Friday, February 22, 2013

Robb Johnson

Bristol Folk House

Though greed and stupidity fuck up the show
Are we downhearted? No?

Robb finishes his main set with a bit of downbeat optimism, but comes straight back on to do an English translation of This Land is Your Land, (with a touch of the Manchester Rambler folded into it):

As I went rambling
I saw a sign there
On Kinder Scout said
No trespassing
But we followed our footsteps
Now there's no sign there
This land was made for you and me. 

The words almost entirely fail to fit the tune; I almost got the impression that they were being made up on the spot. About as faithful to the spirit of Woody Guthrie as they could have been, in other words. But also pure Robb Johnson: 

In the squares of the city
In the shadow of the steeple
In the jobless centres 
I saw my people
Some of them were grumbling
Some of them were wondering
Is this land still made for you and me?

He describes one of his songs -- about a scary man with a fierce dog on a railway station as having "a Key Stage 1 chorus". He may ask the audience to join him in a hearty "Fuck You!" to authority, but there is something in his voice and manner which reminds you that his day job is a teacher. "Well, it is."

The audience still want more. He gives us a vaudevillian summary of socialist ideology ("We haven't any money, cos they got lots and lots....").but we still won't let him go home until he's done his utopian signature tune "Be reasonable and demand the impossible now." 

I gather that he was slightly taken aback my my review of his last Folkhouse gig. ("Oh dear, was it really like that? I thought I behaved myself."). The first half of this evening is much more focussed on lyrical, reflective, story songs. A young man says goodbye to his sweetheart on the eve of World War I; a stranger's grave near Shrewsbury reminds him of his father. Yes, he can rant, but he can also take your breath away with the unexpectedly personal: 

I don't believe in heaven any more
I don't believe in hell any more 
I had a friend die in my arms once 
You know what? He wasn't there any more.

He says he was once asked to teach a songwriting workshop, but couldn't do it: song writing is a "mystical alchemical process."  So maybe I mis-sold him as a punky, Braggish agitpop protest singer. He does talk a little about the Tottenham riots, but instead of going into When Tottenham Burned he sings a song about cookery:

We decided what we're doing
We decide who does what
Some of us are chopping onions
And some of us are not

Which is what he understands by anarchism: "nobody telling you what to do". Sex Pistols punk anarchism just means being social nuisance.

Something seems to happen in the interval. He comes back crosser, seeming to stumble over his words in the inter-song raps. After a pointed piece about importing flowers from African -- where children are dying of starvation ("let them eat blood-red African roses") he stops talking and shoots out four or five increasingly angry songs without a break. The sing-a-long "we all said stop the war";  the bitter "we're here because we're here on the North West Frontier"; a hysterical diatribe against yummie mummies taking over pubs ("ignored and bored their little dears run riot everywhere / Granny Thatcher's bastard kids and the spawn of Tony Blair"); and a rant against Rupert Murdoch and the Tabloid press ("we're sorry, we're sorry -- we're sorry we got caught"). 

His politics is certainly uncompromising. The personal is the political: it's not only about all getting together to make curry, it's about noticing that the scary man doesn't have any friends and that the soldiers Tony Blair killed were human beings with names. I could have managed without quite so many caricatures of people with posh accents: that could make you suspect that we are dealing with the wrong kind of class war. It's quite jarring to realise that this nice, smiley man is quite such an unreconstructed communist. He's heard that East Germany was a brilliant place to live. When he visits the former DDR he is sad to find that the once pristine Karl Marx Square is full of people who enjoy the same freedoms we enjoy -- joblessness, homelessness, drinking larger in the middle of the day, teenage mums... "Hurrah for democracy, eh?" This  kind of thing may makes our Guaridan-reading hackles rise, bit it leads straight into a daft song about  Karl Marx coming down from his pedestal and learning to ride a skateboard ("He wrote lots of dialectic but not that many jokes"). He does concede that on the anti-war memo, along with the Christians, Muslims, socialists and communists "we've even got a liberal or two". 

This is the kind of evening which reminds you what political songs are for. (In fact, it reminds you politics and songs are for.) You may want to quibble about some of the specific, but it leaves you in in no doubt that there is some kind of hope for England's green and pleasant etc etc etc. 

Are we down hearted? No. 

Is this land still made for you and me? Well it is!  

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