The voice is true enough but not a thing of beauty. Harsh, even. The guitar playing is clumsy, staccato, full of snaps and rattles. The whistle playing, on the other hand, is supple and deft.
The material’s a rag-bag: the album opens and closes with contemporary chorus songs, Man of the earth and They don’t write ‘em like that any more. In between there are tune sets; an Irish lament Carrigdhoun; and nostalgia for simpler days as new housing estates encroach on countryside in Photographic memory.
Tossin’ a wobbler was Vin Garbutt’s fifth recording, made in 1978, recorded in London for the Topic label. But it was the first of his that I heard, probably acquired direct from the man himself when he appeared at the folk club in Barnsley, at The Wheatsheaf, Town End.
Two things bring the angles together into an album that’s nicely varied and balanced. First, that it all stems naturally from Vin’s background: his part-Irish heritage, his love of the North-East where he was born and raised, his concern for social issues and justice. This last factor is evident on The one-legged beggar, a thoughtful reflection on his, and others’, reaction to an incident when he was a tourist in Tunisia. Later, his Catholicism became more explicit which, personally, I find less convincing than the vivid piece of reportage here.
The single most important element, though, is Vin’s absolute commitment his material. Picture him, eyes closed, head-thrown back, giving everything to the song he’s singing. Absolutely in the moment, as we’d now say. In the zone, in flow. In other hands The legend of Roseberry could seem stilted and flowery but in his it’s a tense, compelling story. The sleeve notes credit the words for The Yorkshire volunteers’ farewell to the good folks of Stockton to an old book of rhymes by ‘Northern bards’ but Vin’s turned a piece of doggerel into a heartfelt thank you for a successful posting, and it’s my favourite track on the record.
There’s one absolutely essential dimension missing, though: the Garbutt patter. There are hints of it on the sleeve notes, but it was a thing that only really existed live and in the moment of performance, surreal flights of fancy that often lasted longer than the song being introduced. He reined it back a little, in later years, but could still be as effortlessly, unbelievably hilarious as anyone I’ve ever seen. It was the thing that lifted Vin from the excellence of this and his other recordings . . . into greatness.