Debra Cowan John Roberts: Folk Music for Real Folks

Debra Cowan and John Roberts
Live at the Ashfield Community Hall
February 22, 2014

Hype and Flash have left the building, and that’s a good thing–a very good thing. Last Friday night, Debra Cowan and John Roberts reminded me of why I love folk music so much–it’s the ripping yarns, the sparse tunes, and the joy of singing along. It was a drear night weather-wise––warm enough to turn the entryway into muck and transform snow banks into fog, but cold enough for us to know we’d have to be careful later on when the melt turned to glaze. Translation: only a few dozen hearty souls ventured forth to what we in Western Massachusetts call a “hill town,” Ashfield being tucked into a crevice of the rolling Berkshires foothills. A small audience like that could have been dispiriting, but Cowan and Roberts deftly converted the hall into an extended living room.

Call it homespun at its very best. The duo dropped all pretenses and delivered the sort of performance that evoked the early Folk Revival days: a song swap with audience participation. Roberts, an English √©migr√©, has been singing traditional music since the 1960s, and possesses a large repertoire of sea shanties, broadside ballads, pub tunes, and British traditional songs. (Think The Copper Family or Peter Bellamy.) What little Roberts has lost in voice power in the past six decades is more than compensated by his storytelling ability. Like a good shanachie, there’s a twinkle in his eye that suggests that some of what he’s telling you might be true. It’s always about the song when Roberts sings, and he backs himself with either the humble concertina or, on occasion, banjo.

Cowan provides the nightingale contrast to the Roberts’ spare voice. Her tones are strong, clear, and lovely. She admits that she loved Julie Andrews as a lass, but if you think you’re going to get a girly-girl, forget it! Hanging out in folk clubs, singing at Mystic Seaport, being involved with the musicians’ union, and cavorting with other musicians makes her as likely to belt out Ray Davies’ “Alcohol” as some frothy love song. Belt it out she will. Cowan plays guitar, but she often leaves it on the stage because, when you’ve got a voice like hers, that’s all you need. Nor is she timid about reworking old love songs, sea shanties, and ballads to give them feminist twists.

There’s no point in fixating on the set list, because it was fluid. A song about a rogue reminded the other of one about a pirate. And so it went. What impressed me most was the way Cowan and Roberts turned a small audience into a big chorale group by patiently teaching complicated (and often tongue-tying) choruses, mixing in familiar songs, and letting the audience sing to the point where my only critique of the evening was that I seldom heard their two-part harmonies over the din. Call it as billed––folk music as music for the folk. --Rob Weir

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