Saturday, October 22, 2011

Martin Simpson

Chapel Arts Bath

"Why aren't you all at Martin Simpson?" asked Chris Wood on Friday in Bristol. ("Because he's also playing in Bath on Saturday" replied Folk Buddy #1.) Chris said that he was Martin's house guest a few weeks ago, and that he appears to do nothing all day but play his guitar. 

It shows. 

I don't know anything about guitar technique, but I can see the way his fingers run up and down the fret, and that he's doing obviously tricksy things involving small re-tunes mid song. Trying to describe his guitar sound makes one grope for words like "ethereal" and "subliminal"; on the record you could mistake him for a harpist; and as everyone says, it sounds as if there are at least two guitars playing. He comes onto the stage and seems to go up and down the scales, as if he’s improvising, sounding as if it’s going to be Spanish classical guitar, with a hint of some tune you know from somewhere beneath the surface, and then starts to sing “They used to tell me I was building a dream....” He’s just made a record of standards. I’d rather envisaged that Chris Wood would be the dark, depressing part of the weekend, but Brother Can You Spare A Dime sets the mood of Martin’s set. Before we leave, we’ve had unemployment (North Country Blues) natural disasters (What Has Happened Round Here is that the Wind Has Changed) and ship wrecks (Patrick Spens.) “What about the happy tune about the old man who played the harmonica every day until his 92nd birthday” I ask “You mean, the one who was kicked out of his home when his daddy died in the first world war?” replied  Folkbuddy. 

He doesn’t have the greatest singing voice: tonight I felt, more than usual, that he was speaking some of the songs rather than singing them; but this hardly matters because they are perfectly phrased and beautifully felt. One wonders if he’s going to do a whole album of Dylan covers one of these days: I’ve heard him tackle Boots of Spanish Leather and Masters of War. Possibly, tonight's North Country Blues didn’t quite ascend the heights of last year's Mr Tambourine man, where I felt that he was (tentatively, even falteringly) creating his own version of the song. This was very definitely Martin Simpson singing Bob Dylan’s version of the song. But no-one can doubt the craftsmanship with which he retells His Bobness’s depressing story, and how much thought has gone into the surgical changes he makes when the original words just can’t be said in an English accent. (“One morning I woke and the bed it was bare; and I was left all alone with three children”.) 

He’s a very autobiographical writer; he can sing a blues as well as anybody ("loo-weeze-anya, they’s tryin' to wash us away..") and spring back into his own (slightly idiosyncratic for my taste) versions of British ballads like Patrick Spens; but the voice he seems most comfortable with is that of the Englishman abroad; the Scunthorp lad who can’t quite believe how far he’s come. (He never fails to sings "I've been to Gary Indiana, Bethlehem P.A....but the furnace never burned as bright as down East Common Lane".) There are wonderfully observed vignettes about a pissed English actor he met in a boarding house in New Orleans; and the Tom Waits-y account of a series of a chance encounters over coffee: 

Love never dies, lust loses its shine for sure 
Friendship can fade or be forced to a close
Frost follows clear skies in the flat lands I come from, but
At that Arkansas truck-stop, love never dies

Anyone who can write a lyric that perfect has clearly studied long and hard at the feet of almighty Bob.

While he is by some distance the finest musician I’ve ever heard perform [*] I think Folk Buddy #2 is correct that he doesn’t quite reach Chris Wood’s level as a song writer: he hardly ever gets beyond the specific. It's a person he saw in truck stop; an eccentric Englishman he met in the Deep South; the incredibly unlikely story of the shepherd who toured the world playing the mouth organ at the very end of his life. This is even true of the monumental Never Any Good, a song which loses little of its power even on the tenth or twentieth listening. He says that it's so personal and specific that he didn't expect it to resonate with other people. Well, it depends what you mean by "resonate". It isn't universal; it hasn't told us anything about Fathers and Sons or War that we didn't already know. But it has told us, in six or seven simple verses, a very great deal about Martin Simpsons' father, and a very great deal about Martin Simpson himself.

You showed me eye-bright in the hedgerows
Speedwell and travellers joy
You taught me how to use my eyes when I was just a boy...

