I was gutted to hear of the death of Robert Fisher on February 12th. Robert was a founding member of Willard Grant Conspiracy. I fell in love with their gentle ambience and Flannery O’Connor haunted songs when my friend Gordon Ashbridge played me Mojave in the later years of the last millennium.
I was later thrilled to have Robert come into my BBC Rhythm and Soul studio at an extraordinarily early time one morning to do a live session. I remember his literally vast presence sitting across the desk from me and as he gently strummed a few chords I got that big baritone in all its power and yet fragility, right there next to me. It was absolutely wonderful.
In our conversation I discovered that Robert had grown up in Church, hence the Flannery O’Connor and the numerable entrances of God into his songs of death and murder!
He seemed to love what I was doing on Rhythm and Soul and when I met him at a Greenbelt festival a year or two later I was pleasantly surprised when he sought me out for a chat and told me that he thought I’d like the spiritual aspects of their new record. He worked with my friend Malcolm Lindsay for a long period and I am so sorry that in his visits to Belfast we never got to hook up.
As I played the appropriate Fare Thee Well today I hoped out these old reviews. They sum up Robert’s genius and what we will miss, not having him around anymore.
WILLARD GRANT CONSPIRACY - LIVE AT THE ERRIGLE INN, 9th December, 2000
Willard Grant Conspiracy are a sort of alternative country orchestra to best describe it. Seven of them all jamming away with fiddles and mandolins and slide guitars and keyboards and trumpets and harmonicas and all kinds of stuff. I sensed that it would be stripped back and to see the stage bulging with little room for swinging a hamster was a surprise.
And it is stripped back and majestically almost touching the big music at times. It is tender and atmospheric and that atmosphere gets gloomy, pretty, quiet and beautifully loud. The first chord was so utterly gorgeous that I thought the angels had arrived to tell the shepherds something.
Then there is that voice of Robert Fisher. Fisher looks like your Sociology Professor who doubles as a poet at the English society. Then there his voice, deep and baritone. Making it sound downbeat even when it’s about colour and sun and happy, happy moments. There is a darkness too. Most of the time indeed. It’s Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave both joined to the hip with Johnny Cash and there’s murder and mercy at every turn.
Indeed I was a little surprised by the amount of salvation or the hope of it kicking in. Jesus is here in the most unlikely of places and he is not the antagonist. The lesson for this late night Saturday night Mass was "I say salvation is in the smallest things/That life has to deliver". Amen! It was interesting to just check the web site and find that Fisher has the Baptist Church as an influence. Parental apparently. He has Flannery O’Connor in their too and that is it exactly. O’Connor becomes alternative country to live for a time among us.
Mojave is still the album for me and though Evening Mass, The Beautiful Song and Massachusetts were excellent I was still left loving Colour Of The Sun and The Work Song most of all, with Jess Klein adding perfect harmonies. Indeed I’d advise that they conspire to add Miss Klein to the orchestra for the fifth album that after tonight cannot come soon enough.
WILLARD GRANT CONSPIRACY - Regards The End
A Sandwich board doom laden title and Robert Fisher, who with Paul Austin in particular and a little squadron of guest musicians in no particular order or combination, is Willard Grant Conspiracy has the voice to tell tales of trouble and sorrow and mainly a cast of the dead. It is as deep in spirit as it is in sound; Nick Cave with a little more give. Cleverly he has gathered four old traditional songs of gloom and written new tunes adding them seamlessly to his own writing. Haunted by Flannery O’Connor as she is by Jesus there are little prayers and glimpses of hope that makes the speckles in the dark shine bright. Beyond This Shore and Fare Thee Well do shimmer and everything has the trademark WCG tenderness making as quiet a noise as a multitude of players can; a bit like Lambchop which would be a perfect CD shelf companion.
Finally… in his own words…
“Fare thee well
My delicate one
Make it up to you
In the morning sun
Fare thee well
I want you to know
Wherever I roam
I call you home”