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Alasdair Roberts, The Deptford Arms, Deptford, March 27th 2010

April 2, 2010

The rundown Deptford Arms is the venue for the Kit And Cutter folk club, though they’ll soon need to look for new premises – the dive is to become a Paddy Power bookmakers shop. Then the hard-up locals can waste their money dreaming of escape rather than drinking to escape. Tonight’s guest at the Kit And Cutter, Scottish singer and guitarist Alasdair Roberts, proves to be a big draw and the tiny back room is packed.

Alasdair divides his time between traditional folk songs (usually tragic ballads) and his own compositions, both strands being bewitching and compelling. Indeed, his albums have alternated self-penned and traditional numbers, though the last two albums have comprised just his own songs, perhaps signalling a gradual departure from the trad folkie path.

He performed wonderfully tonight, accompanied at times by fine fiddle-player Elle Osbourne, and his delivery held the audience in a pleasant spell. Listening to his songs is easier than describing them, but they are broadly quiet and reflective, interspersed with dense images and obscure language, not just Scots words, but archaic English and foreign ones too – ‘simulacra’, ‘sistrum’ and ‘sarcophagi’ sit happily among his lyrics. Here’s an excerpt from Riddle Me This which demonstrates his exact poetic sense:
   Who were the ones who first gathered the amber
   To render the embering dawn of the day
   The stallion in canter, the river in meander
   So we’d remember them long after they fade away?
   And how could they know as they measured the seasons?
   How could they know as they furrowed the soil?
   Of all the dishonour and all the unreason
   And all of the wrong to be done in the name of their toil?

The next song, Farewell Sorrow, is a fierce look at war, death and fearlessness, while The Laverick And The Blackthorn shows his attraction to ornithology as well as obscure language – ‘laverick’ or ‘loverock’ is a northern dialect word for a lark. An idle moment on the bus affords me time to make a quick list of Alasdair’s feathered songs – Waxwing, The Magpie’s Nest, The Book Of Doves – and those that make mention of cranes, geese, ravens and more larks.

Among tonight’s highlights are seafaring doom-shanty The Daemon Lover, the old anti-semitic song Sir Hugh, Or The Jew’s Daughter (which I’d last heard live sung by Sam Lee back in January when I began this blog) and closing tune The Haruspex of Paradox. It’s a fine evening, but being tucked away in the back of dodgy pub made we wonder about Alasdair’s wider appeal. He was something a protégé of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, who has gone on to fill large theatres and sell respectable numbers of records. It’s not obvious to me that Alasdair’s work is much inferior to Billy’s and yet, bar the occasional outing to a big venue for one of those multi-artist tribute bashes, he plays tiny folk venues. My suspicion is that he is happier in the more collaborative and relaxed folk-club environment rather than the larger world of performance. But I might be wrong….

Many thanks to the Amber Stalker for the setlist info – here are Alasdair and Elle performing The Daemon Lover on the night:

3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2010 12:18 pm

    Can’t resist a couple of disjecta membra to add to this:

    – to your ornithological taxonomy you can add “What cares the crow (for the plaint of lapwing)?”, an unreleased (and brilliant) song that I think he played in East Dulwich last autumn, though not in Deptford this time

    – you didn’t get as far as one my favourite lines in “Riddle me this”, “and so in this way their dominion continues“: I love the way he piles up similar syllables in almost-internal rhymes

    I’m sure you’re right about Alasdair being more comfortable in folk clubs and similar: just have a look at the list of gigs on his website, which hasn’t been updated for months. It’s like he wants to keep below the radar — which, of course, adds to the sport for a stalker like me.

    Meanwhile, the stalker’s frustration is that the next album is all traditional songs again, so when can one hear the slew of new songs that have made appearances in recent live shows. I’m counting
    What Cares the Crow?
    The Haruspex of Paradox
    Scandal and Trance
    Green Wood Waxes Early (title?)
    The Boy of Blazing Brow
    The Hidden Sin (title?)
    The Untrue Womb (title?)
    The Loudness Wars
    Song Composed in December
    The Laverick and the Blackthorn
    and one other he played in March that I didn’t catch the title of

    There’s a full album of new material already written, and I want that album!

  2. April 3, 2010 9:50 am

    Hey… just wanted to add, on the point about it being tiny gig in an out of the way run down pub… you’re entirely right, but i think the fact he came and played for us speaks volumes about his attitude and was a favor to us, rather than being a reflection his wider appeal.

    We booked him by going to one of his (much bigger) gigs and speaking to him at the end and explaining a bit about the point of the club… in fact, I (I may have been a little worse for drink) used possibly the worst ever opening gambit that haunts me still “So, what’s the least money you’d come and play for?”. O god. Whoops. Amazingly he still said yes.

    Anyway, we managed to book Martin Carthy by the same method and he is coming to play, and I don’t think there needs to be any doubt about his wider appeal…. I think the whole point about folk clubs is that the musicians will still come and play these small gigs. I think it’s bloody great that you can still catch them in these environments.

    I don’t think you’re wrong about the more relaxed collaborative aspect… I just didn’t want the fact he’d very kindly agreed to come and play our little mongrel, beat up folk club to suggest that he didn’t have much appeal… !

    Thanks for coming, hope you enjoyed it (HE’S AMAZING!!)

    Love from K&C x

  3. brandnewguy permalink*
    April 4, 2010 9:48 am

    @David – thanks for the ornithological addenda, and you’re right about Alasdair’s large amount of unreleased material. It’s a surprise that there’s much at all on his website, given his virtual invisibility on the Web.

    @K&C – hi, and nice to hear from you! We had a great time, thanks very much. As my friends will point out, I have no problem with dives 🙂 I hope you find a good new venue soon – alas, I can’t make it for the Martin Carthy night, but I’ll look out for more…
    I agree it’s good you can get performers like Alasdair and Martin to play at your club and in fact I prefer it too. I mentioned Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy in the review and the last two times I’ve seen him were at big theatre venues and, to be honest, it was a bit dull. It would be great, though, if Alasdair and people like him could shift a few more CDs to give them greater artistsic freedom if they need it…
    I’m a regular at the Goose Is Out, so I’ll say ‘hi’ next time I see you 🙂


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