Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy and Chris Parkinson

Live Review | The NCEM, York | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Widely considered the mum and dad of the English folk revival, Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy have recently reached that momentous and delightful Rite of Passage, that of becoming grandparents. I spoke to Martin in the interval this evening who promptly drew a circle with his index finger over the general area of his left pec and confessed that he had ‘a very special place right here’ for little Florence Daisy. I don’t really know Carthy personally at all, even though I did kick young Liam out of his bed one night in order to make way for a 1980s version of Martin Carthy, after a gig in Doncaster, who kept me up half the night to watch his favourite film ‘Blade Runner’. Can you imagine that, Martin Carthy and Harrison Ford in the same room? I digress. For the first of the larger scale Black Swan concerts of the year, as opposed to the smaller club gigs that started in January with an appearance by Grace Notes, the National Centre for Early Music provided the ideal platform for another visit by two of the most enduring singers on the British folk scene. Norma and Martin were joined by Chris Parkinson on accordions (both piano and button) for a couple of sets of songs and tunes culled from one of the largest repertoires in British folk music. Starting with “Bright Shiny Morning”, one of the oldest story tales the couple have, about ‘the ever popular venereal disease’, which inadvertently caused more than a ripple of giggles throughout the audience tonight, especially when Norma explained that ‘she had no idea why it was so popular all over the world … the song of course, not the disease!’ When Norma giggles, there’s an infectious ripple that reverberates around the room, not unlike the proverbial Mexican wave. I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve seen Norma Waterson, either with her husband or with the larger family band Waterson:Carthy, or in the days of the yet even larger family band The Watersons, I still see that young feisty gypsy lass in the old black and white film Travelling For A Living, who captivated my attention back then with the sort of adrenalin I wish I could bottle and save for rainy days. The variety of songs showcased tonight were diverse in both style and mood. From “Bay of Biscay”, which recalls a pre-mobile phone era, when if your man went out to sea, you’d ideally like him back in one piece, rather than seven years later as a ghost, to the jaunty “My Flower, My Companion and Me”, which showed a more animated Norma, whose outstretched arms almost pleaded with us all to join in, which we were only too pleased to do. Martin was given the opportunity to sing some of his own repertoire with the pleading “Georgie”, the hilarious “Six Jovial Welshmen”, which apparently receives a jovial audience response wherever he sings it, and the sprawling “Clyde Water” a song more familiar to some as “The Drowned Lovers” in the hands of Nic Jones or Kate Rusby depending on your age. I can’t recall a Carthy performance since the early Eighties that doesn’t include “The Devil and the Feathery Wife” which to this day still brings out the giggles and I never tire of hearing it. The second set got off to a rousing start with the old music hall song “Don’t Go In The Lion’s Cage Tonight”, which must be the only song in this couple’s repertoire that has been recorded by both Julie Andrews and Nic Cave. It don’t get more diverse than that. The poignant “Coal Not Dole” from the pen of Kay Sutcliffe, was presented as the first in a suite of three songs to mark the 25th anniversary of the miner’s strike, when our communities were divided into two distinct sides of the fence, signified by two helmets, one with a light attached and one of darkest blue, which ultimately led to the destruction of those communities. The two other songs making a respectful nod to those days were Jed Foley’s “Pit Stands Idle”, courtesy of Chris Parkinson and “Trimdon Grange” from Carthy’s classic Sweet Wivelsfield period. By contrast, Jerry Garcia’s “Black Muddy River” and Fred Fisher’s “There Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth The Salt Of My Tears”, show a more contemporary feel to Norma’s singing, despite the latter hailing from the Twenties, both of which appeared on Norma’s Mercury nominated eponymously titled album of 1996. Chris Parkinson is much more than an accompanist and provided some excellent songs and tunes in his own right. “Mr Isaac’s Maggot”, which incidentally has nothing to do with fishing, was coupled with a tune I always knew as “Bridge Over the River Ash”, but was introduced as something completely different. Such is the confusing world of folk tunes. With a final encore of “Bold Doherty”, the trio completed a well-rounded and highly entertaining night, providing a good enough yardstick for others to follow at the NCEM in the months to come.