Gig Photographs and Review by John Bentley

Martin Carthy

Martin Carthy MBE is a legend of the traditional English folk music scene. The most famous anecdote about him is probably how he taught Paul Simon his arrangement of the traditional song ‘Scarborough Fair’ back in the 1960s. Simon and Garfunkel then recorded it, to considerable popular and financial success. Martin was recently the subject of BBC Radio 4’s long running (since 1942) programme ‘Desert Island Discs’, where famous people from all walks of life get to tell their stories and choose the records they would select to be marooned with on a desert island. Hearing the programme and being a long-term fan of Martin’s work made me think, ‘I wonder if he is on anywhere local in the near future?’ What luck then that (with the help of a well-known non-UK-tax-paying internet search engine) I find he is playing in King’s Heath, Birmingham, the following week.

The Kitchen Garden Cafe is a very small and friendly venue in King’s Heath. The L-shape concert room means the tightly-packed audience face the performer from two sides and a trip to the loo involves squeezing past the microphones in the performance area. Inevitably this gives the place an intimate atmosphere. Martin Carthy sits on a chair next to the ‘sound desk’ (a small table on which stands a little electronic box with wires). He tunes his guitar and prepares himself to perform. A few people stop to speak to him. One middle aged lady tells him how he was the best guest she’s ever heard on Desert Island Discs.

Martin kindly poses for me with his guitar for a couple of photos and we have a brief conversation about his work with his current band, ‘The Imagined Village’, whose Birmingham concert Gig Junkies covered last year. It’s great when artists are so accessible. You seldom see it, although I recall a memorable incident at a concert at Warwick Arts Centre, when a dapper-looking young man rushed forward to present Marianne Faithfull with a bouquet of flowers at the end of her show. Rather overwhelmed by the flamboyant gesture and the sincerity of the young man, she stopped to talk to him and other members of the audience soon joined in the conversation.

Martin Carthy

Martin performs intermittently with The Imagined Village, as well as other artists, including long-term collaborator and violinist Dave Swarbrick. And of course his daughter is Eliza Carthy, his wife is Norma Waterson, and collectively they are a music dynasty, performing together as ‘Waterson:Carthy’. However, tonight he is in solo-mode and walks on to the customary applause with just his two acoustic guitars. Martin’s style is very much to engage with the audience throughout and give them the background to the traditional songs that he sings. He believes passionately in the heritage of the music he plays. He also throws in a bit of enjoyable banter and anecdotes along the way.

Martin starts off with a series of old seafaring songs, including ‘The Whale Catchers’. We need to be reminded about whaling, he says, because if we don’t remain vigilant, wholesale slaughter of whales could start up again. Not a good idea, he tells us, even though a Norwegian bloke had told him that “whale meat is so tasty!” We also get versions of sea-song ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ and soldier song ‘The Deserter’, but not to the familiar tunes notably recorded by Fairport Convention. These are among the many songs where Martin uses an unfamiliar tune to a well-known song words. In the case of ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, he says he got his rather exquisite tune from another legendary folk artist, Nic Jones.

Through the evening there are many demonstrations of Martin’s unique guitar playing style, particularly in instrumental numbers like ‘The Downfall of Paris’ and ‘Heroes of St Valerie’. He informatively tells us that the playing of ‘Downfall’ was banned by the Duke of Wellington when he entered Paris at the end of the Napoleonic Wars at the head of the British army. This was because of the song’s French Revolutionary associations and the British state feared popular revolution at that difficult period of history.

Martin’s guitar playing is pretty extraordinary and no one sounds quite like him. He uses unusual guitar tunings and a percussive playing style. As I non-musician, I would partly explain his style thus: rather than listening to a singer accompanying himself on guitar, with Martin Carthy you are listening to two performances, of both virtuoso singing and guitar playing. He was been named by Musician Magazine as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of the 20th Century.

Martin Carthy

Tonight’s repertoire is pretty varied. After a short break, the second half starts with ‘Don’t Go in the Lion’s Cage Tonight’, a humourous song, sung acapella. We even get the audience joining in on the wacky chorus. Here performed solo, ‘My Son John’ is taken from The Imagined Village’s ‘Empire and Love’ album. It gets well deserved applause as it is a subtle updating of a traditional song where a soldier gets his legs blown off by a cannon ball. However, in this version the soldier has been to Afghanistan and gets carbon fibre replacement legs.

We also have some pretty heavy duty songs about sex, betrayal, murder and the like. A highlight of the evening is ‘Bill Norrie’, a strange tale of how a husband murders and beheads, what he believes to be, his wife’s lover, only for it to be discovered that it is her long-lost son. The imagery of the woman holding and kissing the dead son’s decapitated head is gripping. The set finishes with a similar staple of Martin’s repertoire, ‘Prince Heathen’, a song about rape, murder and depravity, but ultimate love, set to a mesmerising tune strummed on Martin’s guitar. Finally, we get the aptly titled encore, ‘A Stitch in Time’, a ‘period’ song of domestic violence. Here a brutal husband is sewn into his own bed, while in a drunken sleep, and his long suffering wife gives the helpless man a good pasting with a frying plan to teach him a permanent lesson. If Quentin Tarantino had been alive a couple of hundred years ago and couldn’t make his bloodbath films I suspect he probably would have been writing folk songs.

Oli Jobes

Good support is provided tonight by Oli Jobes, a local musician who is a great guitar player and has a fantastic voice, somewhat similar to the late Nick Drake. Indeed, Oli performs Drake’s ‘River Man’, as part of his set. Particularly memorable is his version of ‘Strange Fruit’, the song about black lynchings made famous by Billie Holiday. The unusual slow pace employed by Oli really emphasises the gruesome lyrics and details of the song.

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