"You taught me how to use my eyes...." These are the songs of a man who notices things; you or I would probably not have spotted, or thought to put in writing, that the fellow fixing his car had “two skeleton’s screwing” on his teeshirt.

It's unhealthy, of course, to imagine that you've got to know someone because you follow their Twitter feed, but I smile every time Martin tweets something like "Beautiful day for dog walking. There was a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the pine tree this morning. Makes me feel good.".Some time ago, someone tweeted a review to the effect that Martin is the best finger-style guitarist in the world. "I am not the best finger-style guitarist in the world"he riposted "But I mean what I play".

What a lovely man.

[*] Well, there’s Kathryn Tickell, but she doesn’t count. Too many notes.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Chris Wood

Colston Hall, Bristol

I'm sure Chris Wood would hate it if I described him as a prophet. He hates absolute truth and is deprecating about his own talent. "Little folkie me" he calls himself at one point.

We're a very long way from Christmas, but he opens his set with While Shepherds Watched their Flocks By Night. Perhaps he's telling us that tonight won't be an evening of high seriousness? Or perhaps he just likes the tune? He fills the line about tidings of great joy with a rich, smiling warmth.
Isn’t this the man who wrote Come Down Jehovah?

But he's an English folksinger, so the great big important subjects keep cropping up. Love. Marriage. Death. Childhood. War. And England; above all England. There is no getting away from England.
His songs start from the heartbreakingly specific; not "childhood", but his children:

hard, my little girls hard;
she's only six but don't cross her
look out here she comes; lock up your sons;
she takes right after her mother
not “marriage”, but his wife:

just last wednesday evening
she kicked off her work shoes
i pour her a large one, and I tell you no lies
she swigs and she shimmies, she looks to the bedroom
and then she looks at me with those great big beautiful downsized eyes...

And not “England”, but particular a bit of ground, a particular street, and a particular point in history:

their's was a gritty England
Workers Playtime saw them through
and an oily rag or two

But he has an astonishing knack of turning a song in the final line, so he's suddenly talking about something bigger and more universal. There's an unbearable intensity when the whimsical anecdotes about his daughter give way to

hard? 'course it's not hard
oh there's no better reason for living....

And I really do mean "unbearable": there's a reflective depth in the way he sings the word "hard" which I found genuinely difficult to listen to. "Last time I sang it, this song sneaked up and bit me on the arse" he explains, and suddenly his is talking about his own childhood, about having been a choir boy. You wait for the cynical punchline, but there is none: he’s just remembering singing Jesu Joy of Man’s Desire at weddings. Didn't he call Handmade Life "church music with drums"?

It’s hard to work out who to compare him with. The Colston Hall's blurb calls him the best English song writer since Richard Thompson, and one can see the comparison: very personal, strong narratives, songs that you could almost, but not quite, mistake for traditional. Chris has an endearingly naive habit of using traditional "tags" in the first lines of songs, almost as if he needs a jingle to get him going ("all the kings horses and all the kings men, I'm sorry but they haven't a clue") but he keeps bringing you up short by lapsing into an unaffected vernacular. Not many lines separate "Awaken arise you drowsy sleeper; awake arise, it's almost day" from

from the front door they'd had him covered
they were right behind him from the start
and though the video was buggered
someone decided he looked the part 

The more obvious comparison, the one which he himself makes, is with Martin Carthy. Carthy was the first person he looked up to, he says. You can see the influence in the very un-rock-and-roll way he jerks his guitar in time with the music; with his habit of singing the melody to himself while playing difficult guitar riffs (“come on”) and the way that he is prepared to let the song tell its own story. His tongue twisting delivery of the throwaway joke song Up in The North There Lives a Brisk Couple almost seems to be channelling Martin on the stage. But most of the traditional songs he makes his own. In the hands of the Imagined Village, Cold, Haily, Windy Night is a sing-a-long rabble rouser where you thump your real-ale glasses in time with the chorus. Chris recasts it as an understated, sinister murmur. ("The English traditional version of Sexual Healing", he assure us. “Just let it work for you.”)

