The Scottish collector of otherworldly songs delivers a compelling performance on the Belfast Barge
The Belfast Barge is a great space, its iron ribs livid pink under the lights. We are in the belly of a whale for this Moving on Music concert, albeit one whose tonsils are a gently buffeting mirror ball.
The folk community (and it is a community) are out in force tonight. The crowd is split three ways: be-jumpered hipsters with beards, girls who look like Josie Long, and the elderly. In this Venn diagram I am the point of intersection.
Scottish musician Alasdair Roberts is a scholar, an obsessive detailer of old songs, old singers and the old places that they can be found. His between-song banter is peppered with exacting, pedantic detail as to the personal genealogy of the songs he is singing.
That scrupulousness is reflected in his recorded work too. He alternates albums between interpretations of traditional material and his own songs, the distinction often blurring between the two.
Roberts introduces a tune as 'a new song', but, in fact, it sounds as old as time. 'I remember my love in soft prayer kneeling,' is the opening gambit. His songs are imbued with an old, weird folksiness. He sings of a world where coldness, witchery and night are constants, where feudal strife is everywhere, mortality quotidian and mundane.
These songs are odd. When Roberts sings of 'the problem of freedom' for 'those who follow the creed of the unending road' it sounds Sisyphean, as though release from bondage is a curse, the humble yeoman wandering, unmoored, in the stricken world, free from the protection of servitude.
With 'Farewell Sorrow' death is back, slippery as ever. Here, Roberts' world is a ruined, precarious one, death forever at ones elbow, for 'life is but death’s own right-hand man'. This morbidity goes deeper than bone. It is in the very earth, the landscape that surrounds him.
It’s in the language he chooses too. This is a man, after all, who is happy to include the spirited refrain of 'sterile lambs and simulacra' as a sing-a-long moment on 'You Muses Assist'. His taste for the arcane and otherworldly is lightly worn and conversational.
His guitar is described as 'recalcitrant' and a song entitled 'In Dispraise of Hunger' is referred to as 'a literal rumination'. These aren’t exactly gut-busting funnies but, then again, it’s not that sort of evening.
The songs are unfailingly beautiful; plain and low with subtle ornamentation. There are no jigs and reels here. These are contemplative, introverted songs, best enjoyed after a jug of red wine by a crackling fire or under a naked light bulb at three in the morning.
I can’t think of anyone like Roberts in contemporary folk – nobody else deals with this sort of newly-minted dread. His songs present a terrifying existential plain and God, if he appears, is to be feared and appeased.
His version of the traditional song 'The Cruel Mother' is accompanied only by the sound of the Barge’s boiler rumbling into life as an ominous drone, and it is strangely in keeping with the mood in the room. Roberts is bent double and angular, his guitar tossed to one side, his clenched fist waving about in front of him, his teeth bared.
He’s like a dog on its hind legs, keening. Verse after verse comes tumbling out of him, a repository of words that is over-subscribed and seeking egress. There is some tension in the room, some sniggers, and it is almost most funny in its Mulligan and O’Hare strangeness.
But the intensity of his performance – the palpable sense that he means it, man – transfigures him. It is truly a remarkable thing to witness. This is the oddness of Alastair Roberts, and what makes him such a rich and compelling artist. He is a fabricator of old artefacts that are, perversely, both new and true.
Visit the Moving on Music website for information on forthcoming concerts.