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Robin Williamson

As lovingly eccentric as he is creative, Celtic-bard ROBIN WILLIAMSON was best known for his outstanding contributions as part-leader (with the equally talented MIKE HERON) of folk’s greatest acid-rock exponents, The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND. From 1965 to 1974, the loose and ever-evolving ensemble produced some of the greatest albums of their genre; of their dozen or so LPs, the premier pieces have to be second and third efforts, `The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion’ (1967) and `The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter’ (1968). Having slightly dipped his toe into the pool of a solo career while still a member of the ISB, Robin became quite a prolific figurehead from the mid-70s onwards; approaching his seventieth year, he’s just released his umpteenth set, `Love Will Remain’. On a personal note, he was only too pleased to contribute a foreword to Martin C Strong’s (alright, my!) Great Folk Discography: Volume One – Pioneers and Early Legends.
Edinburgh-born Robin (24th November 1943) grew up in Fairmilehead, refining his musical abilities while at George Watson’s College. His aforementioned solo debut, MYRRH (1972) {*6}, was an eclectic work, pursuing a romanticised middle-Eastern direction. The album was released on Island Records’ budget subsidiary imprint, Help. Opening with a rendition of Ivan Pawle’s (DR STRANGELY STRANGE) `Strings In The Earth And Air’, the LP also finds a spot for drummer Gerry Conway, Stan Schnier and Janet Shankman. Without setting one’s mind alight, divine interventions came courtesy of `Will We Open The Heavens’, `The Dancing Of The Lord Of Weir’, `Cold Harbour’ and `Through The Horned Clouds’. Like HERON’s previous work (`Smiling Men…’), WILLIAMSON delivered his take on contemporary-country via `Sandy Land’, but all too often he tangentially journeys to a place of no return.
Meanwhile, after the inevitable ISB split in ‘74, cosmic storyteller Robin relocated to California where he immersed himself (and his harp) in Celtic folklore while keeping a toe in musical waters via the Far Cry Ceilidh Band. Although the latter project never actually made it to vinyl, the harp-based ROBIN WILLIAMSON & HIS MERRY BAND were a more concrete proposition, featuring the likes of Chris Caswell, Sylvia Woods and Jerry McMillan, plus guests Dirk Dalton, Stu Brotman and LOUIS KILLEN.
The group released a trio of albums between ’77 and ’79; the first of these, JOURNEY’S EDGE {*7}, displayed his love for both traditional/Celtic and contemporary/Celtic styles. With an aura of mythical imagery and medieval déjà vu, Robin’s seasoned songs of harp-fuelled love and romance came courtesy of `Border Tango’, `The Tune I Hear So Well’, `Red Eye Blues’ and the beautiful `Out On The Water’, while the Noel Coward-like `The Maharajah Of Mogador’ is Robin at his most playful and whimsical.
Album number two in the series, AMERICAN STONEHENGE (1978) {*6}, showed WILLIAMSON flit once again between his Scottish roots and Stateside forays, these traits lying somewhere inside tracks such as `Rab’s Woollen Testament’ and `These Islands Green’, plus two instrumentals, `Port London Early’ and `Her Scattered Gold’.
1979’s A GLINT AT THE KINDLING {*7} wrapped up this productive period for Robin (and Co.); fireside faves came by way of `The Road The Gypsies Go’, `The Poacher’s Song’, `Lough Foyle’, and three band compositions including accompanying music to the 14-minute poem `Five Denials On Merlin’s Grave’.
WILLIAMSON went solo again in the early 80s, kicking off with the release of his inaugural LP for the American Flying Fish label, SONGS OF LOVE AND PARTING (1981) {*7}, a 13-track acoustic album inspired by the works of poets Dylan Thomas and Keats – only `The Parting Glass’ was traditional fare. Pictured on the sleeve with Celtic harp in play, Robin and the songs here, dip into a large tapestry of the British Isles’ folklore, musically many miles from his halcyon days with the ISB.
The bulk of WILLIAMSON’s subsequent early to mid-80s were taken up with a series of mail-order on Pig’s Whisker – and also on Ireland’s Claddagh label – spoken-word cassettes firmly in the bardic tradition. LEGACY OF THE SCOTTISH HARPERS (1984) {*7} was the first in a two-volume exploration of Scotland’s rich clarsach tradition, while SONGS FOR CHILDREN OF ALL AGES (1985) {*7} was a music-based foray into the children’s market. TEN OF SONGS {*6} which came out on Flying Fish in the US and Plant Life in the UK, had just three tracks written for Robin’s wife Bina written in October 1986.
Come the 90s, Robin was once again resident in the UK, where he occasionally appeared on the festival circuit with his idiosyncratic combination of Celtic storytelling and song.
Following on from 1993’s collaboration with JOHN RENBOURN (`Wheel Of Fortune’), the mystical journeyman enjoyed an impressively prolific mid-late 90s period, the highlight of which was BLOOMSBURY 1997 (1998) {*6}, a live recording of his much-publicised reunion concert with former ISB partner MIKE HERON.
Another old ISB face – CLIVE PALMER – cropped up with WILLIAMSON in 1999 on the live traditional album, AT THE PURE FOUNTAIN {*6}; the pair completing a similarly-themed follow-up set for their Pig’s Whisker imprint, JUST LIKE THE IVY & OTHER FAVOURITE SONGS (2000) {*6}.
The big news, however, was a full INCREDIBLE STRING BAND reunion at the 2001 Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, Messrs Williamson, Heron, Palmer, plus newcomers Lawson Dando and Bina Williamson (Robin’s wife) putting in an acclaimed performance which more than justified the hype, and boded well for the future.
Robin’s solo outings were still arriving thick and fast in the latter half of the 90s, the predominantly self-penned THE ISLAND OF THE STRONG DOOR (1996) {*6}, the Greentrax-issued CELTIC HARP AIRS & DANCE TUNES (1997) {*5}, another self-penned RING DANCE (1998) {*6}, the traditional A JOB OF JOURNEY WORK (1998) {*5} – with Robin and Bina co-singing a fair number of tracks with guest appearances from their children Vashti and Gavin – and folklore brass-band concert set THE OLD FANGLED TONE (1999) {*5}. CARMINA (2000) {*6} was Robin and Bina Williamson’s duo album, a setting of psalms and sacred texts sung in Latin.
No sooner had the critics begun to rave about the re-formed ISB than WILLIAMSON resumed and continued his solo career with the excellent, Dylan Thomas-inspired THE SEED-AT-ZERO (2001) {*7}. His first recording for the ECM label, Robin also collates and tunefully recites selective works by Henry Vaughan (`The World’) and even Idris Davies and PETE SEEGER (`The Bells Of Rhymney’).
On the same bardic mission, SKIRTING THE RIVER ROAD (2002) {*6} followed the same spiritual path, although this time the works of Walt Whitman, William Blake and the aforementioned Vaughan were at the centre of the album’s core. Augmenting the weird and wonderful WILLIAMSON on this enterprise were Swedish flautist Abe Moller, American violinist Mat Maneri, sax player Paul Dumnall and English bassist Mick Hutton, all mainly plucked from the world of avant-jazz. If one were to pick the best here (a job for only the most loyal of fans), one might choose Blake’s triumvirate `Infant Joy’, `The Terrible Doubt’ and `The Fly’ – all equally eerie and haunting.
Robin was back again via THE IRON STONE (2006) {*7}, once again at the avant-improvisation through the works of poets Sir Walter Raleigh (`Even Such Is Time’), John Clare (`The Badger’), Ralph Waldo Emerson (`Bacchus’), Sir Thomas Wyatt (`Wyatt’s Song Of Reproach’) and Turlough O’Carolan’s `Loftus Jones’. Once again featuring Moller, Maneri and Phillips, WILLIAMSON’s traditional and reflective peaks come by way of a reading of `Sir Patrick Spens’ (once the preserve of FAIRPORT CONVENTION), `The Yellow Snake’ (an ISB oldie) and `Political Lies’.
From then onwards, Robin concentrated on performing with Bina as a duo. Their acoustic concerts featured original and sourced material inspired by Celtic, Indian, English and old-timey traditions. Harp, bowed psaltery and other instruments accompany the east-west harmonies of their voices – “inspirational, real beauty through simplicity” (ROBERT PLANT, 2009). Robin regarded this work with Bina the most fulfilling and meaningful work he’s ever done; their most recent set was the limited-edition LP, JUST LIKE THE RIVER AND OTHER SONGS WITH GUITAR (2008) {*6} – check out his pre-Subo (Susan Boyle) version of Jagger-Richards’ `Wild Horses’ and DYLAN’s `Absolutely Sweet Marie’. The Swedish-only release of the live THE CELTIC BARD (2008) {*6} was again, with harp in hand, and on song, in playful mode.
Tending to veer toward the DIY/mail-order approach to his creativity, rather than the conventional record stores, 2012 saw an impressive comeback of sorts in LOVE WILL REMAIN {*7}. Released on 180g vinyl (deluxe packaged with CD and book), his “painting” boxful of tricks boasted a handful of cover versions including PINK FLOYD’s `Chapter 24’ (incorporating GEORGE HARRISON’s `The Inner Light’), The BAND’s `Whispering Pines’ and a song by David Allan Coe.
For 2014’s wholly self-penned TRUSTING IN THE RISING LIGHT {*7}, the wondrous WILLIAMSON was back on song – and on ECM Records. The set was as much blues and jazz as it was Celtic folk, or indeed, world music (prime example: `Roads’). Re-roping in violaist Mat Maneri and percussionist Ches Smith to accompany his glissando harp, Hadanger fiddle, guitar and anything at hand; at 71 Robin had lost nothing of his improv and meditative powers. He sang of wife Bina on the intimate `Our Evening Walk’; he half-sang his relevance to life itself with the opening title track; and he honed in on his homely connections a la poem `Just West Of Monmouth’ – Robin was clearly setting out his path to a new otherworldly terrain.
© MC Strong 1994-2010/GRD-GFD // rev-up MCS Jul2012-Jun2019

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  1. Robin Tatham

    Grew up with the ISB as our own special music, inextricably linked to people places adventures now long ago and far away… glad robin seems to be forever following his own personal creative flow

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