By Nick Burford / SLAP magazine
In the mid-90s I witnessed two young men unwittingly bring Portland street in Cheltenham to a metaphoric standstill.
You have to hold your hands up to Tom Robinson because he is a generous soul. Civil rights campaigner, political firebrand and supporter of music, Robinson wears his art on his sleeve, always.
The introduction he allowed Emily Barker and Lukas Drinkwater was nothing more than reverential: “ladies and gentlemen…folk aristocracy!” The ethereal quality of their songs, rose up and blossomed and permeated every corner of the hallowed Sub-rooms. Clearly well known to most of the audience and with a staunch believer in Robinson the duo presented a distinguished set that lingered with Barker’s voice and the appreciative hand-clapping.
Before the gig, Robinson invited a few from the back of the hall to fill the few empty seats at the front. I have never witnessed this kind of act before.
You know when a band walks onto a stage, with a shared mission and you know they mean business? Well, Robinson’s band are the cogs in a Faberge-esque clockwork piece of rehearsal time and belief. Adam Phillip’s guitar playing was instrumental in bringing the songs alive. Lee Forsyth Griffith was the animated counterpoint whose singing and guitar playing were not just there to make up the numbers. And keyboardist Simmons proved that black and white keys can work together.
Together, the two men ambling along Cheltenham’s inner one-way system all those years ago, as the town stared on unblinkingly, casually continued to check their appearance nonchalantly in the shop windows.
Tom Robinson has always reflected the inequalities and social injustices in our society. In the current political pit of despair, Robinson has much to rage about and he does. Unfortunately, his protest songs and word- sketches, from the 70s, of social impropriety are still valid today. The joyous song, “Mighty Sword of Injustice” repeats the line “One law for the rich and another one for the poor” and was met with knowing approbation. Hiding behind a veneer of jolliness and a singalong quality the caustic lyrics were not lost on the assembled – “justice is a whore” – both vitriolic and catchy.
Catchy is what Robinson does well. The air-punching version of “Martin” was punctuated with the audience’s enthusiastic call and response. A genuine shared moment. The intro to “Only the Now,” which celebrates the important present, not the past not the future, inspired the lady in front of me to put her arms around the two men on either side of her…to celebrate the now. A genuine moment to share.
For all of his politicking, Tom Robinson did not take himself seriously. His self-deprecating humour and ability to recount a story enhanced the gig. The Eddie Grant vignette delivered with a comic’s timing was greeted with obvious glee. Of course, the spontaneity was well-rehearsed but the narratives were always, like Robinson himself, warmly received.
The choices for his birthday celebration and “Greatest hits tour” contained the anthems you would expect. “2-4-6-8 Motorway” galvanised a number of arm-dancers to rise from their seats. The performance art of “Power in the Darkness” acknowledged our political cesspit and caused one individual to stand alone in the middle of the rows. Defiant.
Defiantly, the princelings who reduced Regency Cheltenham to reflex head-turning, fixed gazes and involuntary scowls were merely…holding hands! And this was in 1995.
Imagine Tom Robinson, defiantly writing a song at the tail end of the blinkered 1970s proclaiming with gusto: “sing if you are glad to be gay.” Imagine? As this will help you realise why Tom Robinson received a coronation of a standing ovation, which wasn’t just about this night.