Jim Gilchrist: Alasdair Roberts collaboration strikes right note

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THE last time I spoke to Alasdair Roberts, towards the end of last year, he had just compiled a selection from the wealth of Lowland Scots song recorded by the industrious American folk music collector Alan Lomax, to mark the 60th anniversary of Lomax’s first sally into Scotland.

Called Whaur the Pig Gaed on the Spree – a line from Davie Stewart’s rambunctious singing of McGinty’s Meal and Ale, the album (on Drag City) was released on vinyl only, which itself smacked rather of antique musicology.

Roberts told me that he had avoided selecting from Lomax’s copious delving into Gaelic song, as he wasn’t a Gaelic speaker and didn’t feel qualified to make an informed choice. I was intrigued, then, to receive the new album, Urstan (also on Drag City, but on CD this time) which Roberts, a very contemporary singer steeped in Scots balladry, has made with Mairi Morrison, a Gaelic singer from Lewis.

Having consequently approached Urstan – a Lewis term for a baby’s head-wetting – with a little suspicion, I find it a beguiling collaboration with some quite elaborate but surprisingly effective arrangements from a motley sounding ensemble.

Roberts’s core band of Alastair Caplin on fiddle, Stevie Jones on bass and drummer Alex Neilson is joined by the likes of Concerto Caledonia’s keyboard maestro David McGuinness, Gaelic piper Allan MacDonald and a mini-brass-band in the shape of Ross MacRae and Richard Merchant on trombone and trumpet.

Given his apparent reluctance to venture into Gaeldom, what brought on the celebratory flourish of Urstan? Roberts, he explains, was approached by Gaelic lecturer and artist Ishbel Murray, who provided the artwork for the album sleeve and who is involved in Glasgow’s Ceòl’s Craic club, which promotes Gaelic arts. “She asked if I’d like to go along. That was when I was introduced to Mairi, and a couple of weeks later, Ishbel asked whether I’d be interested in doing a collaboration with Mairi at the club.”

The pair duly rehearsed a one-off performance at the club one Hallowe’en – the night, after all, of unlikely high jinks – Roberts having undergone sufficient Gaelic coaching for his chorus contributions. It must have gone down well, because Ceòl’s Craic applied successfully to Creative Scotland for funding for a recording. Urstan is the happy result.

Morrison, for her part, is impressive in numbers such as the languid E Ho Leigein and the energetic slip-jig advance of Fiullaigean, and gives a haunting rendition of one of the great Gaelic laments, Ailein Duinn (Brown-Haired Allan) over the atmospheric backdrop of Allan MacDonald’s small pipes and muttering bass.

I sometimes moan about traditional songs being obscured by their arrangements, but here everything seems to gel effectively. There’s also a wonderfully joyful, macaronic melling of English and Gaelic in The Whole House is Singing, Roberts’s take on a song from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica.

His tentative first steps in brass arrangement can be heard in The Tri-Coloured House (a version of Scarborough Fair) with MacRae and Merchant advancing in good order to a roistering finale, and also on The Laird of Drum, Roberts telling the old tale with palpable regard in that eerily quavering tone of his which puts me in mind of the Incredible String Band of yore. Roberts, naturally, has done his own listening in that direction: “In fact, I met Robin Williamson last year in Cardiff and he played some hardanger fiddle on the recordings we were making about St Kilda with [the poet] Robin Robertson.”

Referring to tradition bearers such as Jeannie Robertson and Davie Stewart, who figured on his Spree compilation, Roberts talks in terms of “a direct line from singers like these, through Robin Williamson and the Sixties folk-rock generation, to the present day and people like me and my friends.”

• For further information, see www.alasdairroberts.com