Slide-guitar blues and gritty folk come to church
There is a phrase that musicians in the Southern States of America use to describe music that sends a chill down your spine and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. They call it ‘chicken-skin’ music. And that’s what we heard in St Andrew’s when Martin Simpson played to a capacity audience on 21 April 2018.
Simpson is regarded as one of the most skilled folk guitarists currently playing on the British and American folk scene. Now approaching 65 (retirement age, as he proudly announced on Saturday), he has been performing live since 1970. He has released 21 solo albums, countless collaborative albums with other well-known musicians, and has been nominated 23 times in various categories of the annual Radio 2 Folk Awards, winning Artist of the Year twice.
It was a real coup for St Andrew’s that he was persuaded to come and play here.
The gig kicked off with Hertford’s favourite folk entrepreneur Pat Crilly playing a short six-song set of original songs. Pat – who describes himself as an Irishman with a Scottish accent – is himself a talented guitarist and packs a vocal punch with a pure, strong voice. He set the tone for the evening by opening with a song about meeting a man from Senegal on a boat in the Congo. ‘Magical and Mystical’ went the refrain. That could have described what followed.
Dressed in working men’s jeans and boots and a silk shirt that he later admitted was borrowed from his neighbour in Sheffield, Richard Hawley (one-time guitarist with Jarvis Cocker’s 90s band Pulp), Simpson walked onto the dais where the altar normally stands and started tuning his guitar.
Fixing a temporary feedback problem, his tuning gradually emerged, like a coil of mist rising from the swamps of the Mississippi, as a slow slide-guitar blues. The vocals which followed were like English traditional folk lyrics, telling the tale of a soldier dying in hospital. And then, just as we thought we had located the song, it merged into a version of Bob Dylan’s Blind Willie McTell. What intricate invention is that?
Over the following two hours, Simpson selected songs from the rich catalogue of English and American folk and blues numbers, each one introduced by amusing stories that often brought the songs up to date with interpretations that referenced modern political or environmental issues. Grenfell Tower, the chopping down of 17,000 trees in Sheffield, mass poaching in the 1850s, the Aberfan tragedy – they all got a mention. Simpson is not shy of making a stand against injustice.
Poignant lyrics and amusing anecdotes aside, it was his guitar and banjo playing that held the audience – many of them strangers to the church – in a silent trance. His version of Heartbreak Hotel or the Incredible String Band’s October Song were made his own by elaborate guitar playing made to look easy.
It was a great concert and a successful evening. According to Chris Seward, who organised the evening, over £1300 was raised for church funds.
After the concert, the down-to-earth Simpson, sat at the back of the church selling CDs and chatting to fans. He kept saying how the acoustics in the nave were ‘unbelievably clear and beautiful’.
Asked if he would play at the church again, Simpson replied ‘Oh yes, definitely’. We’d better watch this space, I’d say.
You can find out more about Martin on his website