ROBIN & BINA WILLIAMSON - Half Moon, Putney. 19.7.17
Watching Robin Williamson perform with his wife Bina last night at the Half Moon in Putney was a deeply moving and thought-provoking experience. The Half Moon, once a proud bastion of British folk, has long since succumbed to the deadly virus of tribute bands. A character like Williamson is definitely a throwback in terms of the pub's promotions. Nevertheless, having taken the punters money, it seems not unreasonable to expect that the venue will provide a properly functioning PA system and a competent sound engineer to operate it. Sadly, this was not the case.
So I looked at Robin Williamson playing the Scottish harp to a small crowd of folk music lovers. This man, 73 years old, who has been a professional musician for over 50 years, with a discography and bibliography so large it makes the Incredible String Band (for which he is most famous) seem like a minor diversion sometime early in his career. I watched him play and I listened to the melodies, some of them hundreds of years old. I noticed how he played none of his old songs (he has literally hundreds), relying instead on the Celtic Bardic tradition that he loves (and that loves him) and on terrible jokes and marvellous old stories (tonight we were treated to a parable on youth and death from the book of the High Deeds of Finn McCool), I marvelled at the casual brilliance of his musicianship - he plays guitar, violin, Scottish harp, mandolin - and I wept, ladies and gentlemen. Of course I did.
Interesting to compare and contrast with his old ISB partner Mike Heron, whom I saw in Scotland last Autumn. Heron relied almost exclusively on old ISB material, even including one of Williamson's songs. Heron sang them with joy and not a trace of nostalgia. It was clear that the songs were still very much part of him. Williamson, on the other hand, makes no nod to his own past at all. His music, rooted as it is in ancient tradition, is entirely in the present. You can easily see how, with the best will in the world, these two approaches are no longer compatible and that the commercial fact that Heron and Williamson could play bigger venues and command much bigger fees together than they can apart is just completely irrelevant to Williamson. He turns up in his car and humps his own gear. His wife Bina sings in a strange and compelling Indian style - all the more so as it is applied to British folk. She plays the psaltery and the saz and the autoharp. Her rhythm is beautifully stately, Williamson in his eagerness sometimes has to wait for her, and the rapport between the two of them is a joy to watch.
But Robin Williamson... He is so much the real deal it hurts. This is where the Celtic Bard fits, or doesn't fit, in London 2017. Go and see him if you can, if you care. Because when he's gone, when it's gone, that's it.
Having said that, he looks healthy and happy and I have confidence he will be carrying on his vital work for a good few years yet. A part of the legend of Finn McCool has it that if a day goes by when Finn McCool's name is not mentioned, then the world will come to an end. Maybe the same is true of Robin Williamson.