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John Renbourn and Robin Williamson, The Half Moon, Putney, April 11th 2010

April 14, 2010

I first saw John Renbourn back in the 80s, sharing a stage with Bert Jansch at the Railway in Clapham. There weren’t a lot of people there and it seemed possible in those days that the folk-blues renaissance of the 60s was set to fade into history. Thankfully, there’s been something of a revival of their fortunes in recent years, highlighted by the rapturous reception John got from a big crowd of hairy nu-folkies at the Green Man Festival three years ago. A younger generation had rediscovered the powerful roots of their music and John seemed surprised and delighted at the reception he received at Green Man.

Interestingly, Bert appears to have prospered more from this revival – tie-ups with Vetiver, Johnny Marr, Bernard Butler and others have brought him to a new audience, and now he’s about to embark on a solo tour in support of Neil Young in the States, which will no doubt bring him more cash than he’s ever seen, which is good. John, meanwhile, continues to play in smaller venues, often accompanied by ex-Incredible String Band mainstay Robin Williamson.

The reasons for this divergence I’m sure are several, but one of them must be John’s and Bert’s different styles. Bert is at the bluesy end of ‘folk’ and his playing style at times might be called sloppy, but it has a great deal of character to it. By contrast, John has a more precise, traditional and intricate guitar-playing style, hence the ‘folk baroque’ label. His playing is less prone to errors than Bert’s, but it’s a moot point whether or not this robs his music of a distinctive character. Personally, I like his style and can spot it a mile off, but I know others have criticised his music for being rather remote.

Another reason for their difference in fortunes might be that Bert is more of a songwriter than John, who by and large plays others’ compositions as well as traditional tunes. Both of them have something of a reputation for being irascible, but Bert edges it in terms of having a stage personality and an individual voice – and people generally need a personality to hang the music off, no matter how real or otherwise it really is.

Robin Williamson has bags of personality, but he’s also perhaps an acquired taste, as were the Incredible String Band, of which he was a vital part. As Astral pointed out, he’s still a Scottish hippie at the age of 66, and the sparkle in his eye is still there, but the whimsy is not allowed to overshadow his enthusiasm and love of making music. He plays a fine harp, along with the mandolin and a series of flutes/recorders, but he has a lovable amateurishness (in the best sense) about him that contrasts nicely with John’s more sedate style, and the two kick off with a song from both of their pasts, Davey Graham’s version of Blind Willie Johnson’s I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes.

In fact, many of the evening’s songs are cover versions, but they picked some gems – including Bob Dylan’s Absolutely Sweet Marie and Buckets Of Rain, and Motörhead’s Ace Of Spades. Yes, on harp and acoustic guitar… There were also some fine traditional songs, several from the other side of the Atlantic, including Buffalo Skinners, which John had played on his 1971 album Faro Annie. First recorded, I think, by Woody Guthrie, it’s also known as The Trail Of The Buffalo and The Hills Of Mexico (as recorded but not officially released by Dylan on The Basement Tapes) and it’s a fantastic doom-laden tale of hope, greed, suffering and murder:
   Well the working season ended,
   But the drover would not pay,
   He said, ‘You spent your money boys,
   You’re all in debt to me.’
   But cowboys never put much stock
   In a thing like a bankrupt law,
   So we left the bastard’s bones to bleach
   On the range of the buffalo.

They also played a number of traditional tunes from these Isles, including The Snow It Melts The Soonest, Mull Of The Mountains and John’s wonderful historical set-piece, Franklin. This was a relaxing, enjoyable and amusing night with a couple of masters of song. Here’s a wonderful clip of John from 1979 playing The English Dance.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul H permalink
    April 28, 2010 10:23 am

    A friend had a spare ticket for the duo last night at the Vortex club in North London (Hackney?). Despite the absence of “Ace of Spades”, it was a thoroughly engaging evening. For me, Robin Williamson was a revelation. I had mentally labelled him as “twee”, “fey” and “amateur” (mentally scarred by my elder brother’s ISB albums) but his playing and singing were anything but, and his rather droll intersong chat carried the evening forward and engaged well with the audience.

  2. brandnewguy permalink*
    April 28, 2010 10:36 am

    I’m glad you liked it, Paul. I absolutely agree about Robin Williamson – at the ISB ‘final gig’ he was frankly annoying and sounded very sloppy – but now he’s funny and plays with great energy and soul. You should check out those ISB albums though… but don’t go beyond the 60s ones ;-))

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