published: 24 /
In an evening fraught with difficulties and distractions, Ben Howarth at the Garage in London watches Robert Fisher's Willard Grant Conspiracy, against the odds and a heavily reduced stage time, play a riveting and forceful set
The patronage of 'Uncut' magazine has clearly been a help to the Willard Grant Conspiracy, having raised their profile significantly in the past decade. Editor Allan Jones has been a key player in establishing alt-country as a genre, and as a genuine alternative for anyone rather bored of a ‘blink and you miss them’ parade of stylised indie bands.
No surprise, therefore, then that Robert Fisher (singer, songwriter and only ever-present member of the Willard Grant Conspiracy) was invited to play the 'Uncut' showcase as the London date of his latest UK tour. Yet, with hindsight, I suspect that Fisher would rather have played a date on his own back.
It should be stressed that the problems weren’t of Uncut’s making - they could not be blamed for selecting the Duke and the King as a support band, who went down so well that they were called back for encores, thus eating away at the WGC’s stagetime. Nor should they be blamed for the layout of the Garage, which is one single hall, meaning that chatter from the bar frequently obscures the music from the stage.
Fisher appeared unhappy with his curtailed stage time, but wearily resigned to the impoliteness of some of his audience. Introducing an acapella version of 'The Ballad of John Parker', he said that he knew he was tempting fate. He ended the gig by telling the crowd that he hoped they’d come back and see one of the longer shows he usually performed.
And yet, these negatives added real bite and tension to the performance. I saw Fisher play with a much larger band - almost an orchestra, in fact - last year, and while the celebratory performance was one of the highlights of my year, you sensed that the crowd were simply being given the stately performance they had every reason to expect. Tonight’s show gave the air of a band with something to prove.
Though a man standing near the front lost his rag with the bar-dwellers, pleading with them to "shut the fuck up", Fisher kept his dignity rather impressively, almost stubbornly. I was intrigued with the contrast between his refusal to be upset by regular distraction and, during last year’s performance, the ticking off he gave to the photographer present, having got just a little too close to the stage.
The latest incarnation of the Willard Grant Conspiracy is a much smaller scale operation than last year’s mini-orchestra - comprising of Fisher on vocals and acoustic guitar, his longterm collaborator David Michael Curry on a variety of instruments (including everyone’s favourite - the wood saw played with a violin bow) and the two members of the tour’s support act Doghousr Roses, Paul Tasker and Iona Macdonald , on guitar and backing vocals respectively.
With that in mind, I expected the focus of this performance to be concentrated more on Fisher’s songs. To a certain extent it is, as Fisher performed in the style adopted on his band’s most recent album, ‘Paper Covers Stone’, where he reinterprets a varied range of songs from his back catalogue as folk-ballads. What this album, and therefore this performance, actually showed, however, was that the impression made by Fisher’s songs - lyrically expressive as they may be - can be transformed by the slightest shift in the manner of their performance.
Fisher is nothing at all like that other one-man-bander, Mark E. Smith (and not least because he happily stands and talks to his audience before and after each show, and appears to enjoy friendly relations with his ever rolling line-up) - he is at heart an instinctive collaborator. Far from taking up a greater part of a smaller band, he allows his role to diminish. When he toured with fourteen people as he did last year, the arrangement clearly would have required a lot of organising. With just three other people on stage, he clearly decides he is free to let them get on with it. The sense of improvisation that comes alongside these songs is what makes them really worth hearing again.
Ultimately, this shortened show was rather disappointing, simply because I couldn’t help feeling that the Willard Grant Conspiracy, on such fine form and, with a line-up we may not be lucky enough to see again, deserved better. And yet, it was riveting for the very same reasons.