"Why aren't you all at Martin Simpson?" asked Chris Wood on Friday in Bristol. ("Because he's also playing in Bath on Saturday" replied Folk Buddy #1.) Chris said that he was Martin's house guest a few weeks ago, and that he appears to do nothing all day but play his guitar.
I don't know anything about guitar technique, but I can see the way his fingers run up and down the fret, and that he's doing obviously tricksy things involving small re-tunes mid song. Trying to describe his guitar sound makes one grope for words like "ethereal" and "subliminal"; on the record you could mistake him for a harpist; and as everyone says, it sounds as if there are at least two guitars playing. He comes onto the stage and seems to go up and down the scales, as if he’s improvising, sounding as if it’s going to be Spanish classical guitar, with a hint of some tune you know from somewhere beneath the surface, and then starts to sing “They used to tell me I was building a dream....” He’s just made a record of standards. I’d rather envisaged that Chris Wood would be the dark, depressing part of the weekend, but Brother Can You Spare A Dime sets the mood of Martin’s set. Before we leave, we’ve had unemployment (North Country Blues) natural disasters (What Has Happened Round Here is that the Wind Has Changed) and ship wrecks (Patrick Spens.) “What about the happy tune about the old man who played the harmonica every day until his 92nd birthday” I ask “You mean, the one who was kicked out of his home when his daddy died in the first world war?” replied Folkbuddy.
He doesn’t have the greatest singing voice: tonight I felt, more than usual, that he was speaking some of the songs rather than singing them; but this hardly matters because they are perfectly phrased and beautifully felt. One wonders if he’s going to do a whole album of Dylan covers one of these days: I’ve heard him tackle Boots of Spanish Leather and Masters of War. Possibly, tonight's North Country Blues didn’t quite ascend the heights of last year's Mr Tambourine man, where I felt that he was (tentatively, even falteringly) creating his own version of the song. This was very definitely Martin Simpson singing Bob Dylan’s version of the song. But no-one can doubt the craftsmanship with which he retells His Bobness’s depressing story, and how much thought has gone into the surgical changes he makes when the original words just can’t be said in an English accent. (“One morning I woke and the bed it was bare; and I was left all alone with three children”.)
He’s a very autobiographical writer; he can sing a blues as well as anybody ("loo-weeze-anya, they’s tryin' to wash us away..") and spring back into his own (slightly idiosyncratic for my taste) versions of British ballads like Patrick Spens; but the voice he seems most comfortable with is that of the Englishman abroad; the Scunthorp lad who can’t quite believe how far he’s come. (He never fails to sings "I've been to Gary Indiana, Bethlehem P.A....but the furnace never burned as bright as down East Common Lane".) There are wonderfully observed vignettes about a pissed English actor he met in a boarding house in New Orleans; and the Tom Waits-y account of a series of a chance encounters over coffee:
Love never dies, lust loses its shine for sure
Friendship can fade or be forced to a close
Frost follows clear skies in the flat lands I come from, but
At that Arkansas truck-stop, love never dies
Anyone who can write a lyric that perfect has clearly studied long and hard at the feet of almighty Bob.
While he is by some distance the finest musician I’ve ever heard perform [*] I think Folk Buddy #2 is correct that he doesn’t quite reach Chris Wood’s level as a song writer: he hardly ever gets beyond the specific. It's a person he saw in truck stop; an eccentric Englishman he met in the Deep South; the incredibly unlikely story of the shepherd who toured the world playing the mouth organ at the very end of his life. This is even true of the monumental Never Any Good, a song which loses little of its power even on the tenth or twentieth listening. He says that it's so personal and specific that he didn't expect it to resonate with other people. Well, it depends what you mean by "resonate". It isn't universal; it hasn't told us anything about Fathers and Sons or War that we didn't already know. But it has told us, in six or seven simple verses, a very great deal about Martin Simpsons' father, and a very great deal about Martin Simpson himself.
You showed me eye-bright in the hedgerows
Speedwell and travellers joy
You taught me how to use my eyes when I was just a boy...
"You taught me how to use my eyes...." These are the songs of a man who notices things; you or I would probably not have spotted, or thought to put in writing, that the fellow fixing his car had “two skeleton’s screwing” on his teeshirt.
It's unhealthy, of course, to imagine that you've got to know someone because you follow their Twitter feed, but I smile every time Martin tweets something like "Beautiful day for dog walking. There was a pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers in the pine tree this morning. Makes me feel good.".Some time ago, someone tweeted a review to the effect that Martin is the best finger-style guitarist in the world. "I am not the best finger-style guitarist in the world"he riposted "But I mean what I play".
What a lovely man.
[*] Well, there’s Kathryn Tickell, but she doesn’t count. Too many notes.