Regather, Sheffield, 26/10/2019
published: 8 /
Nicky Crewe caught a magical evening in Sheffield as Alasdair Roberts performed solo to promote his latest album, 'The Fiery Margin'.
Alasdair Roberts is a musician and songwriter who holds a special place in my heart. I have been listening to him for a couple of decades now. His songs are comfortingly familiar but conversely his work is full of surprises. It’s the collaborations and changing directions that bring an unpredictable air to his live performances and his recorded output. In recent years he has collaborated with Sheffield’s own Big Eyes Family Players on 'Folk Songs II' and Big Eyes’ James Green on 'Plaint of a Lapwing'. His band for 'The Fiery Margin' includes Alex Neilson, formerly of Trembling Bells. He is involved with a project that includes Frankie Armstrong and unaccompanied songs called Green Ribbons. He’s remarkable in his energy and his ability to bring traditional folk song into the present day.
One of the ways he does this is through his voice. I know he’s a friend of Shirley Collins and I’m sure she loves the "unadorned" quality of his singing, a characteristic that has always been important to her. The breaks and catches in his vocals draw attention to the poetry of his lyrics. He takes traditional tunes and writes new words with all the promise and threat of traditional ballads, exploring mythology and spirituality, love, death and bitter grief. There’s magic too, because while these tales are dark they are not depressing. Traditional tunes give them a familiarity and they contain a message for our difficult times. He’s not afraid of dialect and I found myself listening intently to catch the story and the meaning in a way I really enjoyed as a once upon a time dialect studies student.
I have seen him play at festivals and small venues. I have seen him with a full band, and on his own as he was in Sheffield this week. I have even seen him perform a version of a Scottish mummers play, 'Galoshins', in the back room of a pub in Sheffield.
Regather is run as a co-operative in an old industrial building on the edge of the city centre. Part of the building serves as a venue and it resembles a small village hall. Perfect for a gathering of the clan. And the audience was a clan. I doubt if there was a more than one degree of separation between us all, whether we knew Rob Lee the promoter, Alasdair Roberts or Ric Booth, the excellent support act. This meant that we gave the music the attention it deserves, listening to the lyrics, enjoying the mix of new material from 'The Fiery Margin' album and the reminders of old favourites.
There was banter about James Green, conspicuous in his absence, and a revelation that Ric and Alasdair both play the same unusual make of guitar, K.Yairi, made in Japan. Aladair’s was handed down to him by his father and Ric bought his on his 21st birthday and has played it ever since. Rites of passage and significant connections.
As well as transforming the traditional into the contemporary with his own songs, Alasdair also performed several traditional ballads, including versions of 'The Wife Of Usher’s Well', 'Long A Growin’ and 'The Fair Flower of Northumberland'.
There was chat and banter from the stage. He has a deep connection with his audience. We even attempted some harmonies.
He made a joke about a funky song, but joking aside, this is a kind of soul music. It’s about transience and vulnerability, the fragility of life and love and even reputation.
However and wherever I get to see him perform, I am never disappointed and always grateful.