robertson joined Alasdair onstage for an inspired and arresting rendition of a song written for the album Hirta Songs, which the two artists co-wrote together.
Robertson’s voice drags you back into an intimate past. For all those who say that performance poetry should be free of the “poetic voice”, and should be as akin to direct conversation as possible – you should listen to Roberts and Robertson’s collaborations.
The poetic voice is a musical instrument. And Robertson’s use of place names and the incantatory qualities of Viking and Gaelic language residues activate parts of a cultural consciousness that are unavailable to the modern mind.
The evening was rounded off by a solo encore from Alasdair Roberts singing the hilarious and touching ballad Jock Hawk’s Adventures In Glasgow.
Telling the story of a young country boy let loose on a merciless city, the ballad is one of booze, prostitutes and disillusionment. It’s a perfect vehicle for Roberts’s ironic but deeply honest wit as a performer.
What struck me most about this gig was the lyrical performance from Roberts. Backed by the ingenious and constantly inventive drumming of Alex Neilson, and the seemingly unbeatable musical instincts of Stevie Jones, Alasdair was free to show what he was made of as a vocalist.
In terms of sheer pathos and power, Scarce of Fishing and The Whole House Is Singing were notable moments of rapture and grace.
Roberts’s lyrics are crafted, ironic and deeply imbued with a poetic sensitivity.
I have long been a fan of him as a musician, and as the best ballad singer alive today.
However, I have a renewed respect for him as a solo performer and as a poet, someone who has the ability to tap into my cultural subconscious without being heavy handed, who has both delicacy and fearsome talent in his use of imagery and voice.
Alasdair Roberts’s new album Pangs will be available in early 2017