Still in London in September as a visitor and one last chance to catch a gig at The Spitz before this great venue is no more thanks to the lure of the developers’ dollar. Despite  over 10,000 signatures on a petition plus support from the press and the mayoral office, The Spitz’s landlords will close the venue down after eleven years of it being a leading light on London’s independent music scene.

I had one of my best live experiences there in my early days in the city – seeing :zoviet*france: and Evan Parker* play together, with a young Dawn McCarthy yodelling as support (more on this at a later date) – and also good times with Hood, Third Eye Foundation, Appendix Out, Piano Magic, Downpour, Cat Power, Squarepusher, Paul Schütze Trio, Experimental Audio Research

Notice has been given to quit the premises by end-September, so The Spitz Festival Of Folk is the last ever music festival to be staged at this Old Spitalfields Market venue. The Festival programme takes in Charlie Parr, Circulus, The See See, Lone Pigeon and others, but tonight is the opening with legendary (to me!) Scottish troubadour Alasdair Roberts supported by Jackie Oates.

Spitz Festival Of Folk flyer

The place is empty and we find ourselves at the very same candelit table, right up against the stage, as for :zoviet*france:-Evan Parker those ten years ago (almost to the day). After an enjoyable set of classic English folk from young fiddle-singer Jackie Oates, Ali Roberts takes to the stage and starts off with fantastical “Down Where The Willow Wands Weep” from his amazing 2003 album “Farewell Sorrow“. In his solo guise (as opposed to the more psych-folk Appendix Out), Roberts blows the dust off & re-animates ancient British (murder) ballads, pays homage to the fabled folksinging & storytelling of the likes of Paddy Tunney, Shirley Collins, Nic Jones and Duncan Williamson, but also writes original material (as on “Farewell Sorrow”) so perfectly entwined with the arcane, the mystical, the historical that years hence will no doubt be considered as much an integral part of the British folk fabric as that of his heroes.

Ali Roberts @ The Spitz (06-09-2007)

The first half of the set is mostly made up of material from 2007’s “The Amber Gatherers“, a more upbeat collection of songs than any of his previous releases, although the sombre “The Cruel War” then leads into darker territory. Ali’s version of Duncan Williamson’s sea chanty “The Golden Vanity” is given added poignancy in hindsight – Williamson died on 8th November 2007, just two months after this show. He follows with a new song – an interpretation of the traditional “The Burning Of Auchindoun” with apocalyptic overtones. The feeling of death & destruction is carried through to the moving “Lord Ronald”, a bleak tale of a nobleman’s poisoning at the hands of his sweetheart, who herself will come to a gruesome end: “I’ll leave her the rope / And the high gallows-tree / And let her hang there / For the poisoning of me…”
For “Admiral Cole” he is joined on vocals by the flame-haired Alex Neilson – “the russet-est sprite in London tonight” – who I recall doing a damn fine job behind the drumkit as part of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy‘s touring band earlier in the year (and who also has his own project in Directing Hand as well as various collaborations with former Telstar Pony David Keenan).

Ali Roberts & Alex Neilson @ The Spitz (06-09-2007)

The set comes to  a close with the crowd-singalong of “The Whole House Is Singing”, the tentative humming of the audience growing stronger as Ali coaxes us out between the verses, likening us to a mouse poking its nose out of its hole, slowly becoming bolder. It is a fitting close as he manages to weave such magic over us all that it seems only right that we end up singing along with him at the end.

He returns for a single song encore – the maudlin melancholy of  “The Wife Of Usher’s Well” (AKA Three Little Babes) – having managed this night to take us through most of the emotional spectrum. Hopefully support slots on tours by the likes of Joanna Newsom and the Decemberists has awakened a wider ‘alt.folk’ audience to Alasdair Roberts’ considerable talents, as his timeless songs and re-inventions of UK folk’s heritage deserve as much exposure as possible.

Setlist: Alasdair Roberts @ The Spitz Festival Of Folk, The Spitz (06 September 2007)
Down Where The Willow Wands Weep
Riddle Me This
I Had A Kiss Of The King′s Hand
Farewell Sorrow
Where Twines The Path
The Cruel War
The Golden Vanity (from the singing of Duncan Williamson)
The Burning Of Auchindoun
Lord Ronald
Admiral Cole
The Whole House Is Singing
The Wife Of Usher’s Well

Here is “Long A-Growing” from the “Protect Our Secret Handshake” compilation (Comes With A Smile vol.9) which accompanied Comes With A Smile magazine #13 (2003).

Alasdair Roberts – Long A-Growing

Some more photos of Ali Roberts in performance can be found here and here.

* and no, it most definitely wasn’t jazz :)