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Alasdair Roberts

+ {Appendix Out} + {Amalgamated Sons Of Rest}

Unless you’ve been keeping up to date with post-millennium nu-folk artists or a stick-in-the-mud freak-folkie or just a space cadet, you’d have missed the work of the genre’s brightest and most unassuming stars ALASDAIR ROBERTS – more’s the pity. From aspiring indie troubadour to the noughties’ most endearing voices of folk (straddling both traditional and contemporary), Callander’s favourite export ROBERTS has been tipped by many pundits to become the next big thing – it’s only a matter of time.
Born 8th August 1977 in Swabia, Germany, but raised in the wee hamlet of Kilmahog near Callander in Scotland by his German mother Annegret (a booking agent/promoter) and his father and main influence, 70s folk guitarist ALAN ROBERTS, he was only a teenager when he followed in his dad’s musical footsteps, having been inspired by his friend and colleague, folk guitar hero NIC JONES.
Ali’s initial venture into music was through APPENDIX OUT (alongside Dave Elcock and Kennt White), an alt/indie act who formed in Glasgow in the summer of ’94; it would be PALACE leader WILL OLDHAM who released his first vinyl outing entitled `Ice Age’. Subsequently, the group of acoustic no-fi troubadours enlisted the help of cellist Louise D and percussionist Eva Peck, the latter bringing “un-doctored” rhythm to the combo’s folky weep-core.
With the APPENDIX OUT line-up almost finalised, they donated material to the Up Records compilation CD `4×4’, while split single `Well-Lit Tonight’ was much sought after in some music quarters. This immediately caught the attention of eager-beaver labels planning to take folk/country screaming into the 21st century. But it was astonishingly Stateside imprint `Drag City’ who came up trumps when they signed the band in 1997 – adding them to a list of brilliant new generation songsmiths. This prompted the release of the outfit’s debut set THE RYE BEARS A POISON (1997) {*6} – a ground-breaking achievement for a “wee” band in ‘97 – most definitely a Sunday morning record with its calming guitars, emotional vocals and splendid tranquillity reminiscent of NICK DRAKE’s “Pink Moon” era.
ROBERTS duly added guitarist-cum-percussionist Gareth Eggie and the aforementioned flautist/keyboard-player Peck to the cauldron of country karma, both making their debut on the band’s second and most realised work, DAYLIGHT SAVING (1999) {*7}. Sticking with the WILL OLDHAM-vs-SMOG formula, the set was unique in its own right with songs such as opener `Foundling’ leading the way to what should have blasted BELLE AND SEBASTIAN out of the proverbial water.
Of course, the troupe’s style was very much from the heart of Americana, but that’s not to say APPENDIX OUT should not have been an asset to a new Scottish music, a music that rivalled the “Postcard” era. Their softly spoken harmonies, mandolin breaks and acoustic set-ups were/are very much rooted in traditional folk (they even covered ANNE BRIGGS’ `Lowlands’), giving them the opportunity to shine where other bands would only sparkle. `Lieder Fur Kasper Hauser’ (a 7” EP) was to be the group’s next release late in ‘99. It featured the tracks `Ein Grauerstar In Der Kavallerie’ and the sombre instrumental `An Der Nachtimmel Gewohnt’.
A perfect marriage of acoustic and simplistic electric lo-fi folk, the Ryan Murphy-produced THE NIGHT IS ADVANCING (2001) {*7} was another to move the desert oh so gently to the Highlands; tracks such as `Year Waxing, Year Waning’, `A Path To Our Beds’ and the closing cue `Organise A March’.
Released virtually simultaneously, his own traditionally-sourced solo venture THE CROOK OF MY ARM (2001) {*7} – which was recorded as ALASDAIR ROBERTS for Secretly Canadian Records over a one-day timespan in Glasgow (his subsequent home city) – found him in contemplative mood on the likes of `Lord Gregory’, `As I Came In By Huntly Town’, `The Magpie’s Nest’ and `The False Bride’.
Ali subsequently regrouped APPENDIX OUT in 2002 to issue their fantastic folksy cover-pleaser EP `A Warm And Yeasty Corner’, a record which included a rendition of The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND’s `A Very Cellular Song’ and EWAN MacCOLL’s `The First Time Ever I Saw Your Fac’, to name just two; other tracks such as `Sally Free And Easy’ and `Josephine’ were given the APPENDIX OUT spin, with hushed flutes, pianos and a whole host of acoustic instruments adding to the outfit’s sparse effect.
His sophomore solo set (but still featuring Appendix Out acolytes), FAREWELL SORROW (2003) {*8} reaped the rewards on a critical level, the beauty of pastorals like `Join Our Lusty Chorus’, `Slowly Growing Old’, the opening title track and the crescendo-rising `Carousing’, revisited a time when even STEELEYE SPAN or the FAIRPORTs could conceive; his minstrel qualities were indeed a transfiguration.
