Rychard Carrington reports on Alasdair Roberts & Friends and C Joynes - The Junction, Cambridge, 18 May 2013

Junction 2, The

It was a treat to hear the entrancing instrumental guitar of C. Joynes confer grace and beauty upon us all again for half an hour. C.'s (aka Chris's) thumb-led, finger-picking style takes tunes, some of traditional origin, to wondrous places, in a ragtimey sort of way. This level-headed Histon musician should rightfully be a big star.


Alasdair Roberts & Friends took longer to convince me. The only album of his I'd heard was the unadorned solo recording of 2001, The Crook of my Arm, which I like thoroughly. I wonder what it is with 'Friends', though, for as with Sam Lee & Friends (a completely different set of people) at first I thought the arrangements were trying too hard to be radical. Unique, as well as accomplished, they certainly were: in the front row, joining Roberts' acoustic guitar and lead vocals, were Stevie Jones on upright bass and the barefooted Olivia Chaney on harmonium and vocals. In the back row were Rafe Fitzpatrick on fiddle and Ben Reynolds on electric guitar. What can one say? Interesting to hear harmonium, which I much like as a solo instrument to accompany vocals, within an ensemble; interesting to hear electric guitar in a context that so definitely wasn't rock'n'roll; and, with respect to Reynolds and Fitzgerald, nice to see bass in front of guitar and fiddle for a change.


Unsurprisingly all the players were very good, and the arrangements original, intricate and assured. I particularly liked the way Olivia Chaney's powerful vocals played against Roberts' lead vocals. But don't I prefer my folk less adorned, less crafted? In fact most of the songs were Roberts' compositions, mostly from his new album A Wonder Working Stone. At first he didn't do much in the way of introductions, and the songs themselves were somewhat lost in the instrumental texture. But as the show progressed Roberts talked more, and a greater versatility was demonstrated in the arrangements. Some harmonica from Ben Reynolds definitely enhanced some of the later numbers.


The first song I really warmed to was Song Composed in December, an 'after Robert Burns' composition by Roberts, who undoubtedly takes an enthusiastic interest in his Scottish heritage. It featured a surpirising rap in Welsh by Fitzpatrick. The next real winner was the traditions The Fair Flower of Northumberland (learnt from his father, the guitarist Alan Roberts, mucsical partner of Dougie MacLean), with Roberts accompanied by just harmonium, bass and backing vocals. The tunes Organaich An Oir-Fhuit Bhuidhe and Neil Gow's Lament For His Second Wife were further winners (not just for their titles), as was the first number of the encore, Farewell Sorrow, title track of Roberts' second solo album.  The Friends then left the stage, while Roberts walked to the front of it to deliver a tour de force unamplified a cappella rendition of the traditional The Cruel Mother, with some Friends joining in a little bit on backing vocals from behind curtains. An intriguing and versatile musical intelligence in action.


Writer: Rychard Carrington