Review and Photography by John Bentley

Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick at Settle Victoria Hall

Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick are ‘folk royalty’, both widely acclaimed for their impressive contributions to folk music. Swarbrick has been described as “the most influential [British] fiddle player bar none” by Ashley Hutchings, one of his former colleagues in seminal folk-rock band Fairport Convention. Carthy was a key player in the British folk revival of the 1960s and is renowned for his individual treatment of traditional songs, often featuring his unconventional guitar tuning and percussive picking style. Like Swarbrick he has collaborated widely and has been in numerous bands, notably Steeleye Span, The Watersons, Brass Monkey and, most recently, The Imagined Village. What is especially exciting about tonight is that Carthy and Swarbrick are touring as a duo again: they have played together on many albums from the 1960s to the present, beginning with Carthy’s debut album way back in 1965.

Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick at Settle Victoria Hall

Swarbrick, has unfortunately suffered ill health and received a double lung transplant in 2004. It’s good to see him fit again and in particularly good humour. Indeed Swarb, as he is affectionately known, is the life and soul of the party tonight and, with his wit and repartee between songs, he has Carthy and the audience in stitches. Indeed the visible on-stage musical and personal empathy between the two players, who have now worked together for 50 years, is both impressive and moving.

Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick at Settle Victoria Hall

The setlist of a Carthy-Swarbrick gig is always going to include some old favourites, a delve into obscurities from back catalogues and some ‘new’ traditional songs you haven’t heard before. Hence Swarbrick introduces a medley of three instrumentals from the Shetlands, one tune of which he says he got from a customs man on the Isle of Unst. As he tells it, he learnt the ‘The Brides March from Unst’ when he went back for a musical and drinking session with the customs man, during which time whisky was obtained from the latter’s confiscation cabinet. He enjoyed it so much that he missed the gig he was travelling to. It may or may not be a true story, but the way Swarb tells it you believe him.

Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick at Settle Victoria Hall

Several songs from early Carthy-Swarbrick collaborations are wheeled out, including ‘John Barleycorn’ and set-closer ‘Byker Hill’, which Carthy also covered with The Imagined Village. ‘Byker Hill’ is a real highlight of the evening , much embellished from the duo’s original recorded version, with Swarbrick playing a brilliantly extended fiddle finale, an example of superbly controlled improvisation.

Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick at Settle Victoria Hall

Carthy does one or two solo songs, including ‘My Son John’, another number he recorded with The Imagined Village. The song cleverly adapts a traditional ballad, about a soldier going to war and losing his legs, to the modern context of land mines in Afghanistan. There’s also an interesting rendition of ‘The Deserter’, a song recorded by Swarbrick’s old band, Fairport Convention (where it was sung by Sandy Denny), but tonight sung in a totally different form. Carthy is passionate about the traditional material he performs, he often seeks out alternative tunes for songs and he thoroughly researches his material. For example, as he prepares to sing the seafaring song ‘The Bold Benjamin’, he tells us that there is no record of a Royal Navy ship of this name or its Admiral Cole. And no performance by Carthy is complete without some more harrowing material, like the opening ‘The Death of Queen Jane’, about the death after childbirth of Jane Seymour.

Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick at Settle Victoria Hall

As we come to the end of the set, Carthy explains that after the last song they used to go off stage and come back on for the encore. “We don’t do that anymore”, he says, possibly to save the seated Swarbrick from the effort of an exit and re-entry. “What Martin’s trying to tell you”, says Swarb, “is that you are getting an encore whether you like it or not!”. Swarb then delivers an amusing monologue about the joys of visiting Australia and the perils of its many poisonous snakes and insects. As musicians are not well paid, he says, he has a part-time job working for the tourist board of the alternative destination of New Zealand (where there are no poisonous creatures). The pair conclude with an instrumental, with some more virtuoso fiddling from Swarbrick. Both men seem ego-free and generous in allowing each other the spotlight.

The gig ends in a gentle way, with Swarb telling us that they’ve enjoyed themselves tonight. The Victoria Hall audience applaud warmly. The two folk legends, both now in their 70s, quietly pack away their meagre equipment and head back to the bar, where they chat to punters and sign copies of CDs from their very prolific back catalogues.

2 Responses to “Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick at Victoria Hall, Settle, North Yorkshire, UK – 4th October 2015”

  1. Gig Junkies » Blog Archive » A Tribute to Dave ‘Swarb’ Swarbrick at The Trades Club, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, UK – 18th January 2018 Says:

    […] with English folk-revival legend Martin Carthy. Gig Junkies reviewed their concert at Settle’s Victoria Hall in 2016, on what turned out to be their final tour together. Alas Dave passed-away in 2016 leaving […]

  2. Gig Junkies » Blog Archive » Fairport’s Cropredy Convention Celebrates It’s 40th Anniversary This Year Says:

    […] festival’s roots go back to the mid-1970s when Fairport Convention members Dave Pegg and Dave Swarbrick moved to Cropredy. Over the years Fairport’s Cropredy Convention has developed a reputation […]

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