Bringing together a wide range of established neo-traditionalists (including old collaborator WILL OLDHAM, ex-BELLE AND SEBASTIAN starlet ISOBEL CAMPBELL, ex-BATTLEFIELD BAND fiddler JOHN McCUSKER, Gareth Eggie, et al), NO EARTHLY MAN (2005) {*7}, was Alasdair’s full stab at a fully traditional Brit-folk album. Mostly lengthy murder ballads in Scottish book of verse (from Child #s mainly), ghostly cues such as `Lord Ronald’, `The Cruel Mother’ (once the acquisition of SHIRLEY COLLINS, LIZZIE HIGGINS and SILLY WIZARD) and `The Two Brothers’ (once the domain of BELLE STEWART), get the ROBERTS lo-fi-folk treatment. Commonly known as “Polly Vaughan”, `Molly Bawn’ dates from the 17th Century and was sung by Irishman Packie Manus Byrne, while a number of the ballads are a history lesson in themselves; most purists will recognise `Sweet William’ (found by the Cecil Sharp institute) and best-on-show here, `A Lyke Wake Dirge’ (as far removed from The YOUNG TRADITION or PENTANGLE as one could get). Whether this “on/off-kilter” album resurrects tradition and folklore, or it’s simply another vocal exercise for ROBERTS, well, one will leave other historians and critics to decide.
A Caledonian hybrid of Scottish folklore ballad and off-kilter lo-fi, SPOILS (2009) {*7}, was delivered in that squeaky, unmistakable Scots brogue one has come to expect. Supported by several musicians including Tom Crossley or Alex Neilson (on drums), Niko-Matti Ahti, Gordon Ferries, Emily McLaren, David McGuinness, Alison McGillivray, etc., multi-instrumentalist Roberts lyrically harked back to days of Norseman sea raids, religious fishermen and “ships made of fingernails”. `Unyoked Oxen Turn’, `You Muses Assist’ and `The Book Of Doves’ (with a mention to “the plains of Slamannan”), press the right buttons, although the tunes carry the weight of ye olde traditional too far – but let Alasdair take you back to wherever you want. All you need is imagination and complete darkness to complete the effect.
Recorded with “friends” and with only one short self-penned composition in tow (the instrumental `Kilmahog Saturday Afternoon’), the traditionally-sourced TOO LONG IN THIS CONDITION (2010) {*7} exhumed the spirits of Brit-Celtic ghosts with a tinge of tactful humour, readings of `Long Lankin’, `The Golden Vanity’, `Barbara Allen’ and `The Lover’s Ghost’ seemed like they’d arisen from the graves or ashes of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Robert Burns and/or a kindred of Caledonian kings.
Complementing Gaelic and English languages, Alasdair’s love of the traditional continued on both URSTAN (2012) {*8} – with singer/actress/playwright Mairi Morrison – and A WONDER WORKING STONE (2013) {*7}. On the former set, trading on traditional songs commissioned for Scotland’s Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, Alasdair takes a back seat to talents of sweet Mairi, although the spotlight comes by way of `The Laird O’ The Drum’ and `The Whole House Is Singing’. With an array of “Friends” – credited on the sleeve – ROBERTS effectively squeaks into gear on the latter set. A jovial jester in modern-day minstrel aplomb, Alasdair, Tom Crossley, Rafe Fitzpatrick, Ben Reynolds (ex-TREMBLING BELLS) Shane Connolly and accompanying voice Olivia Craney, et al, sail through each passage, high(-pitched) points include `The Merry Wake’, `The Year Of The Burning’, the solemn `The End Of Breeding’ and the tricky `Brother Seed’. A hidden treasure.
Flying the flag for neo-trad folk and contemporary Celtic music, the soft-spoken Scotsman ran up another album to his name, simply-titled ALASDAIR ROBERTS (2015) {*7}. Content not to stray far from his stark signature strumming and tremulous tenor tones, accompanied sparsely by Glasgow-based The Crying Lion and other guests, his bonny ballads – all self-penned – stretched his genre beyond mere heather, hills and honour. Chicago and Drag City’s most delicate and organic of artists, a relaxed Ali rarely pulled his proverbial shutters open, only a sprinkling of sunlight reaching the likes of `Hurricane Brown’, `In Dispraise Of Hunger’, `The Final Diviner’ and `The Mossy Shrine’.
As low-key and non-commercial as anything from the folk mantle of time and memoriam (and sounding as timeless as ever), the limited-edition vinyl-only collaborative by ALASDAIR ROBERTS and harmoniflautist James Green (of The Big Eyes Family Players), PLAINT OF LAPWING (2016) {*6}, could well’ve been missed but for its Spotify entry – unusual as that was for the main singer. Borrowing poetry pieces from Hamish Henderson (`Ballad Of The Speaking Heart’), Thomas Moore & Benjamin Britten (`At The Mid Hour Of Night’), Timothy Neat (`The Left-Hand Man’) and Violet Jacob (`Hallowe’en’), Alasdair also waxed lyrical on self-penned cues, best served by the sprighty `Ananke’ and the organic title track.
© MC Strong 2002-2011/GA&ID-GFD2 / rev-up MCS Aug2013-Jan2015-Sep2016

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