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Woodman Folk Club - Reviews

Martin Carthy: The Newhampton Wolverhampton
Malcolm Jeffrey 7 November 2003
Martin Carthy MBE then. England's greatest and most influential living folk musician, no less, and tempted again to the Newhampton by the charms of Dave Brookes. Along with me are Bob, Ben and Rachel, and my work colleague Alan, and from past experience of the seating situation in the club's small upstairs room we aimed to arrive there for 8pm : even so, entering dead on time, there are only a few seats left unoccupied. Martin Carthy is there, and apart from a few well-earned creases and being a tad thinned out up top, looks just like the younger man on the cover of "Crown Of Horn" : he's sat chatting with punters and is proving the old adage about folk clubs and folk musicians, namely that you may have come to watch an internationally famous, world class artist, but in a folk club, the artist is just one of the guys right up until he gets up on stage. Beer is hastily purchased and there's hardly enough time to start any chit-chat before Brooksey is up behind the mike, his engaging and somehow self-conscious self, introducing tonight's support act, who turns out to be club regular James Argyle.

I've known James Argyle for several years - he's a pretty talented instrumentalist, a previous winner of Takemine's Young Guitarist of the Year, and honed some of his live playing skills as a regular player in the old Monday Acoustic Nights in "The Mitre" in Stourbridge. He's two or three years down the road now, though, and is no longer the tongue-tied teenager playing rote-learned guitar pieces in "The Mitre" : the tousle-haired young man who steps up to the mike gawkily waves a forearm festooned with plasters at us and says by way of explanation "put it this way - I'll never forget my 20th birthday..." ! Then he's straight off introducing the first of six instrumentals, "In Your Arms" - he seems a bit faltering and nervous to start - but is quickly back on form with Martin Taylor's arrangement of "Georgia On My Mind", followed by a nicely rehearsed Martin Simpson's version of "The Rose of Allendale" from "The Bramble Briar" : the audience are appreciative and attentive, and respond warmly. The second half of James' set is a little more free-form - in the "Mitre" days I often felt that his playing was often rather book-learned, each successive rendition more or less identical, but this second set of three shows the older James in, for me, a new and more improvisational musical light . He plays us a fine, tight interpretation of Martin Taylor's "Danny Boy", with some inventive variations of his own, while his own arrangement of James Taylor's Goffin and King classic, "You've Got A Friend", has the audience noticeably humming and singing sotto voce. James winds up with a clever, almost Simpson-style "Let It Be", even down to a top stab at a folkified but faithful homage to George Harrison's solo, and this conclusion to his set is warmly applauded.

There's no time to waste toniqht though, it seems, for no sooner has James left the stage, than Dave Brookes is up introducing Martin Carthy, who takes the stage in blue jeans and a vile Hawaiian shirt, to a rapturous welcome from the Newhampton crowd. Mr Carthy has a Fylde propped at the back of the stage but prefers to don a Martin (what else ?) using that old familiar leather strap with the huge buckle, and after sounding a quick few chords to confirm it's in, he begins with a confident "Hard Times of Old England", voice sounding as good, clear and strident as ever. Next up is, he tells us, the first of three sea songs, "Lofty Tall Ship" (or "Henry Martin", apparently) - all percussive playing and those melody lines spread out across strings and fretboard : while the second is the epic tale of North Sea sailing and court betrayal, "Sir Patrick Spens". Martin tells us he's using Nic Jones' tune, which he describes as "the greatest greatest tune in the world" : having started it, he seems to worry that the p.a.'s not picking up his guitar - "Can you hear that ?" he asks, then, grinning, "Start again !" before performing the song to perfection and evoking much appreciation from the audience. The next song is a fluent and self-namechecking "Bold McCarthy", and is followed by the frankly tremendous and fiendishly difficult "The Cuckoo's Nest", the tune behind "Crown Of Horns", "The Bedmaking", which is rewarded by a huge Newhampton round of applause.

Next, Martin gives us a splendid rendition of Leon Rosselson's "The Ant and the Grasshopper", followed by an old standard, the nicely delivered "The Foggy Dew". Then we're treated to a back-to-back pair of instrumentals, "Heroes of St Valéry" and "Siege of Delhi", simply Carthy at his brilliant best, despite all of his grimaces and off-mike tuttings at self-percieved "mistakes" : it can't be too far out, though, as he finishes by leaning out in front of the mikes, with a cheery "There you are !"

When our prolongued applause dies down, Mr Carthy tells us his old partner Dave Swarbrick is in hospital, with a chest infection : "not a good idea" with the state of Swarb's chest, so we're asked to think of him. Back to the set, we get "Jacky Tar", a song with a happy ending - "I don't do many of them... make the most of it !" he says with a mischievous Carthy grin : it turns out to be more or less the same plot as "Domeama" to a different, more jaunty tune, and brings the first half to a well-received close and allows welcome trips to the loo and the bar. During the interval I catch Martin's eye and ask him to do Adam MacNaughtan's "Oor Hamlet", as it's recently become an addition to my own set list, purely because I used to watch Carthy play it at "The Woodman" 15 years ago ! Pah - Bob wins the raffle again (no surprise there) and claims Mr Carthy’s newest CD, “Signs Of Life” as his prize - there’s a magnificent, Carthyised blues version of “Heartbreak Hotel” on it, believe it or not - and we have a chat between ourselves whilst topping up the beer levels.

The evening is pressing on, however, and before we know it, the lights dim again and Martin Carthy MBE is back on stage, checking his Martin’s tuning and bosting off the second half with "Molly Oxford" from “Out Of The Cut”, tuned with an E string so low it’s almost flapping about and played with Carthy’s inimitable, percussive dexterity. Next up, we’re told, are “two songs about keeping secrets”, and to my delight and accompanied by my hackles rising, Carthy goes straight into the riff for "Bill Norrie", a tragic tale of secrets, horror and inevitability, beautifully played and plaintively sung, one which always hits me like a steamhammer : it certainly doesn’t disappoint and the applause following is some of the loudest and most heartfelt of the night. The secret in the second song is one of secret marital abuse - once again I am delighted to find Martin singing us Mike Waterstone’s "A Stitch In Time", another one I do myself, a splendid song about an unlikely heroine finding the strength and the unlikely means to rebel against her boozing, bruising husband.

Slowing things down, Mr Carthy then plays us "Princess Royal", skillful and sensitive, and, then, without preamble but clearly referencing the Bush/Blair Iraq War on Terrorism, he swaps his Martin for the Fylde at the back, and goes straight into Maggie Holland’s splendid and poignant "Perfumes Of Arabia", imbued, with frightening economy, with frustration, guilt, anger and helplessness. Carthy is going for the full sensory experience this half, as, back on his Martin and having hit us with successive waves of musicianship, horror, humour, melancholy and pathos, he plays us "Prince Heathen", a song of a suitor heaping monstrosity upon monstrosity upon his intended. Lastly, to relieve the tension and end on an up note, Carthy performs for us his arguably Greatest Hit, "The Devil and the Feathery Wife", which I also do live and which once, in my innocence in the “Foley” Folk Club (also run by Dave Brookes) in 1984 I begged him to play, not thinking that he’d do it anyway… and then he’s “off”, which, in the NEC means you won’t see him for the next 8 minutes, but in the Newhampton means he’ll stand just off-stage by the bar while Brooksey waits sheepishly for the immense tide of deserved applause to die down before introducing an inevitable encore. Back on, Martin Carthy nearly straps his guitar back on, but says “Oh yes - I said I’d do that one, didn’t I…” and, bless him, after running his hands through his hair nervously, he does my request for "Oor Hamlet" to end, candidly, an absolute blaster of a second half by anyone’s standards. The metre’s a bit more free-form and the words slightly revamped since “The Woodman” in 1987, but it’s funny, and faultless, and maybe only I in all the room know how much of a triumph after such short notice… and then it’s all over and it’s time to queue for the door, say goodbye to old folkie mates and, indeed, goodbye and thanks to Martin Carthy MBE on the way out and then head for home.

What a privilege, I thought. It’s the seventh time I’ve seen Carthy play over a period of 19 years, and how he maintains the standard, the passion, the enthusiasm, the eclecticism and the downright inimitable musicianship beats me. Like James Taylor, he found a style and a level of skill, reached a peak and simply maintains it until there’s no-one like him. What did I say at the top of the review ? “Martin Carthy MBE then. England's greatest and most influential living folk musician, no less”. I see no reason to change that on tonight’s showing.