Singer and Storyteller Has Talent Worthy of a Famous Name

If Robin Williamson dropped the last two letters from his surname and stuck the remainder on a marquee, it would be mischievous and wrong, but it wouldn't be totally fraudulent. The swarms of "Mrs. Doubtfire" fans who turned out to see a wonderful comedic talent would get exactly what they paid for, and more.

The Scottish folk singer and storyteller can claim seniority over his near namesake, having been a part of the international music scene since his debut with the Incredible String Band in 1966. Sixties-vintage ISB was the epitome of mystical, flower-power hippiedom, but its best music from that era remains charming and fresh. That is due in large part to Williamson's adventurous pursuit of multiple styles played on even greater multiples of instruments (he is said to play more than 30 different ones), to the utterly idiosyncratic nature of his wobbly, fluttery vocal style, and to a sense of tradition and idealism strong enough to withstand the passage of time.

For the past decade or so, Williamson, 50, has reached even deeper into Celtic traditions, culling ancient harp tunes from dusty musical archives and resurrecting folk tales and myths as old as Stonehenge. Meanwhile, he has carried on the traditions by inventing new stories and songs of his own.

Saturday night at Shade Tree Stringed Instruments, he brought all those strands together in an engaging performance. His early show was a tapestry of spoken tall tales, jokes and digressions (all accompanied by nimble plucking on his primary instrument, the Celtic harp) as well as solid folk songs. It was an unpredictable yet cohesive and intelligently structured hour-plus in which wry observations about 1990s junk culture could intrude momentarily upon the strange and funny doings of enchanted characters from once upon a time.

In one long set piece, an impoverished Welsh harpist named Evan strikes it rich with supernatural help, hobnobs with God and the devil (the latter--leave it to the British--speaks in an effete French accent), gets drunk a lot, and winds up indirectly responsible for the previously pure sea turning salty.

Like the other Robin, Williamson commanded the diverse tools of a great storyteller: a gift for accents, dialogue and mimicry, flawless comic timing, a pliant face that could readily twist itself into all manner of illustrative, aptly humorous contortions, and a world-class twinkle in his blue eyes.

The evening wasn't all tall tales and laughter out loud. Williamson established his harp playing first with a traditional air, "The Blackbird." The dulcet loveliness of his playing served as a reminder of why the angels in heaven are said to play harps instead of, say, banjos or electric guitars.

The concert also maintained a philosophic unity. The core theme was the unpredictable nature of life and its capacity to deal both laughter and blows. The tale of Evan suggested that things can work out magically well, but Williamson followed it with "Wheel of Fortune," a graceful ballad that suggests all's-well endings never are guaranteed: "Life of man is most uncertain," goes the refrain, "and there's none can say what may be."

Williamson expounded upon that point with "Maya," a 1968-vintage song from the wonderful Incredible String Band album "Wee Tam and the Big Huge." He shortened the long opus considerably, but sang it with conviction, his round shoulders swaying like the unpredictable undulations of life depicted in the lyrics.

"Maya" rode atop a guitar accompaniment that lent it a firm backbone and rhythmic complexity. Its harmonic structure has changed radically. Williamson sang in a lower key, giving what had been an airy piece for the ISB a new sense of weight and poignancy.

Later, a lovely, symbolic ballad that holds out idealistic hope for peace in Northern Ireland led into a 19th-Century folk song acknowledging crueler possibilities in its true account of a hellish prison colony in Australia. "The Prisoner's Lamentation on the Death of Captain Logan" ended with a sense of justice done, however (the Nazi-like prison governor is slain by Aborigines).

In a subsequent song about courtship gone awry, Williamson suggested that, as unpredictable as life is, we should face it hopefully: "There's many a dark and cloudy morning turns out to be a fine and sunshiny day."

Then again, nightfall always follows the day, as Williamson acknowledged in a concluding ballad full of intimations of death and sad parting. He sang it in aged, wizened tones that carried a quintessentially Celtic brand of sadness. Without tragedy that needs relieving, there would be no comic relief. Williamson is uniquely qualified to tell the whole story, the fanciful with the real, laughter with the tears.

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