Robin Williamson at Poetry on the Border
The Drill Hall, Chepstow, Saturday 18 April
Robin Williamson, legendary multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, former member of The Incredible String Band, and honorary Bard of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, has been a major inspiration to me on my bardic path. He’s been performing longer than I’ve been alive – appearing with his band at Woodstock in ’69; when they split in the early 70s he formed his own Merrie Band; then turned towards Celtic myths and legends and the harp. He honed his skills as a storyteller and a poet (see The Craneskin Bag; Selected Writings), and developed a truly bardic style over the years – blending consummate instrumentalism (harp; guitar; whistle; and many others), song, hilarious storytelling, exquisite poetry, and a way of working the crowd which has everyone singing along or repeating his lines of tale, following his actions and making fools of themselves while having a good craic. I first saw him perform at the Sunnyside Inn, in Northampton, back in the early 90s and was blown away. It was that performance that inspired me to become a bard – something that I never realised still existed in modern day Britain until I saw Robin in action, the awen flowing from him like waves of light. And last night, seeing him perform to a packed Drill Hall, I felt that magic again – and magic is hard to come by in this threadbare age. At one point Robin said, apologising for his flights of fancy, that he ‘took the main route through the Sixties’, being part of the Counter Culture with the String Band, who exuded a Tolkienesque aesthetic, a fellowship of musical hobbits and elves spinning their skeins of enchantment at venues like Gandalf’s Garden. He also reflected poignantly that he knew more people dead than alive – as many of his friends and contemporaries had passed on (most recently John Renbourn whom he made a Grammy-nominated album with, Wheels of Fortune – the title track of which he performed with feeling). A invocation to bring good luck, it seems to be a personal cri-de-coeur. At times, it must feel for Robin – an outlier of the Sixties, and of other centuries and worlds – as though he is Oisin himself, returned from Tir nan Og to find all that he has known and loved turned to dust 300 years past, a lonely traveller in a prosaic age. And yet he managed to summon the magic tonight in an enthralling set which had me rivetted from beginning to end. After being introduced by William Ayot, director of the Centre for the Oral Tradition, who host spoken word events ‘on the borders’ in Chepstow, Robin began with some exquisite harp and one of his masterful poems, ‘Northern Shores’ about the mythscape of his Glaswegian childhood. Then he skilfully segued into one of his classic, ever poignant songs, ‘Political Lies’ – even more resonant now than when he wrote it in the 80s. Then he left the Ordinary World behind, having propitiated it, taking us into the chancy world of Celtic wonder tales, with ‘Blind Rafferty the Poet and the Jealous Hero’ – a hilarious multi-layered story. He ended his first set with the title track of his new album, ‘Trusting in the Rising Light’, which wove mature reflections with bardic utterances. After the break we were treated to his version of Tristan and Isolde, based upon an early Welsh variant. He followed this with a masterful telling of ‘The Bonny Green Bird’ – an epic Scottish wonder tale. Then he ended with, unusually, a Jerry Lee Lewis song, ‘I’ve tried everything except you’, which left us with a spiritual message. Yet Robin is no proselytizer, despite his Christian beliefs – he seeks to entertain, and he really pulled out the stops tonight. I’ve seen him perform many times, but never see him get up and tell stories in such animated fashion, using his whole body. He can be hysterically funny at times, using anachronisms creatively, such as comparing the ‘tune-twig’ in the Bonny Green Bird to an mp3 player and so forth. He manages to straddle the worlds – the mundane and the magical – in this way. He left me brimming with awen, my cauldron refilled. Once again, he has reminded me what a Bard is all about. Once again, he has inspired me to continue on my path.
Robin Williamson site:
Poetry on the Border: