Dave Swarbrick and Kevin Dempsey

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

Earlier this evening I grabbed my notebook and pondered for a while over what exactly I wanted to speak to one of British folk music’s leading figures about. There’s fifty years to consider here and fortunately for me, those years of brilliant music making have run in tandem with my short stay here on Earth. Dave Swarbrick joined the ranks of the second folk revival, working alongside such folk giants as Bert Lloyd, Ewan MacCall and Peggy Seeger, just as mum was considering which nursery I should be off-loaded to. As dad and I deliberated over Geoff Hurst’s controversial third goal in the 1966 World Cup at Wembley, from the comfort of our armchairs, Swarb was already out of the Ian Campbell Folk Group for good and on the road with another giant of British folk music, the young Martin Carthy, together with whom he made some of the most enduring records in the history of British folk song. By the time Swarb had helped create a brand new genre in music, I was already following him in his footsteps. No, not by taking up the fiddle, but by being apprenticed as a printer, Swarb’s original vocation. There really is enough to talk about in this first decade alone thought I, but then why waste this rare opportunity to talk about the ‘most important phone call’ from American record producer Joe Boyd, requesting the fiddler’s assistance on a recording by the young North London upstarts Fairport Convention, that would eventually lead to the beginnings of British Folk Rock? “I don’t consider it the most important part of my life” Dave confessed tonight. “Joe Boyd conned me … he said if I joined Fairport I’d only do twelve more gigs in all me life!” The more I considered, the more there was left to consider. Putting the music aside, there was always the personal health issues that just might come up in conversation, together with the infamous cock-up at the Daily Telegraph, where the newspaper printed Swarb’s premature obituary, which the fiddler gleefully read upon recovery with the famous response “It’s not the first time I’ve died in Coventry”. Tonight, Dave was happy to discuss this period of his life (and death). “It was very lucrative” he explained, “I sold signed obituaries for a long time afterwards”. I decided to abandon any thought of taking notes along with me tonight and therefore, empty handed, I met up with Dave Swarbrick, together with guitarist/singer and fellow Whippersnapper band mate Kevin Dempsey, before they took to the stage in Rotherham. For the fourth consecutive year, the Rotherham Open Arts Festival has employed the services of The Spiegeltent, a hand-hewn pavilion specifically built as a travelling dance hall, bar and entertainment salon, reminiscent of the famous 1930s Marlene Dietrich version, in which she sang “Falling In Love Again”, surrounded by a roomful of mirrors. This particular Spiegeltent has been erected once again in All Saints Square in the centre of Rotherham for a variety of events during the festival period. This week, instead of dozens of images of Dietrich, we have reflections of jazz guitarist Martin Taylor, contemporary experimental band Joby Burgess and New Noise, the Kimberworth Male Voice Choir and tonight, the seated figures of Dave Swarbrick and Kevin Dempsey. “It’s like George Osborne’s bedroom” quipped Swarb as he sat down to speak to me before the show. I have to concede that it was slightly cold in the Spiegeltent tonight, but there again, lest we forget, it is an outdoor tent, not unlike most festival marquees and therefore in October, a coat and possibly some thermal undergarments are very much advised. On stage, Dave sits Buddah-like, resting the base of his fiddle upon his knee as he explains where all the tunes come from, some old, some ancient, some relatively new. Illness has plagued the fiddler in recent years but he now seems fit and able and his playing is possibly just as good as ever. He complains that his memory is going, but manages to remember the names of all the jigs, reels and hornpipes during the two sets. Kicking off with a set of English jigs, the duo soon warmed the audience through sufficiently enough by alternating pretty much between fiddle tunes and delicate songs, courtesy of Swarb’s trademark fiddling and Dempsey’s soulful singing and dextrous guitar playing. Dempsey’s choice of traditional songs ranged from “I Know My Love”, sung from the original female perspective to “The Pride of Kildare”, one of the staple songs from Whippersnapper’s repertoire. Rubbing their hands together simultaneously, the two musicians couldn’t avoid mentioning the temperature. Swarb remarked “When I left the house I was going to wear a thick shirt … my wife said don’t put that on you’ll be too hot on stage … I’ll kill her”. Dempsey went on to say “We thought we were playing at the Arts Centre” as he looked around the Spiegeltent in wonder. “You don’t go camping in October do you?” quipped Dave, going on to conclude “you all deserve Duke of Edinburgh Awards”. It really wasn’t that bad, but there again it wasn’t me playing complicated yet delicate fiddle tunes up there on stage. During his introductions, Swarb was as chatty as ever but there’s always this sense that he puts every effort into his speaking voice, little wonder after undergoing a successful double lung transplant. Although it seems to be something of an effort to talk, his playing and in particular, his ability to hold complicated tunes in his head, is still remarkable. During the tunes “Golden Cross/Of All Fortunes I Have Miscarried”, Swarb plays each part without the aid of either metronome or tapping foot. Kevin confessed to me earlier that the duo have had little rehearsal time and may be a little rusty during the show but went on to say, with an air of reassurance, “It’ll be much better tomorrow night and by the next night we’ll be just right”. On the contrary, the duo played much better than either would allow us to believe. On the faster tunes such as “Grannie’s Delight/The Man Tiger” and “John Jamieson/I Have a Wife of My Own/The Idle Road”, Swarb is still unequalled as a master fiddle player, whilst on the slower tunes such as “Sweet Alban” and “Boadicea”, his sensitivity is still very much intact. Dempsey’s choice of songs perfectly suits his inimitable style, fusing jazz chordal structures with soulful vocal delivery. The American traditional song from the Osark Mountains, “Wicked Polly (No.2)”, sits well alongside English traditional folk songs such as “The Two Constant Lovers” and more contemporary songs such as “The Music Bringer”. I did manage to speak to Swarb about some of the things I wanted to talk to him about. Resting his hands upon his cane he talked candidly about his time as an apprentice letterpress printer, about the early folk revival days, about his time with Ian Campbell, Martin Carthy, Fairport Convention and Whippersnapper as well as touching upon his illness and subsequent recovery from the grips of mortality. I think we should leave the good stuff to his wife Jill, whose eagerly anticipated biography should be along any time soon.