I have to commend Alasdair Roberts’ commitment to finding and playing at new venues. I’ve seen him several times in Brighton – solo and as part of The Furrow Collective – but never in the same venue twice.
The last time was on a sweaty spring evening at The Hope & Ruin, when Roberts’ intensity was amplified by a tightly packed crowd and an airless room. Tonight at the Albert it couldn’t feel much colder outside, and this room is rather better ventilated. But there’s something about Roberts’ focus that seems to heat the air – so great is it that he barely touches his beer despite an obvious expenditure of energy and seeming rise in temperature (which he wryly attributes to “stasis”).
He opens with the plaintive Coral & Tar, before taking us on a tour of what is now an impressive back catalogue of his own songs, with plenty of traditional numbers thrown in. Fair Flower of Northumberland is a satisfying example of the latter – a song about two Scots and two English people which, he diplomatically notes, doesn’t necessarily paint the Scottish cast in a favourable light.
Roberts’ accented vocals, slightly hunched stance and string-threatening, bony guitar plucks give his performance a certain austerity. But while you sometimes want to get him to play songs back so you can fully digest the words, there’s a mordant sense of fun, too. My Geordie O My Geordie O has a melody reminiscent of the Furrows’ super-catchy Hind Horn, No Dawn Song is lovely and light, while False Lover John – an Irish ballad – is funny and delivered with a glint in the eye.
Roberts treats the crowd to some previews of songs from his upcoming album, Pangs, and makes his set even more absorbing with a few instrumental flourishes – he delivers a surprisingly kick-ass guitar solo on the biting Farewell Sorrow, and uses his voice as an instrument to powerful effect on Fusion of Horizons, suddenly creating quite the wall of sound. Set concluder Riddle Me This feels like an appropriate ending to a night of intelligent, enigmatic music.
The complexity of the songs and the density of his language makes Roberts’ set quite a different from the preceding one from Mary Hampton. The Brighton singer returned to the stage after some time away to deliver a set of mostly traditional songs. She began with a witty a capella number that demonstrated her beautiful singing technique and ability to becalm a chatty room, before picking up her guitar for several songs originally from France, including the winning Orange Tree. These, she said, appealed to her because they were understated – and within the thoughtful arrangements there was certainly a sparseness and room for interpretation that made me want to hear them again soon.
Hampton had a new guitar with a beautiful bass sound to show off, but I enjoyed a tune played on her older instrument – a piece inspired by the tarantella folk dances of Italy. The clanging, often buzzy drone made a fine backdrop for the more frantic, high-up-the-neck stuff you’d expect to accompany the shaking off of poisonous spiders.
She ended with a song played at her first-ever gig – a setting of WB Yeats’ Long-Legged Fly. As with everything else in the set, I’d never heard it before but was utterly captivated. What a pleasure to have her back.
The Knights Project are led by Lucy Day, who sets up shop side-on, staring out her fellow guitarist (of whose name I’m not sure) in the name of – she assured us – the pair being able to concentrate on what they were playing. The group played some interesting original material over some busy guitar playing. A third member provided some lovely, subtle harmonies, and I loved their take on The False Bride, too.
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