Gig 14 Robin Gillan. 16th April 2009
Islington Folk Club
The Horse Shoe
24 Clerkenwell Close
My Location: 6th row
Record Recommendation: The Fire Inside: Bob Seger.
As we all struggle through this life, we have to make decisions, and stand by them. Then we either bask in glory or suffer the consequences of those decisions. In the short term, you can perhaps wing your way by on a bit of luck, but for long lasting success, in my humble opinion, you can’t; raw talent and class will stand out. Part of everyone’s allowance of raw talent, contains a very important packet of ‘good decision-making’. The most talented of us are blessed with the largest packets- oooh-errr! Don’t worry if yours is small, apparently one can purchase books to help grow it.
Lily Allen, for example, is lucky to be the daughter of actor Keith Allen. She has been accused of using his contacts, accusations, which she strongly denies I must point out, to launch her pop and broadcasting careers. Deny them she might, but the cynical side of me still says it was Keith’s influence; not any interviewing skills, hosting talent, or charisma of her own, that landed her the toe-curlingly embarrassing Lily Allen and Friends TV show.
Mike Peters, the Alarm front man, was lucky that Nigel Twist, the band’s drummer, is the brother of children’s TV host Gaz Topps. Topps leant the band the £1000 they needed to record their first single, Unsafe Building, thereby launching their rock career. Although they never reached mega pop stardom, and had their critics, the band was pretty successful, and to this day has a strong fan base.
In five years time, when she’s too tired to go to the parties that get her the attention she craves, people, as they try to sell their Lily Allen CDs, will wonder what possessed them to make the original purchase. Over twenty-five years after their Unsafe Building coup, and a couple of line up changes, the Alarm can still attract crowds to sell out 2000 seater venues. To be able to do that obviously requires raw talent, including your decision-making packet, which guides you toward what you are striving for, and why you want it. Lucky breaks can’t sustain that momentum.
Anyway, you may ask, as you often do, “where is all this rambling leading too?” I made a couple of decisions earlier in the week, which are having an adverse effect on me on this beautiful sunny spring day. They weren’t monumental decisions, and I reckon in the long run I won’t regret them too much. But I did decide to have too many late nights, and drink too much booze!
It started last Sunday as Biggs, Ford and I went to Dungeness to take some moody photos of the Woodcut Process. It was a good day out, which involved Biggs and I posing on a wind swept, chilly beach, next to abandoned fishing boats and piles of discarded nets and other debris, including a very expensive looking pilot’s chair. I have to admit that as most were long distance shots- there’s more background than the human subjects to spoil them- some of the pictures are half decent. Biggs has promised to put the better ones on our Myspace site, if you desperately want to see them. After the hard work, we refreshed ourselves at the local hostelry with a superb fish ‘n’ chip lunch, and I indulged in a couple of Broadsides, and an Old P.
The week that followed was one of excess and late nights, culminating in a works curry on Friday, and the Farnham Beer Festival yesterday! I must thank Mike for getting us the precious entry tickets for the event. As in previous visits, the fest was a triumph of beer over logic. While the rest of my body, and wallet, was saying “no”, my eyes were saying, “go”. There was only going to be one winner!
So it is this morning, as I watched all of those brave runners and wheelchair athletes doing the London Marathon, knowing that I should be enjoying the fresh air on a long running session of my own- Edinburgh is slowly creeping upon me- that I pay, with sore head and dodgy stomach, the consequences for poor decision making earlier in the week. I’ve only got 4 weekends before the marathon, so it shouldn’t be too hard to curb my enthusiasm for pubs between now and then.
Although he’s released a number of great songs, it’s the theme of the realisation that age takes its unrelenting toll on the individual who still has passions that I like about Bob Seger’s The Fire Inside. It’s a song that explores the seedier side of a person with human desires who realises that her “youth and beauty all fade away”. The Fire Inside Seger sings about, is the one that, for the song’s character, isn’t satisfied. It’s the love of someone who isn’t her partner- the one she didn’t have the courage commit to. However, she sees herself as ‘safe’ because she is in a relationship. The lyrics suggest that Seger suspects that she isn’t the only person in that kind of relationship. Quite a scrutiny of the human psyche! As well as the theme, listen to the piano. The keys on the tune are incredible; it’s a piece of genius that lifts the song, in my opinion, from the ‘good’ to the ‘great’.
