Collaboration is crucial to the longevity of folk music. It provides the cross-pollination that allows traditions to form, grow, spread and, most importantly, change. Before the advent of recording studios and record labels, the growth and change of musical forms was slow. The restricted possibility of travel and fiercely local musical traditions meant that the modification of musical forms occurred, by and large, orally and generationally. Today collaboration is easy, and the scope for evolution is correspondingly great.
Few artists have embraced the collaborative spirit as wholeheartedly and as effectively as Alasdair Roberts. The Scot’s long and prolific career has seen him trade ideas with artists as diverse as Jason Molina, Isobel Campbell and poet Robin Robertson, and he rarely works with the same group of musicians twice in a row. As a result he has been responsible for some of the most boundary-pushing folk music of the last twenty years, as well as some of the most rewarding.
The latest in a long and illustrious line are the Chicago-based multi-instrumentalists Brad Gallagher and Bill Lowman who provide, amongst other things, keyboard, guitars and cello. Missed Flights And Fist Fights (so named because of the difficulty the trio had in getting together before they finally managed to meet in Northern Ireland) kicks off with a song from the repertoire of Galway singer Joe Heaney, Rocking The Cradle. Despite the traditional subject-matter, the experimental spirit is in evidence from the off, with Gallagher’s freaky Jew’s harp placed high in the mix, trading off electric guitar and bass, whilst Roberts sings the embittered and resigned tale of a cuckolded husband, left behind to care for a baby that isn’t his own. Sir Patrick Spens is typical Roberts, if there is such a thing. But for the ever so slightly countrified instrumentation, it would have sat quite happily on his traditional album Too Long In This Condition. In The Riddle Song the country influence – the work, one suspects, of Gallagher and Lowman – comes to the fore. From the songbook of bluegrass pioneer Doc Watson, it rattles along on a fluid guitar line reminiscent of the Gosdin Brothers, Sweetheart Of The Rodeo-era Byrds or even the Grateful Dead’s more compact performances. Here Roberts’ distinctive and heavily accented singing only goes to prove that geographical diversification is key to giving this kind of music a new and interesting edge.
When First I Came Unto This Country – another Irish song, this time from Jimmy Crowley’s collection – is Roberts at his most intimate, backed by little more than acoustic guitar and subtle, mournful cello. By contrast Lord Donegal starts with a fuzzy, squally electric guitar, like a psyched-up Steeleye Span. Miss Armour’s – a Roberts composition – is a brief, adroit instrumental for acoustic guitar with a tinge of the baroque about it, while Goin’ Back, a sweet piece of old-time Americana, gives Lowman the chance to show off a warm singing voice on a song written by his grandfather Bill ‘Smilin’ Willie C’ Connor. The album finishes on a joyous (but slightly bittersweet) rendition of The Parting Glass, adapted from the Scottish traveller-singer Sheila Stewart. All three singers’ voices come together to acknowledge that they may never meet again. If that is the case, it would be a great shame, but it provides a fitting end to a collaboration full of warmth and unassuming experimentation.
Review by: Thomas Blake
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Photo Credit: drew Farrell