The Greys, Brighton
13 June 2011
And then, in amongst all the new young pretenders you maybe should be listening to, there's always an old master who's somehow evaded your attention for thirty years or more... Anyone who's bored with music is truly bored with life.
Martin Simpson was a name I was aware of but didn't really know, represented on my record rack with a nice 1980 collaboration with June Tabor (precise picking and that inimitable, glacial, voice; the sleeve a period classic of lengthy hair and longer boots); and on my hard drive a 2007 collaboration with Jackson Browne on one of my all-time favourite songs, Randy Newman's 'Louisiana 1927'. And then there he is on the forward programme for The Greys, a wonderfully intimate venue. Time to catch up.
He is an extraordinary guitarist, blending an ornate finger-style with a wonderful appropriation of the bottleneck to the British folk tradition. It could have been invented here.
But he's no parochial folkie and his wonderful instrumental technique is a means to an end: telling stories. He doesn't have the most distinctive of voices but turns that to advantage, concentrating on getting the message across from a wonderfully eclectic set-list, united primarily by the strength of the stories to be told. The words of every song are crystal clear and absorbed by a rapt, packed audience.
While I don't know his own compositions, they were set in gloriously familiar company and more than held their own, communicated superbly. One in particular, 'Never Any Good', a song for his father, was wonderfully emotional without straying into the sentimental:
Elsewhere, his borrowings ranged from 'Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?' to Bruce Springsteen's 'Brothers Under The Bridge'. He graced us with a lovely 'Louisiana 1927' and moved on to Dylan's 'Boots of Spanish Leather' and Townes Van Zandt's 'Pancho & Lefty'. Tasteful and fearless - and he's right to be so: all beautifully done.
Despite all these transatlantic connections he is undoubtedly firmly in the British folk tradition. (Or maybe because of all these transatlantic connections - the communication lines have always been open, in both directions.) Two of the evening's highlights were renditions of 'Sir Patrick Spens' and 'Little Musgrave' (a variant version of 'Matty Groves'), which inevitably started a Fairport line of thought... Martin Simpson is, for me, quite as good an acoustic guitarist as Richard Thompson (memo to self: hunt down some electric Simpson for comparison) and a rather better singer. But, selfishly, it's great that we can still see him at venues like The Greys. Strongly recommended.