Cedar Rapida, IA ( July 23, 2013) – Those familiar with Legionarts and CSPS Hall know a secret: the hall is considered one of the best world music venues in the country. Tuesday night’s performance by Alasdair Roberts proved why this is the case.
Roberts is well known in his native Scotland, and is considered an outstanding songwriter as well as a performer who helps sustain traditional Scottish music. He is not well known in the States, but that is apt to change. His concert at CSPS proved his talent at not only writing evocative and thought provoking songs, but in performing them in a way that ranks as one of the most unique musical experiences I have had at CSPS.
Opening for Alasdair was local violinist Natalie Brown, partnered with Cedar Rapids favorite Craig Erickson on guitar and vocals. Natalie recently returned from a year in Scotland where she was learning traditional tunes and partnering with musicians to expand her repertoire and hone her skills. There is a difference between Scottish and Irish fiddle playing that some may not appreciate if they lump both styles together under the heading of “Celtic Music”. Scottish style tends to be more structured and has more of a classical feel, at the same time having a more diverse range of styles. Natalie ably demonstrated this with songs ranging from soulful ballads to foot stomping reels. Craig’s vocals and guitar work ably contributed to the enjoyment of the performance, but it was when Natalie finished up her set with a solo medley of traditional songs that I most enjoyed her style of playing.
Even though Natalie’s set seemed a bit short, the audience was delighted when she joined Alasdair and his band for several songs.
Alasdair Roberts is one of those songwriters who transcends stylistic expectations. He can write very complex lyrics, yet fit them to a simple melody that keeps the song from seeming too weighty. As with all good songwriters, his words come from his heart and are decorated with his experiences and his obvious love and respect for Scottish history, poetry and music. In lesser hands, some of his lyrics would seem a bit pretentious. Yet, Alasdair has a way of presenting the ideas behind his lyrics that makes the listener realize that what Alasdair is singing about is an “everyman” sort of experience.
Melodically and instrumentally, Alasdair’s performance offered an engaging, eclectic mix of styles. Backed by Ben Reynolds on electric guitar and Stevie Jones on acoustic bass, I was delighted and surprised by some unexpected instrumentation. Ben Reynolds’ playing is sparse, in a way that suits the songs perfectly. Even when he cranked up the distortion for some songs, it worked because he understands that “less is more” for the sort of songs that Alasdair writes.
Stevie Jones’ bass playing was a transparent backing to Alasdair’s acoustic riffs and Ben’s electric tones. The bass was always there, without it being so prominent as to distract from the real focus of the performance. “Minimalist” is a way to describe both the instrumental accompaniment and vocalizations. Both the instruments and back up vocals always added to Alasdairs singing and acoustic playing, without ever being overpowering or distracting. All three men understood that it was the songs themselves that mattered most, and they were jst the vessels through which the songs flowed and came to life.
Alasdair knows Scottish traditon and Scottish poetry well, and it shows in his own songwriting. My favorite of the evening was “The Wheels of the World”, and extended opus that covers a range of several styles, both lyrically and melodically. I would have assumed it was a medley if not for being told it was a single song intended to express a complex set of ideas. Not that all of his songs are “heavy”. He played his share of foot tapping upbeat tunes and soulful ballads.
All in all, the true enjoyment of the evening came from feeling like I was transported to a pub in Edinburgh or Glascow, listening to a Scotsman sing of the Scottish heart and homeland. Alasdair Roberts performance at CSPS Hall is yet one more reason why it deserves recognition as a great world music venue.
P.S. One of the things I liked is that Alasdair releases his albums on real, honest to goodness vinyl LPs as well as CD’s. In the age of digital and MP3s, it’s nice to see artists that appreciate the unique sound of playing a vinyl LP through an analog system.