Friday, October 05, 2012

Robin and Bina Williamson

Bristol Folk House

A Robin Williamson gig never fails to be a source of joy and laughter. Robin had set up his harp in the middle of the rather cavernous main hall at the the Folk House, with chairs and tables set up in a semi-circle round him; it felt less like a cabaret than a church. Already seated, he greeted punters individually as they arrived. Warmth; intimacy; connection. With all the sectarian violence and hatred in the world, he says, the one thing we can agree about and celebrate is the wonderful fact of just being alive. St Jerome translated Psalm 24 into Latin to make it comprehensible (instead of being stuck in obscure languages like – he draws the words out - Aramaic and Coptic). But the trouble with religion is that people think that they and only they know what God is really, really thinking, really thinking, and the great thing about Jerome's translation nowadays is that nobody understands it. In the course of the Latin he gets into strange burr-burr noises with his lips, and suddenly decides that he wants the audience to start chanting "diddly diddly diddly diddly" (which is the definition of a jig) while he sings nonsense words unaccompanied.

Bina contributes a couple of very evocative Indian language songs. I sometimes found myself wishing she could have taken more of a back seat in some of Robin’s numbers; her robust accompaniment sometimes threatened to drown out his quirky, idiosyncratic voice. But that would probably be to miss the point of the evening, which was clearly a product of the chemistry between the two performers: their love of music, their love of life; their positive eclectic version of God.

No Celtic folk tale tonight, but a rambling shaggy dog story without a punch line: the point of the tale is the telling, the silly voices and digressions. I loved Robin's made-up proverb about the Three Ages of Man:

The first age of man: My Dad's bigger than your Dad.
The second age of man: Oh, shut up Dad, what do you know about anything?
The third age of man: As my old Dad used to say...

He loves weak jokes ("the closest the west came to Zen"). When Bina says that a songs in A Flat, he remarks "or, as we say, an apartment." He's delighted (and so is the audience) by an American ballad about a mermaid's curse from which, apparently, the story of the curse dropped out, leaving with a song about a man who came home one evening and died.

They wind up the evening with two very nearly seasonal songs: the gypsy carol, and Sydney Carter's lovely "Joseph Came to Summers Town" which imagines the holy family staying in a disused railway carriage round the back of Euston station.

"Whatever Christmas is about" he says afterwards "It isn't about the God of Shopping."

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