Choose your friends wisely, they say. My friends drink too much and talk about football. Alasdair Roberts, on the other hand, appears to have been more discerning when choosing his acquaintances. His Friends tonight consist of the core of highly talented musicians that played on his fabulous recent release, A Wonder Working Stone: Rafe Fitzpatrick (fiddle), Ben Reynolds (electric guitar), Shane Connolly (drums) and Stevie Jones (bass).
This evening’s gig is a bit of one-off: with no real UK tour to speak of in the wake of the new album, this is a rare chance for this particular group to play these songs on something like home soil. So it’s no surprise that every song off that album is present here, in all their lengthy, literate glory.
This is no bad thing. A Wonder Working Stone is Roberts’ most complete, coherent recording to date and the band obviously well aware of the life within the songs. There is warmth and intimacy at an Alastair Roberts gig – his approachable, unaffected voice sees to that – but tonight there is an added playfulness, a restless, almost equine skittishness to his performance that feeds off the energy in the material. The rhythm section provides a momentum that owes a debt to jazz as much as folk rock – Jones’ bass in particular harking back to Danny Thompson’s Pentangle heyday, whilst Reynolds, whose CV includes stints with the Trembling Bells and Ashtray Navigations provides atmosphere with a guitar sound that sometimes approaches early Crazy Horse-era Neil Young.
On record, ‘The Year Of The Burning’ is at once a call to arms and a history lesson. Live, it takes on a further dimension, an urgency that serves as a warning for the future.’ The Merry Wake’ too becomes urgent, Roberts stamping his feet and flaring his nostrils as Olivia Cheney joins the band on stage to provide backing vocals.
There aren’t many songs about the cosmogonic egg, and to be fair Roberts probably wrote most of them. The marathon ‘Wheels Of The World’ is one such song, a shape-shifting beast whose lyrics hark back to themes explored on The Wyrd Meme and Spoils. The rambunctious coda ushers in a kind of singalong-apocalypse, a ceilidh at the end of time, like a millennium bug-infested Incredible String Band.
The ghosts of ISB haunt the cultural gumbo of ‘Scandal And Trance’, although shorn of its horn section and accordion the more overt zydeco tendencies are toned down. This in no way dissipates the vitality of the tune or the satirical punch of the lyrics, or indeed the catchiness of the Mr Fox-esque dénouement. Another of the night’s lighter moments is the ode to a very inclusive sort of Britishness, Song Composed In December, in which Rafe Fitzpatrick downs his fiddle to deliver an (almost certainly) word-perfect rendition of his Welsh-language rap.
It is not until the encore that Roberts drops in a traditional, acoustic ballad: ‘The Fair Flower Of Northumberland’ – an ostensibly unexpected choice given the song’s perceived anti-Scottish subject matter. But we’ve come to expect the unexpected from Roberts, who may be the most innovative songwriter and interpreter in the country right now. It’s certainly in keeping with the spiritedly iconoclastic nature of the rest of the evening’s set and the feistiness and confidence of the performance.
Review by: Thomas Blake