Eliza Carthy, Lisa Knapp, The Oldham Tinkers: Cecil Sharp House, London, January 22 2019

Topic Records is 80! Almost certainly the world’s oldest independent record label marked its auspicious anniversary with a small, informal party in Cecil Sharp House’s Trefusis Hall, for the night a warm enclave in the heart of snow-soaked Camden.

After an introduction that traced the label’s left-wing origins, and reminded us of some of the many esteemed singers and musicians who have recorded for Topic over the years – Anne Briggs, June Tabor and Ewan MacColl among them – John and Gerry of The Oldham Tinkers made their way to the stage.

Topic is planning to celebrate its 80 years throughout 2019, with a series of special releases. Among them is a compilation album featuring eminent artists from the folk world covering tracks they’ve chosen from the label’s back catalogue – and the Lancashire duo performed the song they’ve chosen for that project, Dirty Old Town, which they said “jumped out”. Seizing the opportunity to mark 200 years since the Peterloo massacre, the pair played their powerful song (with lyrics written by Harvey Kershaw) of the same name – first recorded for Topic on the 1971 album Oldham’s Burning Sands.

Next up was Lisa Knapp – not (yet) a Topic recording artist, but a welcome presence anyway. Her unaccompanied Ballad of George Collins had the room immediately spellbound, while the subtle addition of banjo for I Wish My Love was a Cherry (discovered with the help of Cecil Sharp House’s “tireless librarian” Malcolm Taylor) further demonstrated her gift for expressive, emotive storytelling – as, in fact did a take on Margaret Barry’s The Factory Girl, for which she was joined by the fluid fiddle of Gerry Diver.

Eliza Carthy, described as one of the jewels in Topic’s crown, finished off the night with a typically compelling performance, impressively commanding despite the brevity of the set. She described the label as like “a little secret we’ve all got”, and opened with a full-blooded, flat-out brilliant version of Worcester City (from 2002 Topic album Anglicana), stomping, scraping and swirling as if possessed by it. Cats & Dogs (from her collaboration with Tim Eriksen) with its finger-picked fiddle, was more reflective but just as beautifully sung, while Maid on the Shore (from another Topic release, 2005’s Rough Music) was engagingly lyrical even when Carthy momentarily forgot a lyric – as was a version of The Grey Cock, also sung unaccompanied. We got the warm, mournful Nelly was a Lady from last year’s Anchor, too, and a version of Botany Bay – a lot of emotion and energy to pack into one short performance, that.

Carthy will be back at Cecil Sharp House on Valentine’s Day, launching her new album Restitute as part of a series of Topic Records Presents… concerts at the venue – and you can catch The Oldham Tinkers on February 2, too.

And release-wise, Topic has more planned alongside that compilation album (which should be with us in May). March will see a new series of expanded, deluxe reissues under the Topic Treasures banner, commencing with Martin Simpson’s Prodigal Son, Anne Briggs’ eponymous 1971 album and Shirley Collins’ The Sweet Primroses. Come April, there will also be a limited-edition gold vinyl issue of Anne Briggs, alongside June Tabor’s Airs and Graces.

Happy anniversary, Topic!

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