Robin Williamson and John Renbourn

Live Review | NCEM, York | Review by Allan Wilkinson

I don’t know about you, but I often feel quite privileged to have lived through the last few decades knowing we’ve had such contemporaries as Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Miles Davis in our time, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Tonight at the National Centre for Early Music, we were once again in the company of two of the most revered musicians to have sprung up in the Sixties and who have continued to inspire and influence musicians to this day. To some, the Incredible String Band were a bit too weird to fully appreciate, and there was always that hesitation before popping The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter on the Dansette, if your folks were in that is. Those records to this day remain an absolutely essential part of my record collection and I no longer worry who hears the songs, however ‘very cellular’ they are. Once having described himself as the ‘genius of this parish’, our ISB founder has progressed through decades of activity, mastering a particularly unique and eccentric vocal style, creating astonishingly inventive song writing structures, developing a daring guitar playing technique, beating the unchartered paths of world music (before the term was even coined), only to then re-invent himself as some sort of mystical Celtic bard. I’ve always been suspicious of any musical instrument that could equally be considered a piece of furniture, but in the hands of Robin Williamson, the harp becomes much more than the incidental instrument in an orchestra, but a point of absolute focus. As an accompaniment for traditional and contemporary songs and tunes, the harp does the job particularly well and gives us a break from the much more commonly used guitar. As a backdrop to some of Robin’s lengthy Celtic stories, the harp comes into its own and creates a vast landscape of possibilities. There was no storytelling tonight though, other than the stories we find in songs. I dare say John Renbourn might nod off if he had to sit through “The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal” night after night, so this evening at the NCEM, Robin and John delivered a bunch of carefully chosen songs and pieces that have meant something to both musicians throughout their respective careers, and more importantly, as Robin reminds us, “things that we both happen to know”. Starting with a nod to perhaps the definitive guitar innovator of the folk revival, Davy Graham, who we sadly lost earlier this year, the duo launched into his version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “I Just Can’t Keep From Crying Sometimes”, indicating right from the start how beautifully aligned the Celtic harp and the guitar can be in the hands of such experienced musicians. In addition to this, Robin keeps time with the aid of a metronomic bass drum, which is at his feet throughout. As one of the five prongs of Pentangle, John Renbourn was always a much less heavy handed guitarist than his mate Bert Jansch and often Renbourn provided the lightness of touch that underpinned Jansch’s claw hammered attacks. No one bends a note quite like Renbourn, a sound that is very distinctly his own, and fortunately, we got plenty of those tonight. The duo alternated between traditional songs and tunes such as “The Snows They Melt The Soonest”, “South Wind/The Blarney Pilgrim” and “Sir Patrick Spens” and also included a couple of more contemporary songs with David Allen Coe’s “I Stay Stoned on Your Love” together with a couple of Dylan covers; “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and “Buckets of Rain”. Renbourn also wandered into Bahaman slack-key territory delivering a remarkable take on Joseph Spence’s “Great Dreams From Heaven”, previously explored by Ry Cooder during his ‘Jazz’ period. Rounding off things nicely with a re-visit to the duo’s collaboration album Wheel of Fortune, Robin and John concluded with “Lights of Sweet St Annes”, which was well received by the sell-out audience in York tonight. The performance was less about the meeting of two experienced borderline rock star folkies, and more about two mates having a bit of fun, doing what they like best. Excellent. Providing the support tonight was a new incarnation of Beneath The Oak, an established name but with a fresh line up. The trio now consists of mandolin and Cuatro player Paul Wale, singer songwriter Aimie J Ryan on guitar and Mark Waters on bass. Standing huddled together on stage, carefully avoiding Robin Williamson’s music shop window display, the trio played a selection of self-penned material including “My Eyes Close” and “Grave of Autumn”.