Alasdair Roberts & Friends - Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Sun 26 Jan 2014
The Scottish folk troubadour is joined by fellow musicians for a rousing Celtic Connections performance
It’s been a bumper couple of years for Glasgow based folk aficionado, Alasdair Roberts. Between releasing a new album of self-penned songs, one of Gaelic language music and one in collaboration with poet Robin Robertson, he’s also adapted a Scottish mummers play and compiled an album of Scottish folk music from Alan Lomax’s archive. He’s also arguably been Glasgow’s most consistently brilliant songwriter for nigh on two decades. Astonishingly, this is only his second appearance at the cities Celtic Connections festival – a fact not lost on the sold-out crowd at Tron theatre who enthusiastically call out for favourites from his hulking songbook throughout the evening.
Roberts opens the set with two songs from his kaleidoscopic new album, A Wonder Working Stone. The first of these, ‘The Year of the Burning’, is a great platform for his 'Friends' to show off their chops. Ben Reynolds' electric guitar corkscrews through Roberts’ acoustic, while Rafe Fitzpatrick’s violin pirouettes over Stevie Jones’ double bass bringing a symphonic dimension to the songs. This sense is augmented by Shane Connelly’s timpani-style, modified drum kit. Connelly has a lyrical playing style that is more bound to the contour of the vocal line than the meter of the song itself. This allows different members of the band to become the surrogate drummer at different points in the set. Reynolds occupies this role on 'The Merry Wake', as Connelly beats a melodic tattoo on a bowl, which echoes the main tune (based on the traditional Scots song ‘Never Wed An Old Man’).
As in many of his songs, Roberts will use the fragment of a folk melody or image as a kernel of inspiration to extrapolate more personal and cosmogonic significances. Such as on ‘Scandal and Trance’, which uses a New Orleans funeral dirge to float different attitudes to death, nationalism and the futility of human endeavour in the jaws of all-devouring time. This breaks into jaunty rag which gives Jones' the opportunity to walk his double bass around Glasgow Green and back.
Roberts also does a fine line in straight up interpretations of traditional songs and his 'Fair Flower of Northumberland' (learnt from his father, Alan) and ‘The Bleacher Lass O’ Kelvinhaugh’ (for which he is joined by Christine Reed) are genuinely moving.
A couple of new numbers are dropped in towards the end. ‘Hurricane Brown’ might sound like a snooker player from the 1970s but it is a quintessential Roberts song, that brokers metaphysical meditations alongside fleeting poetic details, made all the more pungent because of their transience (‘As borderless as any cloud’). ‘The Angry, Laughing God’ is as close as Roberts has ever come to a rock ‘n roll song, with Connelly's motorik drums taxiing Reynolds’ Lindsey Buckingham style guitar and Roberts even singing some ‘sha-lala’s’ at the end like Jockney Rebel. He even makes the obligatory rhyme of ‘girl’ and ‘world’ which usually makes my blood boil, but it actually makes a refreshing change from rhyming ‘aspidistra’ with ‘Clytemnestra’ or whatever.
He eventually concedes to the audiences baying and closes the set with a solo reading of the perennial, ‘The Whole House Is Singing’. While this might not be his most visionary song it does give a sense of what a visionary songwriter he is. Not just because of the burden of mytho-poetic, biblical and literary allusions that engorge the material, but the fact that the songs can be reset in many context and take on new lives, personalities and meanings. This is a testament to the strength of their conception and a credit to their creator.