They’re a bit late to arrive, but all it takes is a charming apology and a beautiful song, and the West End Centre crowd instantly forgive Martin and Eliza Carthy. How could we not? The duo are remarkably fresh despite having spent who knows how many hours in a car, and when they play something as sweet, sad and perfect as their arrangement of Molly Drake’s Happiness, it’s hard to imagine them in something as prosaic as a traffic jam.
Folkies will be well used to seeing Martin and Eliza playing together, but this is my first experience of seeing them as a duo, and there’s much joy to be had in simply witnessing their musical chemistry. Their innate understanding is conveyed with a complex series of nods, smiles, frowns and quizzical liftings of eyebrows, each with its own specific meaning.
And the result is beautiful. Opening with Her Servant Man, which shows off Martin’s distinctive, deliberate guitar playing and singing before Eliza adds her characterful fiddle, the pair go on to play all but one of the songs from The Moral of the Elephant (FW’s album of the year 2014).
Each song is introduced with thoughtful explanation, adding extra colour to pieces like Blackwell Merry Night, about a legendary lock-in, and Queen Caraboo, which tells the remarkable true story of an adventurous Devonian’s holiday to Bristol.
Following a week in which the news – dominated by senseless murder and the increasingly divisive and nasty referendum campaign – has made for a grim atmosphere, these upbeat songs offer a simple pleasure. But there is a real profundity to tonight’s show, too.
Grand Conversation on Napoleon – a song mourning Boney’s defeat, exile and death – and The Elephant – which tells of the blind men who have each touched a different part of the animal – initially seem like odd companion pieces. But as Eliza explains, they are united by the way they highlight nuance and the need to see the bigger picture. Popular perception is that Napoleon was hated by the British, but the catalogue of traditional song suggests ordinary working people may well have thought otherwise. And blind men arguing over something they don’t understand… well, you don’t need me to spell the resonance out for you.
You don’t need me to tell you what great players and singers Martin and Eliza Carthy are either, but it bears underlining. A couple of solo spots illustrate it perfectly: Martin’s The Bedmaking is sparky, sharp and inimitable, while Eliza’s take on Stephen Foster’s Nelly was a Lady is deeply moving. Concerning the death of a much-loved woman, it’s impossible not to think of Jo Cox, and Eliza’s intelligent, emotional delivery will stay with me for a long time.
Her vocals are brilliant too on the duo’s gorgeous Monkey Hair, written (with considerable insight) by Michael Marra, and on Waking Dream, a perfectly paced version of Awake Awake. Her fiddle playing is extraordinary, too, especially as an accompaniment to her dad’s masterful fretwork on the twisty-turny Bonny Moorhen. The duo end on a tune, a final flourish that allows us to once again marvel at that chemistry.
I’ve rarely felt so thankful for a gig; it felt important, even necessary. A bit of much-needed thoughtfulness in a world of obfuscation and agenda; some beauty with which to end an ugly week.