Alasdair Roberts, the singer from Glasgow who performed solo Tuesday night at PA's Lounge, has spoken of being ''doomed" to a career in folk music. His late father was a folk singer, and Roberts, whose new collection of ''death ballads," ''No Earthly Man" (Drag City), was produced by Will Oldham, exhibited onstage the rueful charm of the condemned man.
''And now I'm going to take this," he muttered between the splintering, chiming notes of his acoustic guitar, ''to the next level of velocity." Roberts is bent and darkened by the weight of tradition, in the centuries-old material he covers and in the antique imagery of his own songs. In the old ballad ''Lord Ronald," the deceased subject vows to bequeath to his lover ''the rope and the high gallows tree and let her hang there for the poisoning of me."
In Roberts's ''Come, My Darling Polly" he upbraids his lover for her inability to ''maintain your chastity, even with the wearing of a girdle." Oddly, the mention of a girdle in a 21st century song did not provoke guffaws -- something in Roberts's earnest, burdened delivery allowed the anachronism to stand.
''Sweet William," a song of which (as the liner notes to his new album inform us) ''eleven versions were collected in England and twelve in Appalachia," was more simple -- a tale of loss as sharp now as the day it was written.
Stooping, worryingly thin, and with the sort of narrow, reddened, underhung nose that always seems to have a drip at its end, Roberts looks at first sight a frail vessel for such heavy cargo.
But watching him bent almost double over his guitar, eyes shut, his long hands in the classic ''clawhammer" style -- in which strings are not plucked but down-struck with the back of the nail, to explosive effect -- one sees his toughness.
His spare, intense treatment of the old narrative ballads honors their sinewy resilience, and their grip on those things to which we are all, folk singers or not, equally doomed.