I feel a link here; was Robin Gillan at the Islington Folk Club great, good or indifferent? Islington Folk Club nights are held in the large function room of the Horse Shoe pub. Compared with most clubs I have visited, the audience was ‘young’. When I say young, I mean, even though I am no longer a fresh faced youth, my age! Many of that audience were musicians, if the number of instrument cases of all shapes and sizes were to go by. They were gathered in groups, rather than integrating with each other, around the room- its size leant itself to the spread. This lack of integration didn’t make the place unwelcoming though; I guess not everyone wants to know everyone else’s business (unlike me!!).
As the room filled up, the Angel House Band took, and filled, the stage. I started to lose sight of the musicians as they arranged themselves behind bodhran and harmonica, 3 squeezeboxes, a fiddle, saxophone, and keyboard- yes that’s 7 musicians. The band opened with a refined instrumental, with bodhran player opting for the more subtle tones of the harmonica. Next up was the club host Bernard with his ukulele, singing his SUV protest song.
One of the lines was “don’t much like your BBC”. At the time it was received with a sharp disapproving intake of breathe from yours truly, because, although it has its faults, I think the Beeb airs many good shows. However, my opinion can change, and if I have to listen to any more trailers for The Apprentice, it will flip. The other day, the person who got knocked out was on Breakfast TV; then she was on the Steve Wright Radio show! Both shows introduced her like a wronged national treasure. Has the BBC not noticed; it was the likes of her, and her greedy, self-centred, blood-sucking cronies, who dragged us into this financial black hole? People, who are prepared to shed their dignity, creep to the boss, and tell tales on others to earn their fast buck, shouldn’t get publicity. They should be hidden away from the public eye, not stuck in front of a camera and encouraged! Oh yeah, when that obnoxious nincompoop says, “you’re fired” does he employ these desperate whiners already? If yes, surely he has to give them holiday pay, and 2 weeks notice. If he does not employ them, he can’t fire them, because he’s not employing them!!
Andy singing unaccompanied was up next. His song was the traditional classic that goes along the lines: boy meets girl, boy goes to sea, girl dresses as the cabin boy, cabin boy (girl) identifies herself, boy and girl get married at sea. Andy sang a very wordy song with a good clear voice. I had a chat with him during the break, and he told me he had only started singing recently- his teacher is giving him the right instructions.
After a slick change over, the Angel Band were performing again, this time the Harry Cocksedge Shottage instrumental. Following the introduction of “any colour you like, as long as it’s blue” from Bernard, Chris took to the stage. He played fine guitar, and sang and gurned in ‘traditional’ blues style.
In an impressively long list of floor spots, a three piece called Hurd, presumably because of the hurdy-gurdy played by Christine. The hurdy’s alternative sound was complimented by guitar and oboe- the latter being an instrument seldom seen on the folk circuit. It might be common where you come from, but it’s the first I’ve seen on this tour. Hurd played two brawls from the Champagne region of France, which had a really interesting medieval sound to them. This sound may be common where you come from, but it was the first time I’d heard it on this tour! As they had travelled so far to play, Bernard allowed them a third tune. With the hurdy swapped for a low recorder, and oboe for clarinet, the band played the mellow self-written Ghandi.
The Angel band was up again! preceding a very enthusiastic introduction for Robin Gillan. I was immediately impressed by the relaxed manner in which Robin took to the stage and settled himself before starting his first song. It is tough performing to an expectant audience, so being as comfortable as possible is a must, even if this makes for a short silence in proceedings. The short silence was followed by a guitar and harmonica Hillbilly instrumental, and an apology for his mistakes. The music sounded fine to me, and most of the other listeners I’m sure; another top tip for musicians from my Almanac of Stage Craft- don’t apologies! Gillan told us later about Roscoe Holcomb’s (Eric Clapton’s favourite country musician) unapologetic repost to a spectator who didn’t like his theme of songs. Every muso should take that insight of Holcomb’s on stage.
