Thursday, November 04, 2010

When England Went Missing...

Robin Williamson
Green Note Cafe, Camden Town
Oct 28

Have the salad, with a choice of five mini-portions of tapas. Or have the special: Louise spoke most highly of the Pumpkin pie. But get there early if you want a seat. I'd be surprised if the venue holds fifty, and all the chairs which aren't actually bar-stools are reserved for diners. We learned our lesson at the Martin Carthy gig in January. This time, I joined the queue at 6PM and kept getting mistaken for the bouncer.

"Which did you like more, the first set or the second set?" said the elderly gentleman I'd been chatting to in the queue. (He used to run a folk club in Newcastle and had lots of stories to tell about performers from the olden days.)

Well... The first set was based around the harp. The songs seemed to run into each other, as if Robin starts with a set-list but keeps finding that the spirit of the music has carried him away. He opens with a couple of traditional Scottish harp pieces, but then (maybe just when we're starting to wonder if this is going to be a purely instrumental set) starts to wonder who moved the black castle and who moved the white queen. Oh it's that old forgotten question: what is it that we are part of? And what is it that we are?

I've been trying to think of a word to describe Williamson. Whimsical? Psychedelic? There's certainly some nonsensical oddness in some of his lyrics ("an elephant madness has covered the sun / the judge and the juries are playing for fun") and some of the time he doesn't so much sing as chant -- even howl -- while his fingers move effortlessly over his harp. Strange? Surreal? But it feels as if the words and the tune and the music are meaningful; as if he really does see himself in the role of an inspired bard and is struggling to put his insights into mortal words.

He does a absolutely astonishing piece called Battle of the Trees – a story of King Arthur from the the Mabinogion or somewhere like that. He sings it, recites it, chants it, improvises around it on the harp. He stops playing to tell the us the names of the three treasures which Arthur was seeking ("Say their names with me") and the three worlds of Celtic mythology. Then he sings a strange ballad which references the song. He says that the stories of "this island" only lived on the printed page, and that was not the place for them, so he developed a way of turning them into performance pieces.

In the second half, he puts the harp away and gets out his guitar. (If the big drum is used at all, it's only for tapping with his foot.) He gives us October Song, of course, and that daft old country and western song called "You keep me stoned on your love" which he loves so much, and gets us all singing along to "Goodbye my sweetheart, goodbye my dear-oh" and an old blues song which goes something like "Whang-dang-doodle". Some singers ask the audience to join in. Williamson improvises around the audience. He growls out different versions of the "whang dang doodle" refrain while the audience keeps up the melody. But always, that hippy strangeness. A song about his mother and the various women who brought him up is called "Since words can fly invisible / I send this song to you my dear ones gone."

He tells us that he's going to finish with a song by "my old friend Mike Heron". This is, of course, Painting Box. The version on 3,000 Layers of the Onion has a slightly knowing whimsicality about it: here, it's distanced and made strange by Williamson's bardic delivery. But the songs seem to take over again, and without anyone having to ask for an encore, he goes straight into Way Back in the 1960s "This was funny when I wrote it, because it was about the future; but now, it's rather sad." No: it's still as clever and strange and funny as it always was, and it always was terribly poignant. "That was way way before before wild World War Three, when England went missing and we moved to Paraguay."

2011, he says, will be his 50th year as a performer.

The first set or the second set? Battle of the Trees is certainly the song I'd like to take home with me: I've literally never heard anything else like it; and I don't think anyone else could do anything remotely similar. Possibly some of the new songs in the second half -- the one about his mother, the one about Bina his wife -- had a slight sense of sameness about them.

But really, it's a half-remarkable question. We weren't there to hear the songs. We were there to hear Robin Williamson. The programme described him as "charismatic". And didn't "charisma" originally mean mean "one with a gift from God"?

Yes; that's the word I was searching for. There's a quality about Williamson and his music which I can only describe as "holiness".


Jody Macgregor said...

On the subject of harpists, I am suddenly very curious about what you make of Joanna Newsom. Have you heard her?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I am afraid I've never heard her. And very annoyingly, she did a gig in Bristol in September and I didn't spot that she was the sort of thing I might like.