Concert Review: Robin Williamson (The Van Dyck, Schenectady, New York, May 25, 2000)

Native Scot Robin Williamson is best known on these shores for his work in the ’60s and ’70s with the Incredible String Band and (later) the Merry Band, both of whom evoked a world where the ancient bards still traveled the land, sharing tales, quaffing ale, smoking opium, absconding with ladies and generally making the Sheriff of Nottingham and his ilk cranky.

Of less renown (but no less impressively) Williamson has also amassed a lengthy body of work as a solo artist, while further demonstrating his talents as a poet, writer, story-teller, producer and soundtrack composer over the years. A veritable Renaissance Man, indeed. Or maybe a Baroque Man, or a Medieval Man, or a 20th Century Man, depending on the mood that strikes him at any given time.

During his performance at the Van Dyck last Thursday, Williamson touched upon all of those musical and historical eras and a dozen others, keeping his hands occupied by alternating between a beautiful Celtic Harp and a big old battered dreadnought of an acoustic guitar. And he talked and sang too, of course, in a reedy, personality-laden voice that came across something like a blend of American folkie Pete Seeger, Scottish balladeer Ewan MacColl and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, in a reflective, Songs from the Wood or Heavy Horses kind of mood.

Williamson covered such pastoral themes during his two sets, along with loads of others, some savory, some not, most amusing, despite themselves. Horse-racing, church bells, the Cardiff docks, spinsters, nettles, goats, Englishmen, bollocks, duck killing, school, madness, Robert the Bruce, armor, beer, food, the Book of Genesis, Moses, Jesus, rottweilers, mynah birds and James Brown all made appearances in Williamson’s set. His skill as a story-teller made them all seem very real, very relevant, very now, and his spoken-word-with-harp presentation style made them flow and move in ways many histrionic poetry slam participants would do well to emulate.

The evening’s greatest moment, however, came when Williamson picked up his guitar for a rambling, poetic, 20-minute song (or medley of songs, who could tell?) to end his first set. It was like watching Salvador Dali front Fairport Convention, somehow, with the surrealistic lyrics grounded in, yet fleeing from, the open-tuned music and open-throated voice that shaped and caged them. Superb, sublime and very evocative, although I doubt that anyone had any idea what it was supposed to evoke, or why. But, then, that’s what makes wonderful art so appealing — and I have to think the knowledge of this enigmatic truth must be central to Robin Williamson’s ongoing allure.

Well, that and the bawdy jokes, I mean.

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