John Renbourn and Robin Williamson

Live Review | The Duchess, York | Review and Interview by Allan Wilkinson

It’s almost impossible to think of anything other than the Incredible String Band and Pentangle when you’re in the company of Robin Williamson and John Renbourn however much you try.  Their respective former bands made such an enormous impact on the folk scene in the 1960s, that to avoid mentioning their names would be foolish. John Renbourn is quick to remind us though, that at first Pentangle was all but scorned as a folk band and ridiculed mercilessly by the community who would later go on to embrace them.  The Incredible String Band on the other hand was largely immune to such ridicule, as both Robin Williamson and Mike Heron were perfectly aware that their stream of consciousness approach was a little like Marmite and it mattered to them not one jot.

When I met up with the two musicians backstage at the Duchess tonight, I was well aware that each of these musicians would have probably preferred to be asked questions about their subsequent work over the last three, nearly four decades, but I unavoidably gravitated towards the days of the legendary Howff in Edinburgh and Les Cousins in London, wallowing in my own sense of nostalgia but at the same time, and more importantly, not apologising for it.  Leaning over the table towards me, Robin eyed me suspiciously from behind the curtains of gold locks that flanked his bearded face and took great pains to point out to me that “since 1961 when I began to play music, I made something like 68 records and something like 58 of them have been made after the Incredible String Band”.  It’s true, a lot of water has gone under their respective bridges since the 1970s and so it’s with that part of their repertoire the duo concentrated on tonight.

I must confess, having one-to-ones with two legendary figures of the British folk scene is potentially a daunting prospect if you allow it to be but both John and Robin make it quite easy to believe that you’re their old mate from the outset, which really puts you at ease.  I saw this throughout the night as members of the audience approached them.  They really are two of the most approachable musicians I’ve so far met, and I’ve met a few.

I mention this only to illustrate the mood of the evening, which had from the outset a considerable warmth to it, like a meeting of the spirits; not quite 5000 spirits it has to be said, but a healthily congregated few, some of whom would no doubt have remembered the heyday of the Howff or indeed Greek Street as well as some who would’ve been very much part of the burgeoning folk scene of the 1960s themselves.  I was seated at the same table as the legendary guitarist Stefan Grossman at Renbourn’s request, who probably knows Renbourn’s guitar licks better than most, Bert Jansch excluded.  Tonight at the Duchess, the two-seated musicians played some of the music that has informed their careers both before and after their most recognised period.

Once having described himself as the ‘genius of this parish’, the Incredible String Band founder swapped his guitar for the Celtic harp some time ago, both as an accompanying instrument for his intriguing spoken stories and as a versatile instrument of choice to rest his songs upon, as well as the odd classic blues thrown in.  With a particularly unique and eccentric vocal style, Williamson is equally at home with mystical songs and stories as he is with Dylan covers, Blues classics and Country and Western songs, all accompanied with either the harp, mandolin or an assortment of whistles.  Avoiding the ISB period altogether, the songs tonight ranged from Blind Willie Johnson’s pulsating “I Can’t Keep From Crying”, Dylan’s sublime “Absolutely Sweet Marie”, David Allen Coe’s quirky “I Stay Stoned on Your Love” to a quite unexpected take on Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades”.

With metronomic bass drum at his feet, Robin Williamson performed one of his most engaging songs, “Love Letter to My Wife Bina”, preceded by an amusing tale of the difficulties of travelling around the world on planes, in times of terrorism paranoia, explaining to customs that the box does indeed contain ‘instruments of war’.  Other stories about being assisted with his harp’s flight case in Memphis by confused black airport staff or Island hopping in the Highlands in dinghies, were told between songs and tunes from all over the world.  Let’s not forget that Williamson was exploring World Music long before the term was coined.

Along with Bert Jansch, John Renbourn created a unique sound both as a duo and in the five piece Pentangle.  Renbourn was always a much less heavy-handed guitarist than his mate Bert and often provided a lightness of touch that underpinned Jansch’s claw hammered attacks.  Renbourn would probably be the first to admit that he no longer possesses a young man’s body and for comfort has taken to attaching an extension to the underside of his guitar, which effectively lifts the instrument for ease of playing.  I’ve always maintained that no other acoustic guitarist bends a note quite like Renbourn, who creates a sound that is very distinctly his own. Tonight we heard this repeated over and over.

After providing some distinctive blues guitar riffs on the opening song “Can’t Keep From Crying”, the guitarist shifted emphasis to the Bahaman slack-key style of playing with a homage to Joseph Spence on “Great Dreams From Heaven”, giving a nod to both Spence and Ry Cooder at the same time.  Unlike Williamson, John Renbourn was willing to reminisce musically on his former band’s repertoire with both “The Snows (They Melt the Soonest)” and “Lord Franklin”, two memorable traditional songs from an earlier time.  As a duo, Robin and John seldom sing in close harmony, relying instead on their diverse voices to blend in unison to good effect, notably on Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”.

Towards the end of the evening the audience were encouraged to clap along to the blues song borrowed from Howling Wolf (with new lyrics) “Wang Dang Doodle” as the two musicians sparred effortlessly on harp and guitar.  I guess Willie Dixon didn’t imagine that sort of harp playing when he wrote the song back in the 1960s.  Rounding off things nicely with first of all a re-visit to the duo’s collaboration album Wheel of Fortune with “Lights of Sweet St Anne’s” and finally the mandolin led “Hills and Valleys”, bringing the night to a close with no encore, despite a good two minutes of applause from a most appreciative audience, applause that went on well after the house lights came on.