John Renbourn and Robin Williamson – Phoenix Theatre, Exeter, 19.4.2012
This was a relaxing, civilised and even genteel live gig. I was most looking forward to Renbourn, having seen him once before with Bert Jansch, and I also know his music better than Williamson’s. Indeed, with only the Incredible String Band to go on as a gauge of the latter’s, I wasn’t exactly enthusiastic as I’d always found Williamson rather too idiosyncratic as a singer and performer, and my experience of ISB, mainly Changing Horses, was that its often dissonant disorder didn’t appeal.
So it was interesting that as this gig became essentially the Robin Williamson show with John Renbourn in a supporting role, I actually warmed to the former. It is the voice, above all, that singles Williamson out [accepting his multi-instrumentalist prowess], and it is unique in its dancing tenor tone and dominance in song. Hearing him live, and experiencing his confidence and conviction in that vocal instrument, does much to help one appreciate its power and positive effect. It is a voice that has matured over time too, and there is a bass tone now that Williamson often dropped to with delightful intention, exploiting also its amplification. In early ISB recordings Williamson couldn’t reach these lower notes, but he would go for them with what I now understand is a trademark enthusiasm and ended up with a fragile and seemingly amateurish sound. I think what I then heard as rather shambolic is better interpreted as carefree in its attitude. It’s a revisionism which isn’t going to hurt anyone.....
Renbourn did get his solo spots and these were wonderful if few compared with Williamson’s control over song choice and overall performance. The pair was at their best playing the blues, and Williamson’s harp is an unusual but surprisingly sassy enough instrument for this. They played original as well as traditional material: a newish tune from RW about being in Texas, and a Willie Dixon song – at least that’s what RW thought it might be. There was one instrumental that was absolutely gorgeous, with Renbourn silky smooth on his guitar and Williamson getting a softly fulsome tone from his ‘Sheffield’ flute and then a sprightly jig from his recorder. But the two stand-out performances on the night were covers: A Jerry Lee Lewis number I’ve Tried Everything But You, a Country gospel, and a brilliant version of the Dylan/Danko This Wheel’s On Fire which I sincerely hope they record one day soon.
I’ve been revisiting ISB since my conversion regarding Williamson. It’s still a little problematic [and surprising considering the early hippie sensibilities in the musical irreverence, playfulness and communal spirit of performance – also the experimental instrumentation] but my appreciation is getting there slowly. The music is so clearly anchored to a British folk tradition and played often as rustically and naively as possible – some of the fiddle on Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter is as primary school concert as it gets! There is also a music hall/light operatic tinge at times, again from HBD with the track The Minotaur’s Song which sounds to me like Gilbert and Sullivan: these are not my normal aural leanings.