Barry Kerr/Alisdair Roberts
Two folk musicians, poles apart, bring a taste of water and wine to the Black Box
The Moving on Music Festival host two very different types of folk music at the Black Box this evening: one Irish and one Scottish. Sadly, the performances are as similar as water and wine.
The water is Irish folk singer, Barry Kerr: a native of County Armagh. Why he delivers his set singing in a forceful Christy Moore-type ‘Oirish’ voice is beyond me. Though a guitarist of great skill, his performance – a mixture of originals and standards – is as lifeless as the soul within the songs.
The nadir of his set is his take on Neil Young’s classic 'Powderfinger', which, according to Kerr, is a little known Young song. Anyone familiar with the busker who daily murders music outside the back of Boots Chemist in Belfast will have some idea of how truly terrible this performance is.
Worse is to come. Kerr finishes his set with his self-composed, and I’m sure heartfelt, anti-war song ‘The End'. With its chorus about drinking beer when the end (of the world) comes so that he won’t have the fear, it’s one of the most ham-fisted songs I’ve heard in a long time.
And then we have the wine, and a fine vintage it is. Glasgow based Alasdair Roberts has been recording both traditional and original compositions since 2001. In fact, it’s become increasingly difficult to differentiate between Roberts’ own material and the traditional music he covers: such is the life he imbues into the music.
A tall, rangy figure in pale striped shirt and dark jeans, hair and beard neatly trimmed, nose as sharp as a dirk, Roberts takes to the stage and swiftly performs two ballads from his latest album, 2010’s Too Long in This Condition.
‘Lord Lankin’ and ‘The Golden Vanity’ are sung with passion. Roberts’ voice – plaintive and constantly tottering on the edge of falling out of tune – weaves itself around his finger picked guitar notes: guitar playing which, to paraphrase a friend I am at the gig with, is ten times worse yet 100 times better than Barry Kerr’s.
The set rattles along. Roberts’ dry wit and self-deprecation have the audience very quickly on his side. He performs songs both (very) old and new, yet each kind are infused with passion and relevance – regardless of their age, these songs sound immortal.
Roberts’ performance is split into two sets. After giving the crowd a short break ('To recharge your glasses. Or your mobile phones, or whatever'), he returns to dedicate the old traditional ‘Farther Along’ to a recently deceased friend, before segueing into his own ‘Riddle Me This' (watch a performance in the video below).
The set finishes with a newly written song, ‘The Wheels of the World,’ which – to these ears, at least – is a stunning condemnation to all that’s gone wrong in history over the past 2,000 years, and the 'Earl King' who could be to blame.
Persuaded back for an encore, Roberts sings a Child Ballad over 200 years old. ‘Bonnie Susie Cleland’ tells the tale of a Scottish girl burned at the stake by her own parents because she fell in love with an English lad. It reminds me of recent stories in the news of honour slayings in modern Britain.
Some things change, some things remain the same. Music, however, will always be a chronicle of the times. In 500 years time someone, somewhere, will be singing the folk songs of Alasdair Roberts, as well as the songs that he sings from 500 years ago. And the songs will still ring true.