He thanks the sound engineer at the beginning of the set, rather than at the end of it because it sounds “so fucking brilloiant” tonight. I don't know what was done to Hall 2 during the refurbishment, but acts keep commenting on how good it is. The acoustics seems to give Chris the confidence to do a more than usually subtle, understated performance. ("He's in the zone tonight" I whispered to my Folk Buddy.) He goes straight into his only instrumental of the night, a traditional tune and one by his friend and squeeze box expert Andy Cutting. "It’s a cracking tune, but it’s a bastard on the guitar." He uses the guitar as if he's having a conversation with the audience. I was about to say "as if he's making love to the audience" but that would be impolite to one who sings so much about marriage.

He's a big fan of marriage -- not Marriage in the politician's sense, but the love between husbands and wives. Before going into My Darling's Downsized he quotes Jake Thackray . [*] This particularly pleased me, as Jake's name came to mind the first time I heard My Darling's Downsized, a "grown-up love song" of domestic commonplace which keeps on raising laughs from the audience

my love for her can't be overstated
it's deep and it's not final salary related 

while remaining a powerful celebration of love for a long time partner, and the concept of marriage in general.(He quotes his friend Hugh Lupton on the subject: "I am not your partner. I am your husband. We are not a firm of solicitors.") He shares with Thackray a very English virtue of sensibleness. (I owe this point to my Folkbuddy.)

Indeed, "England" sometimes seems to be a privileged, incantatory word in his singing. I note that the MP's expenses scandal has gone from being "such a quiet revolution"on the CD to "such an English revolution" here. Mentioning England is probably enough to get you labelled “right wing” from some quarters, but he’s very clear that the idea-of-England can be manipulated in bad ways:

sometimes I hear the story told
in a voice that's not my own
a land of hope and glory voice
and anglo-claxon over blown
rule brittania? No thank you

And when he chooses to lay into England, he doesn't spare any punches. The always devastating Hollow Point tonight became a quiet, understated, chilling exercise in forensic rage, a dissection of an appalling injustice by a man who is almost too fatigued to be angry any more, coming to life to delivery the devastating final lines

just a brazillian electrician
christ only know what he came here for
but hollow point was the ammunition
it's our turn now for some shock and awe

The words "hollow point" are delivered with a maniacal glee, like the punch line of a joke, and he almost seems to jig during the final guitar riff, like some musical folk-devil. The song really is almost too intense to listen to. People ask me how I can have made the transition from opera to folk music so suddenly, but Chris Wood shares with Wagner the trick of starting from silence ("awake arise you drowsy sleeper") building emotional intensity until you think he can't go any higher, and then laying on some more ("and through the hourglass the sand is falling / and there is nothing they can do") and, then, crucially, taking you back down to where you started, calm of mind all passion spent, as the fellow said. It's hard to think that he, or anyone, has ever performed this song, or any song, better than he did tonight.

Martin Carthy, Jake Thackray, Richard Thompson, English church music, Jesu Joy Of Man's Desiring...a choir boy who doesn't believing in God singing about gardening and small children and little fascists and wrongful executions. Ever since I first encountered Chris (singing the song about the man who loved his own little bit of England too much to sell it, back when we were still allowed to have folk music on the wireless) I have felt that the closest comparison is really with William Blake. And not only because he occasionally calls England "Albion". The combination of sentimental romanticism and sometimes brutal social realism; the depiction of children and hearkening back to his own childhood; the sense that we are in the presence of a specifically English revolutionary prophet. A few songs into the set, Chris told us he had been working on some new songs, but "they hadn't quite come" yet....and seemed to go off on another of his tangents. He's been reading about English history, he says, and it's mostly horrible. Wonderful moments like the invention of the National Health Service were blips in a long history of violence and robber barons, and we are now reverting to type. And then he started to play a strange, almost melodyless elegy, another aching tune of homesickness for a country you never quite knew, sung into the middle-distance almost as if he was improvising it on the spot.

And the words? What else could they possibly have been?

and did those feet in ancient timeswalk upon england's mountains green
and was the holy lamb of god
on england's pleasant pastures seen....

[*] "There may be better looking, better cooking women / better slung and better at buns that you..../ but they've all got as like as not / better taste in men than you have got / so darling I'll just have to make do with you."