Robin Williamson: Skirting The River Road (ECM 1785)

Robin Williamson
Skirting The River Road

Robin Williamson vocals, harp, guitar, whistles
Mat Maneri viola, violin
Paul Dunmall tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet, border pipes, ocarina, moxeño
Ale Möller mandola, lute, hammered dulcimer, shawm, clarino, drone flutes, natural flutes, bamboo flutes, vibraphone
Mick Hutton double-bass
Recorded March/April 2001 at Gateway Studios, Kingston-Upon-Thames
Engineer: Steve Lowe
Mixed at Albany Productions Ltd, Cardiff
Engineer: Lawson Dando
Produced by Steve Lake

No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.
–William Blake

These words have it: despite the mystic winds he rides, Robin Williamson flies close to the ground. He keeps us in sight. He wanders as he speaks, voice rising like the morning’s rooster even as it plunges a laborer’s tools into wet concrete. It is a storm in a teacup, the laugh inside a tear. For his sophomore ECM date, the Scottish singer/songwriter joins musicians whose participation is as unlikely as it is inevitable. With multi-instrumentalists Paul Dunmall and Ale Möller, viol(in)ist Mat Maneri, and bassist Mick Hutton at his side, he trudges his peerless way into fifteen territories under the banner “Songs and Settings of Whitman, Blake and Vaughan.” It is Blake whose legacy weighs heaviest on the scale, reaching the value of an ingot in “The Four Points Are Thus Beheld.” On the surface a lesson in cardinal perception, it is more deeply a catacomb riddled with improvisatory petroglyphs. Dunmall on tenor paints the most dynamic of these while strains of hammered dulcimer pluck the invisible strings that loom the stars with acoustic force. This opens into rich and sharply defined border pipes and peaks in meteorites of sustenance. Like the compass therein, Skirting The River Road has four hearts, for one must add Williamson himself to the subtitle’s list of three. The album carries the lantern of its main title from his “Dalliance Of Eagles.” Resting on a fulcrum of bass and framed by a wordless circle, his verse swivels from past to future and back again at a single breath. “The Journey” unravels its eponym in a pathway of hard-won disregard that recognizes the privilege of its vantage point. Further, “The Map With No North” crochets from every utterance a life bound by the dried skins of wayfarers, casting its far twisted spells for our naked scrutiny. A masterpiece.

Another original, “West From California’s Shores,” adds a drop of dawn to this dusky crucible that delights me. Not only because I am only now discovering the varietal delights of Williamson’s craft, but also because the title takes me back to Fairfax, the small town in northern California where I spent the first twelve years of my life. His animated travelogue drapes smiles like garlands along the neck of experience and underscores the travels that have since taken me far from home. One of Fairfax’s most unforgettable fixtures was The Sleeping Lady, a café and music venue where my mother could be found singing from time to time, and where my father saw Williamson perform with his Merry Band in the early 1980s. Sadly, I was with a babysitter during the show. Aside from the colorful instrumentation, which included the haunting mandocello at the bard’s fingertips, my father recalls harpist Sylvia Woods shooting rubber-tipped arrows from her strings (much to the audience’s chagrin) while the band engaged in bawdy banter in between songs. Above all, he remembers a comment that Williamson made: “The band members and I feel that the best kind of joke is something you can barely laugh at.” We can hear something of that wryness in this tune, so distinct from its gorgeously dour surroundings.

Yet let us not ignore the awakening of “The Morning Watch/A Song Of Joys.” This Whitman/Vaughan diptych opens the program by splashing a ray of golden light across pasture, thereby setting the blend of Williamson’s fullness at the helm and the ornamentation of his crew. A buttery soprano lends notably warm hues to the spectrum on deck, while Maneri’s viola flicks his hairs with programmatic brilliance in “Here To Burn.” Another Blake setting, it sits like its protagonist at a box of masks and destroys them one by one, making note of each parched expression before it fades. “Abstinence Sows Sand” is yet another. It takes some of the Indian influence that imbued much of the earlier Incredible String Band experiments and spins it afresh in dyed reeds. And then, there is “Infant Joy,” with which, as a new father ten weeks into a lifelong journey, I cannot help but hum in sympathetic resonance. Its articulation opens the gift of new life and finds within it infinitely more.

“The Terrible Doubt/The Price Of Experience” is a dire prologue that casts shadows over idyllic life and brings light to the wick of death to which we all must touch a flame. Infirmity looms outside the door of every private joy. This is linked by a lively “Shepherd’s Tune” on pipe into the web of “The Spider,” which along with “The Fly” fills a grave with filamented ale. Whitman makes a late reappearance in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” His strong shadow claps a palm on our backs and guides us through the waters of its epic passage. Upon arrival, “The World Of Light” welcomes us: our immigrant soul turned inside out and signed by the promise of another livelihood.

Williamson doesn’t so much draw out notes as knead them into thumb-printed strands, so that by the end one remembers not the music so much as the histories it activates. Vibrato lies dead by the wayside, caught among the bramble of virtuosos who look on from their perches of fatigue. In its place, the rawness of forgotten things. Skirting The River Road is therefore more than an album. It is an interaction of the deepest kind. Every song is its own entity standing beside Time’s crystal, which with every turn catches the light ever so differently as children awaken to replace others in forever-sleep.

3 thoughts on “Robin Williamson: Skirting The River Road (ECM 1785)

  1. My dear friend, you are forever a poet whose deep musical soul bridges the gap from creator to devote and always respectful admirer of those whose music touches you!
    The more I know you, the more I admire you! I love most how sacred you hold the arts which have such a hold on you!
    I love your soul, you never let intellect get in the way, which is a balance of brilliance and innocence!
    I am proud to know you!
    Todd Hamilton Bacon the last!

  2. I enjoyed the image of you with the babysitter while your parents listened to Robin Williamson and the Incredible String Band. Made me feel quite maternal! I was really into the Incredible String Band when I left school and home first at age 19 in England. They have stayed with me over the years although often derided by friends and family. Those days of innocence and hope!

    1. I honestly hadn’t listened to Williamson before embarking on these reviews. I knew him only by name. I’ve said this elsewhere, but music has a way of coming into my life at just the right time, and this was one such case. I feel fortunate to have begun this journey and look forward to exploring Williamson further, on ECM and beyond.

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