Martin Simpson – Trails and Tribulations

Album Review | Topic | Review by Allan Wilkinson | Stars: 4/5

When Jackson C Frank first performed his song Blues Run the Game in the Bohemian folk clubs and beer cellars of the 1960s, the singer didn’t leave the impression that he’d done all the hard travelling the song spoke of, due in part to his youthful appearance.  The song now seems to have done all that hard travelling all on its own, or at least with the help of all the singers who have performed it over the years.  Best rendered by an artist who has indeed lived the hard travelling life – in the case of Martin Simpson, almost five decades of it, emphasised further in his rugged appearance courtesy of Elly Lucas’s cover portrait – the song now rings with a certain truth.  The song is as good an opener as it gets, especially for Martin’s 20th album and throughout the thirteen tracks, including one or two gentle interludes, Martin once again holds command over his chosen instruments – the usual guitar and banjo but also Weissenborn lap steel, resonator guitars and ukulele – all of which is confirmed with each touch of the strings.  I have to confess I was never the biggest fan of Martin’s singing voice in the early days, although it always seemed right somehow for the songs, especially on such as “Louisiana 1927”, “The Roving Gambler”, “Biko” and “Icarus”, yet these days that voice has settled into what could be described as an integral part of Martin’s art.  The voice and the playing work very much in tandem on such songs as “Katherine of Aragon”, “Reynardine” and certainly the aforementioned opening song, yet Martin’s musicianship is another thing altogether, brilliantly executed with seasoned dexterity.  Produced by Andy Bell, the album features guests, friends and family members including Nancy Kerr on fiddle and viola, Andy Cutting on accordion and melodeon, John Smith on guitar, Ben Nicholls on bass, Toby Kearney on drums and percussion, Helen Bell on strings, Amy Newhouse-Smith on backing vocals and a surprise appearance by Martin’s daughter Molly on vocals on the ethereal Emily Portman song “Bones and Feathers”.