The intimacy of Birmingham’s Glee Club is the perfect venue for Roberts’ particular brand of folk familiarism, with its capacity (seated) crowd of around 40 punters.
The evening commences with Barney Morse-Brown, billed as Duotone, who makes his way into our midst dressed like an extra from The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford to offer variations on his long-player Work Harder & One Day You’ll Find Her. While there’s nothing offensive about Duotone – aside from the dour countenance of the artist’s delivery – the employment of the kind of multi-track sampler we first witnessed being used by Joseph Arthur a decade earlier only serves to render the performance annoying in a show-y-off-y kind of a way. Morse-Brown duly builds his compositions up, layer by layer, alternating from acoustic guitar to cello to percussion and back again, often with the kind of precision one associates with something far more mundane than music (manufacturing widgets, perhaps?), before adding vocals to the mix. His material is serviceable enough, and his skill as both a guitarist and a budding Hendrix of the cello are manifestly apparent (my companion quips, “When’s he going to play it behind his head?”), but, ultimately, Duotone leaves us as cold as the January winds we’ve braved to attend.
It was with some relief, therefore, when the former Appendix Out front-man takes to the stage some 15 minutes later to regale us with his interpretations of traditional folk music. Opening with ‘The Golden Vanity’ and ‘Long Lankin’ from his exemplary recent collection Too Long In This Condition, Robert’s tremulous voice is endearingly reminiscent of fellow countrymen, Williamson and Heron (The Incredible String Band), and his dextrous picked guitar style is beautiful. Every moment is evocative, every vocal lament plaintive, every delicately plucked fret manipulation causes hair to raise on the neck.
‘Little Sir Hugh’, ‘Song Composed In December’, each delivered composition further elevates Roberts’ stature as a performer. The endearing self-deprecating banter adds a splattering of wit, and by the time Roberts invites the crowd to join him on the chorus of ‘The Whole House Is Singing’, the atmosphere is as electric as an acoustic-based performance can hope to be… and we sing out, loud and proud!
‘Waxwing’, ‘Lover’s Ghost’, the songs fall like confetti on the ears. There’s a mildly annoying dodgy intermittent fault on the lead to Roberts’ transducer pick-up, but it doesn’t detract from the efficacy of the evening.
Roberts reappears post-show to converse convivially with his audience, allowing this writer to get his seven-inch 45 rpm copy of ‘Joy To The Person Of My Love’ (Riff Mountain) signed, and purloin the set-list you see before you. Alasdair Roberts, then, ladies and gentleman, one of the finest British folk singers of his, or any other, generation. Chapeau!
Words: Jean Encoule