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Robin Williamson

Village Hall, Wass
Wednesday 11 June 2008

The Village Hall in Wass, a few miles northwest of York, deep in the sprawling landscape of North Yorkshire, was the ideal venue for such an intimate audience with one of the most enigmatic figures on the story telling circuit today. Story telling is just one of the many facets to Robin Williamson; internationally known as the founding member of seminal folk outfit the Incredible String Band, with dozens of albums to his name both with the band and on solo projects as well as various collaborations, most notably with John Renbourn, we have in our presence tonight, a musician with a diverse musical career and a very colourful past. Once you get into these stories however, you tend to forget songs of mad hatters, cousin caterpillars or indeed half remarkable questions and you get drawn into another world altogether.

Those who took the risk of putting together this concert in such a small and unassuming venue, must have been pleased with the turn out. I was fashionably late and missed probably the first five minutes, due to a twisted road sign that pointed us in the wrong direction altogether and took us along one of the many winding roads that meandered past not only verdant meadows and sleepy tree-lined pastures, but the unexpected white chalk horse embedded into a hillside and the imposing ruins of a once majestic Cistercian Abbey.

Creeping quietly into the old wooden Village Hall, our man was already seated in the centre of the room, surrounded by his audience rather than taking up the usual position of being placed on an impersonal stage at one end. With a Celtic harp between his legs and a variety of ancient instruments gathered to his side, Williamson had already embarked on his first tale and my initial urge was to ask someone seated nearest to me the story so far. 

My guess is that the audience was made up of two halves; those in the local storytelling circle whose enthusiasm made it possible for Wass Village Hall to appear on tour flyers, sandwiched between Manchester's Royal College of Music and Hammersmith Irish Cultural Centre, and those nostalgic ISB fans who had come along specifically to hear that most distinctive voice close up and possibly get their prized copy of THE HANGMAN'S BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER LP signed at last. In either camp, I'll wager that the only person in Wass tonight who had played Woodstock was Robin, in fact I'll go so far as to say that he was probably the only person there tonight who remembers Woodstock. But you know what they say about those who remember the Sixties. 

With the ruins of Byland Abbey a short walk away and a single pub down the lane, Robin brought to this sleepy hamlet the ancient spoken literature of Britain and Ireland, regaling us all with Celtic stories of beauty and violence, the magic lore of our ancient ancestors, in a bardic style he appears to have made his own. Stories gathered from the Western Highlands of Scotland, which after a bit of 'jiggery-pokery' in Robin Williamson's head, merge seamlessly into the Celtic heritages of Ireland and Wales, are told with both humour and authority. So engaging are the stories, which Robin delivers in his own unmistakable voice, with its rich Edinburgh inflection, and accompanied effortlessly with the sound of the Celtic harp, that you tend to almost believe he had actually been there to witness these strange events personally. I believe he probably had.

Backing up his ability to tell a good story, Robin reassures his audience that 'whether it's a long story, a short story, a good story, a bad story, or no story at all', that he would try to 'make it a better one than it will be when you tell it on another night.' That, I can certainly guarantee.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky