Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
Martin Simpson is not an artist who can be hurried along- this is a concert characterised by a thoughtful, even leisurely, approach to the material. The eerie slide guitar introduction to the opening 18thCentury ballad St. James Hospital goes on so long it might be mistaken for a separate instrumental number.
The format for the concert is straight to the point. With just acoustic guitars and a banjo on-stage there is no possibility of sweetening the music with strings or making it more dynamic by adding drums. This is authentic folk and blues music played by a master.
With such a basic set-up you wonder how Martin Simpson will stretch the material to last two hours. But then Simpson is as much raconteur as guitarist. The set is broken up by vivid, very detailed, introductions to the songs. Transcribing the set list is dead easy – you not only get the title but details of why, when and where the songs were written. Simpson traces the influence of an 18thCentury English ballad about syphilis across the ocean to shape cowboy death-songs, blues ballads and a present-day Bob Dylan number. It is a routine that works in a theatre environment like The Lowry where audiences are accustomed to listening respectfully but you wonder how well it goes down in a rowdy folk club when the bar is open.
As a writer Simpson follows the tradition of folk singers who use songs as a means of telling a story. He does not indulge in metaphor and his self-written songs are largely descriptive. In one tribute song, he acknowledges that he has simply transcribed extensive quotes from a band-mate.
Simpson makes daring choices in the songs he covers by other artists and is not daunted by tackling the likes of Blind Willie McTell which not only deals with slavery from an American viewpoint it is regarded as one of Bob Dylan’s late-career masterpieces. Simpson’s instrumental prowess allows him to return Heartbreak Hotel to its stark rhythm and blues origin while Hills of Shiloh is hauntingly gothic like a Stephen King story set to music.
Simpson’s vocals are strong but not particularly evocative which becomes clear when he fails to capture the aching emotion of Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s original vocals for Talk to me of Mendocino
Martin Simpson in concert gives audiences the chance to hear folk and blues standards played with a raw authenticity as well as some startling re-interpretations of modern masterpieces. But patience may be required during the patter between songs.
Reviewed 29 September 2018 | Image: