It seems that every half-decade or so, a new batch of exceptional fingerpicking folk troubadours come along. At the top of the tree, you’ve still got a few of the originals – those that held court at Les Cousins on Greek Street in the late 60s – Martin Carthy, Wizz Jones, Ralph McTell – some of whom are still out gigging whenever they possibly can. From the next generation, Martin Simpson still rules the roost, not to mention the road.
Further down the generational tree you have David Delarre, Jim Moray, Sam Carter, Alisdair Roberts and Ewan McLennan, and more recently Nick Hart, Blair Dunlop, Owen Shiers and Ben Morgan-Brown. The last three seem too young for there to be yet another generation coming up behind them, but if they look over their shoulders they’ll find the likes of Henry Parker, Ellie Gowers, Katy Spencer, George Boomsma and Chris Brain only a few years behind.
You can add Ben Robertson to that list, as well. His new album, Rosewood, appeared in our inbox last week and there was no questioning his talent, or his place alongside some of those other names. If Henry Parker is doing the Bert Jansch thing for his generation, and Chris Brain is so close to Nick Drake it’s frightening, then Ben Robertson has the role of modern-day John Renbourn sewn up. Somebody ought to start up a new Les Cousins and gather a scene around them. (Oh, my mistake – it looks like they already have that covered.)
Rosewood is a very fine calling card indeed. Robertson sets out his stall, rattling off a very precise ‘Princess Royal’ that grabs the attention, before launching into a weaving ‘Fotheringay’. It’s on this Sandy Denny classic that he first indicates his real potential. Not as swinging as a Jansch, not as bluesy as a Simpson, there’s something of the classical guitarist about his performance – stylings and inflections that would please Renbourn fans, certainly. There are signs here that we may be witnessing a virtuoso in the making. He also demonstrates a fine singing voice, something that feels a little underused on Rosewood, and that audiences might hope to hear more on future collections.
‘Hobed o Hilion – MacLeod’s Farewell’ returns us to the traditional tunes cannon with a pair of circular tunes that draw wholesome, deep tones from his Fylde Oberon, before moving on to ‘Banish Misfortune’ – more Simpson in style, and a foot-tapping example of Robertson’s dexterous finger skills.
The album continues along much the same lines. A three Morris tunes set, ‘Mr Pickering of Halkyn/ Peace and Plenty/ Old Tom of Oxford’, is well arranged and played with great precision, and ‘Kirkwaltzen’ is a gentle, atmospheric mood. However, with only occasional vocal appearances and a heavy concentration on relatively slow airs, the album lags slightly in the middle. It takes a couple of strong guest appearances in the third quarter to grab the attention again.
Phoebe Rees arrives on fiddle for a yearning ‘Fjellvåk’, and Ellie Gowers lends light to a delicate version of Paul Metsers’ ‘Farewell to the Gold’ which leans fairly heavily on the Nic Jones recording. The two singers have a fragility to their voices, and they suit each other well. Once again, I’m left wanting to hear more of Robertson’s song arrangements – something to balance the predomenance of the instrumentals, which is where we return once again for the finale, a pretty performance of ‘The Sweetness of Mary’.
There’s no doubting that Ben Robertson is a very fine fingerpicking guitarist indeed, and that he may go on to make a definitive folk guitar album in the style of those who have influenced him. Like some of his contemporaries, it’s a matter of finding his own voice a little more, as well as balance. For now, Rosewood indicates a lot of promise; a hint that Robertson may well have the chops to be influencing generations of guitarists to come.
Ben Robertson’s Rosewood is out on April 22nd. It can be purchased from his Bandcamp page. For more information, head to: benrobertsonmusic.co.uk