Reviews 2008

Woodman Folk Club - Reviews

Martin Carthy
Malcolm Jeffrey 21 November 2008

The evening of the welcome return of Martin Carthy MBE to "The Woodman" begins with my youngest son Tom springing the news that his school is hosting the Christmas School Disco tonight. There is no-one else to take him, so Daddy does the decent thing and, telling Bob and Graham to head for "The Woodman" without me, I set off with Tom to the School Disco : while Graham and Bob are getting the first round in, I am watching Tom dance the "Cha-Cha Slide" and "Mambo No. 5" with his mates. 8 o'clock comes quickly round though, the taxi is called, Tom is safely taken home and 20 minutes after hearing McFly I am approaching the Ashwood Marina listening to the end of Nothing To Prove's "The Kingfisher". Funny how these things turn out...

The last song (as it turns out) from Nothing To Prove is "Turning Away", and the pa and NTP sound great, as I pay Pete on the door and get the beers in (my first, Bob and Graham's second) : Martin Carthy is propping the corner of the bar, resplendent in a very smart jacket. Ian Pittaway follows Nothing To Prove with a fine Copper Family arrangement of "Spencer The Rover" and an excellently performed Pibroch based on a Skinner tune, by which time Ian Munro has told me by sign language that I'm up next. So your reviewer gamely rattles off Jake Thackray's "The Hair Of The Widow Of Bridlington", Grant Baynham's "The Wine Song" and "Isobella", another Thackray song, to arguably pleasing effect : and then it's time for the main act of the night.

Martin Carthy has discarded his jacket and takes the stage in a smart Burgundy shirt, donning the big buckle belt he has always used as a guitar strap since I first saw him in 1984. "Right !" he says, confidently, and checks to see if the Martin's still in tune : "Wrong !", he double-takes, and corrects the tuning - ! - and then he's off and running with a crisply executed "John Barleycorn". One of the little icings on the cake for me is the small asides he gives himself while playing tunes - noises of self-encouragement and disappointment when his playing somehow doesn't live up to his own, extremely high standards - and there are a few vocalisations on the first instrumental, followed by an ironic "hurray !" on the next solo as he gets it right the second time ! It's all part of a perfect Carthy evening for me and even part-way through the first number the signs are extremely encouraging...

Next in the set is "Limbo", an intense and tightly controlled song about a debtor's prison, the tune of which he says "I taught to our Liza and then had the good sense to learn back from her". This is followed by a crowd-pleasing "Six Jovial Welshmen" - a St David's Day carol unfeasibly composed of verses from two songs - "Six Jovial Welshmen" and "Two Jovial Welshmen" ! - whose main theme is revealed as several Jovial Welshmen on a nature ramble constantly misidentifying wild animals. After this Martin plays us "Princess Royal" in an interesting minor arrangement of the old tune, very much morris dance, but almost hornpipe in places : throughout, Martin Carthy deftly and subtly varies the rhythm and his playing is exquisite in places - he's clearly on form tonight. Still in trad vein, next we get the story of the "Foggy Dew", with an unusual, cautionary ending to boot : once again, his playing is inventive to the point of surprising in parts. Then Mr Carthy gives us a splendid acapella warning to moderate your beer intake with "An Invite To A Funeral", which merits much mirth and rousing applause from the Woodman audience.

"The Trees They Do Grow High" is our next treat, and quite the technical highlight for me. Carthy uses a tuning that allows him to let open strings ring in 5ths over at least three chords, and he plays the tune on the strings not currently droning - I watched, fascinated, at this level of beautiful control, waiting for a buzzing string which I knew would never come as Carthy played quite an intricate tune around different open strings per chord with deceptive ease. When our prolonged appreciation has subsided following this song, Martin brings the first half to a close with Mike Waterson's "A Stitch In Time", a tale of a seamstress' revenge which Carthy has only recently confirmed to be a true event.

Refreshment is purchased, Graham's first Carthy gig seems to be going down very well, thank you, and I promise a neighbouring fellow punter the words to "The Wine Song" and chat with him about his wife's hip replacement (I know five people who have all had either hip or knee replacements in the last year, which may or may not say anything about my age...). I pass close to Martin Carthy on my way to putting my guitar back in its case - I've remarked before that folk clubs seem to be the only gigs where you can chat with international musicians as peers - and I put in a sneaky request for his fabulous version of "Sir Patrick Spens", and I get an encouraging Carthy grin in reply...

Oh - and Bob Curry wins the raffle. Of course. Went without saying, didn't it... :o)
Part the Second then, and as Ian calls Mr Carthy back to the mike there's a noticeable feeling of anticipation in the room which speaks volumes of the quality of entertainment we've had so far, and the promise of much more to come. Martin commences with a tight and trad "Georgie", and then, bless him, he heads into Francis Child territory by doing my request, "Sir Patrick Spens", delivering an absolute blinder, after all of ten minutes since I asked him to do it. Next is "Heroes Of St Valéry" - he informed us it is a highland war pipes tune, and as such comprised of only 9 different notes ("Clever buggers !", he says of the composers) - and his accurate fingering and control belie the complexities of the tune. He follows this with "Bonnie Woodhall", a slow ballad featuring drone strings again and some fine singing - Carthy's voice is sometimes overlooked but tonight, as ever, it's the other instrument he's wielding with mastery tonight.

Carthy now treats us to a fine old morris tune, "The Cuckoo's Nest", which Bob will find in the middle of "The Bedmaking" when he listens to his CD raffle prize "Crown Of Horn" : one of the strings has slipped tuning while he's playing and there's a laugh from him when he fails to disguise a particularly noticeable tuning indiscretion... but it makes the performance all the more personal, a shared, unscheduled experience and one all the muso's in the room can relate to. Following that is "Lochmayben Harper", one of those epic songs Martin specialises like "Willie's Lady" or "Jack Rowland", where an Everyman achieves a seemingly impossible task - this time involving the King's horse - against all odds.

Adam MacNaughtan's "Oor Hamlet", arranged from the original Glaswegian by Mr Carthy, is next up, summarising Shakespeare's longest play in magnificent style - and then, with much retuning of his Martin (the E string is flapping about somewhere about low C, and the whole fiendish open tuning takes so long to accomplish that Carthy looks up at us with a wry grin and poses the off-mike question "Has it started yet ?") he brings the main set to a close (and the house down…) with his staggering arrangement of "The Harry Lime Theme". Despite the knowledge that it's only 10 past 11 and Mr Carthy will very likely be asked for another one in a minute's time, the warm and genuine appreciation showed by the Woodman audience, at the end of a night exceeding even Carthy's own high standards, seems to continue for ages. Finally invited back to the spotlight, Martin Carthy tops off a frankly classic Carthy evening with "The Devil And The Feathery Wife", an arrangement which has evolved much since I learned it and has even become a tad more intricate since the last time I saw him play it four years ago, which sadly brings the evening to an end, the final highlight of an entire evening's worth of highlights from a respected folk performer who still performs at and above the top of his game. Martin Carthy was certainly on form tonight...