He makes rather an unassuming entrance, but then Sam Carter has little need for grandstanding. Without much ado, he starts with Yellow Sign, from his 2009 album Keepsakes. Its story starts in an East End café, where a fight between a couple has just begun. The tale moves quickly into unexpected, wittily bleak territory, with Carter maintaining the role of a detached narrator while delivering a fabulously complex, engrossing guitar line. It’s quite a way to begin.
The unusual portraits and the awesome plucking are a recurrent feature of Carter’s music. The stripped-back nature of the live delivery makes it seem the stories are being shared confidentially, rather than presented for public consumption. And the apparent ease with which he plays so many notes is either inspiring or depressing, depending on what kind of guitarist you are.
Carter is soon joined by bass player Matt Ridley and drummer Karl Penney – playing his first gig as part of the trio tonight – though they come and go as the night unfolds. They play sparingly and skilfully, adding texture to “inevitable ex-girlfriend song” She Won’t Hear and giving Carter the space to give the sprightly Station Road a joyfully funky ending.
Tones and themes change frequently and dramatically, for example on two concurrent songs inspired by Carter’s family. Here in the Ground deals with the death of his sister, who died aged just three when he was a baby. It must be tough to talk and sing about, but the track is beautifully judged: honest and moving – “I was there and she was gone”, it ends, crushingly. It’s followed up by the playful, happy and in no way fit-for-purpose (it won’t send kids to sleep) Lumpy’s Lullaby, written for Carter’s then-unborn nephew. The audience, perhaps a little relieved, joins in with its catchy chorus.
The first half ends with what Carter calls a “little Judas moment”, as he picks up a rather beautiful electric guitar and the band turn up the volume for an aggressive, swaggering and loud rendition of traditional track Oh Dear Rue the Day. After the gentle intricacies of the show so far, it’s a startling reminder that the trio can kick up a pretty impressive racket, too.
And the swagger continues in the second half, which opens with Dreams Are Made of Money, the catchy, brilliantly observed opener to new album The No Testament (see my Bright Young Folk review of it here). Carter pays much more attention to the new record in this half, explaining the inspiration he has taken from shapenote singing before the refreshing Garden Hymn. We also get Separate Ways (another of those quirky sketches of modern life), a tremendously jazzy take on No Other Side and the grim-but-jolly Jack Hall, which many of the “new converts” in the audience had enjoyed seeing on Later… with Jools Holland a couple of weeks previously.
Elsewhere, we’re given more conflicting tones as the beautiful and mournful Bones (“When they find our bones / I hope there’s no next of kin to be told”) segues into the smart, witty Taxi (“about a taxi”, apparently). Penney’s jazzy snare brushing is an appropriate addition to the swinging, shuffling arrangement of the latter.
The electric guitar comes out again for the stunning The One, before the volume is again raised for big, bluesy finale Waves & Tremors. Carter’s apocalyptic, electric freewheeling is hugely impressive, but it does make for rather a downbeat ending. So it’s nice that when he comes back, alone, for an encore, the audience is entreated to join in on handclaps and humming for The No Testament’s rather more optimistic title track. It’s like a personally tailored shapenote session, and its message – “It’s not what you came with / Its what you leave behind” – is a fine way to send us home.
Big Folk Witness thanks to Mike Hall for the photograph that accompanies this review. Sam Carter is playing five more gigs this year as part of a “patchy” tour, with plenty of dates scheduled for next spring. Check out his gigs page and go see him if he’s playing near you!
Check out my Bright Young Folk video interview with Sam, which features a great acoustic version of The One – my favourite track on the album and a real thrill to witness close-up.
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