Most artists wind up their acts with something catchy and happy which the audience can sing along to so they leave with the gig with a spring in their step. Alasdair Roberts chooses to end his act with the Cruel Mother, a charming little ditty about a lady who strangles her babies and goes to hell. (Some people have tried to rehabilitate her, pointing out that in the Olden Days, baby-strangling may have been the only viable form of contraception but it's still not an obvious crowd-pleaser.) Granted, we get to sing-along-an-infanticide but it's not the usual "down in the green woods of ivory-oh" refrain. Oh no. Mr Roberts has dug up a version where the refrain goes: "The sun shines down on Carlisle Wall / And the lion shall be lord of all." Which doesn't seem particularly relevant. He thinks the lion may be a celtic sun god, which hardly helps at all. Oh, and despite having two very good accompanists in tow (Rafe Fitzpatrick, double bass, Stevie Jones, fiddle) he sings it unaccompanied. He's tall and thin; his long guitarist's fingers are clenched like claws; his arms flail as he intones or chants the horrible words until I almost thought he was gong to go into convulsions.
It was in short, absolutely magnificent. As good a piece of straight ballad singing as I think I've ever heard. Readers of Twitter will already be aware that I was ****ing gobsmacked: I can't remember when I've been this enthusiastic about a performer after one hearing. (Mr Chris Wood was and is something of an acquired taste.)
Much of the rest of the evening is equally Scottish and equally miserable. We hear about Bonnie Suzie who was burned (in Dundee) for the unpardonable crime of marrying an Englishman; and the martyrdom of little St Hugh of Lincoln. Roberts is very much concerned about the provenance of his traditional songs. If he is going do a standard like Golden Vanity (the one about the cabin boy who single-handedly sinks a Spanish Galleon while sailing in the low coun-tree) you can be sure it is going to be based on a specific recording made in Edinburgh in 1901.
But mostly he sings his own songs. Jaw-droppingly brilliant songs. (Literally so: Bristol's leading folk-journalist may be able to provide a sketch of me sitting at my table, open-mouthed, ignoring my beer.) When looking for someone to compare him with, I keep coming back to the Incredible String Band. Much tighter, more focussed, more sober, not to say dour, than the ISB ever were: but the same complex, rambling, freeform songs that take you on a melodic journey, you aren't sure where to. The same preoccupation with the mythic. The same slight tendency toward the overblown lyric. (I scribbled "the psychopomp of the cosmogenic egg" in my notebook at one point.) Some singers introduce songs by saying "this is about the miners' strike" or "this is about growing up in Scunthorpe". Alasdair says things like: "This is about Anankey, who in Greek mythology is the mother of the fates and the holder of the spindle of necessity." But you never feel that the words are taking over. The mythological song starts with an instrumental passage, almost like a Sydney Carter carol; from which the hymn to Ananke seems to arise naturally. "Who is the threader of the needle and who is orderer of all our states; who is the holder of the spindle and who is the architect of all our fates": he sings. (You can hear the tune in the lyric.) Each gnomic question is repeated over and over, with it's own little tune, and the piece seems to end in a joyful chant "It is Anankey, it is Anankey, by whom we are all begot". (How many lyricists would say "by whom"?) The obligatory Scottish Folksong About Scotland which ends the first set consists of four or five seperate melodic gems, strung out on an end-of-the-pier fiddle-tune. The music-hall melody masks the cynicism. "It's nice to be here on edge of empire.....Oh Caledonia, my Caledonia!...Can't you get over your tiny self?"
It's not really like a traditional song: it's not really like anything else I've ever heard. But it seems to follow some kind of traditional logic: as if he's absorbed the old music's structure and is now freed up to do his own thing within it. (Different from Ian King, who opened for him, who takes traditional songs like Death and the Maiden and uses modern musical styles to explore their potentials.) One thinks of T.S Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent, doesn't one, where the most original poet is the one most influenced by all the poets who came before him? I think it comes down to a particular way of marrying words and music -- or, let's be more specific -- of marrying poem and tune. Becuase tunes are what it's all about: mostly happy tunes, dance tunes, jigs and reels and carols. At times, you almost feel that you are listening to instrumentalists -- a slightly "out there" scottish celidah band, perhaps -- making beautiful music which just somehow happens to perfectly synchronize with the verses of a young poet with a beautiful voice. Or else that your are listening to a poet singer and the instruments just happen to be imitating the rhythms of his voice. Which makes it sound almost Wagnerian. Is that how traditional songs work? The words and the tune equally important; the words telling the story and leaving the singer little scope to pour his emotion or his experience into the lyric because the expression, the emotion, is already there, encoded in the melody. I'm tempted to wonder whether this two pronged attack was what made the performance so very, very powerful: whether simultaneously attending to dense meaningful words and complex melodic tunes draws the audience into a kind of fugue state.
Not wishing to come over all po-faced, but I find myself falling back on metaphors of possession and shamanistic ecstasy and speaking-in-tongues. Some people talk about "the tradition" as if she were a living thing which can speak through a performer who honours her. That was what this evening felt like. As if the Muse had literally taken possession of this thin, wiry guitarist.
Did I mention that I was ****ing gobsmacked?