Gillan sang Bob Robert’s Sailor Song next, followed by a cheery little number on fiddle about a man shooting his wife Mrs Pretty Polly. While he sang the Sailor with a voice that to me sounded a la Guthrie, with Mrs Pretty Polly, the vocals took on a traditional English sound. Which ever set of chords he chose to exercise, they were pleasing to the ear.
Robin had been suffering tuning problems with his previous instruments, and he now picked up his ‘donkey’ fiddle, which he had deliberately cross-tuned. The fiddle sounded excellent to an up tempo version of Marched Retreat, where Gillan showed off his musical prowess. He then showed off his multi instrument ability with banjo playing Holcomb’s tune about a fellow killing his wife with poisoned wine. This was followed by a banjo instrumental, and a gorgeous tune about the Girl from Yarrow, played on accordion. This was a cracking end to a short first set.
As well as having a chat with the solo singer Andy during the break, I also had a chin wag with a lady who was visiting the club for the first time. She told me that she was enjoying the evening, but it was all very serious- she wanted to dance! As already mentioned, the function room was large, and one that I’m sure has witnessed dancing of sorts over the years. One of my laments about some of the clubs I have visited, is that people are sometimes put off expressing themselves, be it through dance, or singing along, by the atmosphere. I’m not expecting to pogo like I did at a Fingers gig, or sing at the raucous levels I would watching U2; but I do sympathise with the lady, as at some venues I’ve been to, I have felt awkward because of the chink of my glass when it’s put on the table!
Anyway, end of break, and not to be out done by Hurd, The Angel band, minus keyboard, plus hurdy-gurdy, started the second half. Bernard, posing elegantly against a pillar and strumming ukulele was next, followed by the Tom Paley. Next up was Martin Nail singing unaccompanied a ballad of the theme, which was becoming evermore common that evening: murder!!
Mark with his recently re-strung fiddle played an instrumental with Gillan next. If I could sum up the evening in three words, they would be “tuning, tuning, tuning”. Mark did warn us that he was having trouble getting the fiddle in key, and boy did it show! Poor old Gillan was trying his hardest to strum along and get some sort of semblance of a melody during their instrumental, but it did sound awful! Despite my previous comments about saying sorry, Mark should have apologised! I, however, will not apologise for my double standards when it comes to saying sorry advice. Still more eager floor acts followed, this time in the shape of local hero ‘Stetson’ Stan. He sang a clever little number called Super Horse. The 7th and final spot was the Band again.
With vocals so similar to the man’s, it was no surprises when Gillan played a Guthrie number. It was his first after the break, and was I Ain’t Got No Home. The song is a true great, and to be fair, Gillan did it proud. After some tuning, Robin performed a travelling song, then a couple of Scottish tunes by ‘Scotland’s most famous violinist- Hector MacAndrew’. The tunes were played well on fiddle, and I liked the way Gillan would start the song sitting, rise to his feet during the tune, and finish sitting down again.
What I didn’t like was the time spent tuning up. I know it has to be done, especially after hearing Mark’s fiddle, but due to time twiddling tuning keys, it took over 20 minutes to play 3 short songs. I’m sure you can purchase small electronic tuners to stick on the end of the instrument- Phil Beer certainly had one! If a less forgiving audience were present, people would have been moaning.
Well, Robin invited up the beautiful Brona McVittie, of the London Lasses and the Woodlarks, to join him on stage. They sang in a lovely harmony The Wind and the Rain, a song I’d first heard Martin Simpson play. Brona took on the vocals for Hares on the Mountain, which also sounded wonderful, after which she made way for the next guest Tom Paley. Sticking with the leporidae theme, he and Gillan played Little Rabbit, a decently long instrumental, followed by a short vocal verse at the end. This was followed by a good instrumental by Gillan, and an abrupt end to the evening’s entertainment! I called out for more, but none followed.
However, what does follow is Travelling Folk at the Junction Inn, Groombridge. Looking forward to seeing you there. Mark.