Rotherham Open Arts Festival 2007

Live Review | The Spiegeltent, Rotherham | Review by Allan Wilkinson

The second of the ‘Local Heroes’ concerts devised by Martin Simpson for the Rotherham Open Arts Festival, showcased two sides of the current Martin Simpson phenomenon, that of a solo artist in his own right and that of a band leader at the helm of a stunning new band featuring Andy Cutting on accordion, Andy Seward on double bass and Kellie While providing backing vocals. The first half was Martin Simpson as we’re used to seeing him, full of confidence and musical flair as he alternated between two Stefan Sobell guitars, covering anything from traditional Irish ballads, self-penned originals, Dylan songs and of course The Blues. His version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “I Just Can’t Keep from Crying” filled the already atmospheric Spiegeltent with tastefully executed ambient music that immediately silenced the audience; you could hear a pin drop. There’s something about the way Martin Simpson applies the neck of a bottle to a newly strung guitar that makes you pay attention. Because the Spiegeltent stands in the shadow of Rotherham Minster, the choice of “A Blacksmith Courted Me”, which is basically the self same melody as “To be a Pilgrim”, led us all kicking and screaming back to the Sunday School room, although we were soon brought back to reality by Martin’s astute confession that he feels he has to abandon God for the simple reason that he doesn’t like the way he talks to George W Bush. Amen to that. It was nice to hear the new arrangement of “The Granemore Hare”, formerly performed as a solo guitar piece. Now, for his Prodigal Son album, Martin brings us both the song as well as the air; two pieces of beauty for the price of one, bargain! Also from the new album, Martin repeated a song from the first ‘Local Heroes’ concert on Sunday night, “Little Musgrave”, which has subsequently become much more famous to folk rockers as “Matty Groves”. More contemporary choices of borrowed songs came in the form of Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”, and Lowell George’s “Long Distance Love”. Anyone who covers Little Feat songs remain forever on my Christmas card list. Martin’s eclecticism has always been the single most important reason I have revisited his concerts (and recorded work) time and time again. His choices are always intelligent and carefully selected using something that can only be described remarkable taste. It’s almost because of this that he can be forgiven for not being a prolific songwriter himself, but then for his Righteousness and Humidity album he astonishes us all with “Love Never Dies”, which he finished the first half of the concert with. Not only does he write a song, but a humdinger of a song to boot. You cannot help but follow this man’s well travelled heels all the way. For the second half of the concert, Martin was joined on stage by what is essentially the band he put together to record Prodigal Son. Although Alistair Anderson, Barry Phillips, Kate Rusby and Jackson Browne were absent, the essentials of the band were present. Andy Seward does a remarkable job of filling Danny Thompson’s shoes on double bass, and Kellie While and Andy Cutting make up the quartet that first played together at the recent Cambridge Folk Festival, where the album was launched. Most of the new album came out to play for the second half. “Lakes of Champlain”, possibly better known as “Lakes of Shilin”, a Nic Jones classic, “Never Any Good”, another remarkably good song from Martin’s pen and “Duncan & Brady” with it’s memorable refrain ‘Been on the job too long’, which had all the bluesmen amongst us tapping our feet. For “Andrew Lammie” Martin temporarily ditched the Sobell’s for a strange ‘Weissenbown’ slide guitar, which made a perfect partner for Andy Cutting’s trademark accordion accompaniment. Normally I am of the opinion that once a song is recorded by an artist, there it shall stay, a statement made and filed for posterity. However, I was so pleased when Martin re-recorded Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927”, which appeared on his very first LP Golden Vanity. Martin told me that he decided to re-record the song for the new album and put it back on his set list for no other reason than to pay homage to the city he loves, New Orleans. It remains one of Martin’s most important songs, which is sadly much more poignant now in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. One of the highlights of tonight’s concert was Martin’s duet with Kellie While on Richard Thompson’s “Strange Affair”. Up to this point, I thought Kellie was probably a little too far back in the mix and I was longing to hear her fabulous voice. For “Strange Affair” it appeared in full swing and probably provided for all intents and purposes, the cherry on top of what turned out to be not just a great gig, but a great festival.