under the trad/arr of folk and acoustic music
June 19, 2016 by markdishman

Martin & Eliza Carthy: West End Centre, Aldershot, June 17 2016

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.

Martin & Eliza Carthy

Martin & Eliza Carthy. Photo: Mark Dishman

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.

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December 30, 2014 by markdishman

Martin & Eliza Carthy: The Moral of the Elephant – Folk Witness album of the year 2014

It’s remarkable to think that, for all their work together in family band Waterson:Carthy, Martin and Eliza Carthy had never before released an album together. They addressed this in 2014 with The Moral of the Elephant – an LP assembled in intense ‘hothouse’ sessions – two songs a day, arranged, practiced, recorded: done. Layout 1

It’s a confident approach: two voices, one guitar, one fiddle, no special guests and a quick-fire approach to getting the songs done, in order that they might retain their freshness. And there’s something about the no-frills, purist approach that invites the listener to lean in a little. It’s a warm (thanks in no small part to Oliver Knight’s production) and engaging record.

Opener Her Servant Man sets the tone: Martin’s distinctive, deliberate-yet-delicate guitar picking and earthy voice kick off a tale of forbidden love. Eliza’s vivacious fiddle soon joins the mix, adding notes of charm and romance that build the song into more than the sum of its parts. And the simple formula never gets dull. Guitar and fiddle seem to dance during the introduction to the cheery Blackwell Merry Night, before the duo stop playing and allow their voices to do the same thing.

Most of the songs are traditional, and while many will sound familiar, versions and arrangements are new. Waking Dreams – a thoughtful take on Awake Awake that intriguingly addresses the song’s subject as a “traitor” (instead of “sleeper”) is one highlight, while The Queen of Hearts – shot through with dramatic guitar and harmony – is another. The masterful Grand Conversation on Napoleon ebbs and flows absorbingly, addressing Boney’s broken heart as much as his political failure. Martin’s spoken outro is loaded with gravitas.

The album’s non-traditional songs are excellent, too. Monkey Hair, written by Michael Marra, and Happiness, an apparently lost classic from the pen of Molly Drake, are both simply (that word again) stunning. Has Eliza’s voice ever sounded better? You can listen for yourself, below…

Indeed, both father and daughter are on top form with voice and instrument. Martin’s vocal performance on Queen Caraboo is top class, while Eliza’s fiddling is assured and inventive. On Bonny Moorhen it is light, bright and exquisitely divergent, while on The Elephant it is deep and mournful, as if she is sawing into the very soul of the instrument.

Talk of ‘folk royalty’ or ‘folk’s first family’ has always seemed antithetical to the genre to me (and Martin will modestly point in the direction of the Coppers if the matter is raised), but the epithet exists for a reason: Martin and Eliza Carthy (not to mention Norma Waterson, whose collaboration with her daughter on 2010’s Gift album is another must-hear) are outstandingly talented. The Moral of the Elephant is both deeply complex and uncomplicatedly beautiful – and it’s the Folk Witness album of the year 2014.

Album of the year 2013 – The Full English

Album of the year 2012 – Fay Hield: Orfeo

Album of the year 2011 – Mary Hampton: Folly

Don’t forget, you can follow Folk Witness on Twitter or like it on Facebook, if you’re so inclined. Happy New Year!

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October 13, 2013 by markdishman

David Rotheray: Answer Ballads

Having already impressed once with an off-beat album of collaborations – 2010’s The Life of Birds, David Rotheray returns with another interesting concept and another impressive line-up of guest vocalists. Answer Ballads (which is “created and curated” by Rotheray) gives a voice – and a right-of-reply – to the often-silent central characters of pop songs. answer ballads

It’s a neat idea, and Rotheray’s guest-vocalist device makes perfect sense – each can lend their personalities to the characters they portray. Rotheray’s first success is in assembling such an incredible line-up of singers. The chosen 13 could make the phone book sound compelling, if they put their minds to it.

Fortunately, they have Rotheray’s keenly observed, imaginative retorts to work with instead. The former Beautiful South man has a knack for the vivid details of a story, and a particular talent for the female voice.

Perhaps the most well-known subjects on Answer Ballads are Maggie (from Rod Stewart’s Maggie May), Roxanne (the would-be red light illuminator from The Police’s song of the same name). Eliza Carthy puts in a typically classy performance on the former, reminding cocky Rod that “you can’t read my book just by counting the pages”.

Kathryn Williams’ rejoinder on the latter is even sharper. A gentle, pulsing beat and spiky slide guitar allow her faint-but-strong vocals centre stage as she sarcastically refers to herself as “poor old depraved me” and suggests he “save all your savings for someone else”. That’s you told, Sting.

Without overdoing it, Rotheray cleverly incorporates the occasional musical reference to the song that’s inspired him. So, as John Smith sings from beyond the grave as the character from Johnny Cash’s Don’t Take Your Guns To Town, a wild west whistle or two – and Cash’s trademark boom-chicka beat – seem appropriate.

It turns out answering songs can be a complicated business. Chuck Berry has already written a sequel to Memphis, Tennessee (in the form of Little Marie), but Marie’s Song is particularly moving – thanks in great part to Josienne Clarke’s frankly stunning voice. And Dr Hook’s Sylvia’s Mother gets two replies – a perfectly-cast Jackie Oates as the caring Mrs Avery and Bella Hardy as Sylvia herself. Rotheray introduces a garden, a cat and several layers of humanity, to the story.

Elsewhere, Rotheray’s classy piano gives a solid backing to Lisa Knapp’s prettily fragile voice, Lucille’s Song (sung by Mary Coughlan) has a smokey jazz club feel, thanks to its brushes and sparing saxophone, while Pearl’s Song (featuring Gemma Hayes as the songstress from Elkie Brooks’ Pearl’s a Singer) swings along memorably, thanks to its catchy “I don’t wanna go to a movie” chorus. Alasdair Roberts is somewhat rushed through Dino’s Song, however.

Overall though, even if you’re not familiar with the ‘question songs’ (I’ll confess to only knowing about half of them off the top of my head – though looking the ones I didn’t up was an interesting journey in itself), it’s a rewarding listen. There’s nothing here as joyously catchy as The Sparrow, The Thrush & The Nightingale from The Life of Birds, but Rotheray succeeds not only in creating new and engaging work, but also in adding a further layer to the songs that have inspired him. Which is quite an achievement, really.

Answer Ballads is out on October 14 on Navigator Records

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June 6, 2013 by markdishman

Eliza Carthy, Jim Moray & The Wayward Band, G Live, Guildford, June 5 2013

Eliza Carthy and Jim Moray’s Wayward Tour, in which the pair celebrate 21 and ten years in music respectively, has been a resounding success. Reviews have been consistently positive, and venues such London’s Union Chapel have been packed out. So, with the majority of the hard work done with, and a surprisingly sparsely populated venue to entertain, how would the Wayward Band perform?

Wayward Tour

Party time! Eliza and Jim get excited. Photo: Elly Lucas

Moray is in relaxed form, opening with what he jokingly describes as “an early piece of UKIP propaganda”. His acoustic version of Gypsies (of the ‘raggle taggle’ fame, from 2003’s Sweet England album) is accompanied by avant garde, startlingly loud trumpet from the smartly attired Nick Malcolm. There’s not a hint of tour fatigue; instead it feels fresh and vibrant – like something Moray and the prodigiously talented trumpeter might have improvised backstage.

When the full band joins him, it’s evident that the musical chemistry already evident at the rehearsal stage (see video, below) has blossomed further. Willy Molleson’s whipcracking drums drive a mighty, loud version of William Taylor, which prompts much ‘rock’ posturing from string trio Sam Sweeney, Lucy Farrell and Beth Porter. Similarly epic is Leaving Australia, which seems to revel in the space it is given, Laurence Hunt’s introductory percussion combining with David Delarre’s spiky acoustic guitar before the song balloons into its grand, punchy main section.

Lucy Farrell comes to the front to duet with Moray on ‘broken token ballad’ Jenny of the Moor. A knockabout introduction reimagines the song as a story of a boyfriend gone on tour, which seems flippant, but does highlight the relevance of the traditional song. Farrell plays the part of ‘Jenny’ with sweet aplomb, and sticks around to back Moray on a beautiful run-through of Child ballad Lord Douglas. Moray’s guitar playing is wonderful here; he confidently adds jazzy, lyrical runs to the elegantly paced piece.

Sweeney amd Moray

Sam Sweeney and Jim Moray rock out. Photo: Emma Goymer

The triumphant, anthemic Seven Long Years is made for a large band like this, and the rousing nature of the arrangement seems to inspire Moray’s confident singing, while the string trio-accompanied outro is a nice touch, too. As are the pirate eyepatches that the band sneak on when playing Moray’s finale, his jolly take on XTC’s All You Pretty Girls. Not wanting him to feel left out, Eliza Carthy mischievously dances on to the stage and decorates Moray with one of his own. The result is a performance that’s at least 10 per cent more hearty.

After the interval, Carthy repeats Moray’s trick of opening with just one accompanist. Trusty lieutenant Saul Rose provides a quiet melodeon backdrop to the mournful, beautifully sung I Wish That the Wars Were All Over. In just one short song she establishes (or re-establishes, for those who’ve seen her before) her commanding stage presence; imaginative, dextrous fiddle playing; and soulful, passionate singing voice.

And, of course, we already know the band is great. So what follows may not be a surprise – but it is completely thrilling. The sound and energy builds with a jolly version of Cold, Wet & Rainy Night, before a stately Turpin Hero, about a “scumbag chicken killer”, we’re told.

Carthy is quick to play tribute to her family. We get a lyrical, substantial performance of (auntie) Lal Waterson’s Child Among The Weeds, the “calypso therapy” of the magnificent Mr Walker, learned from Eliza’s mum, Norma Waterson, and the classy, piano-led salsa of Grey Gallito, which she learned from dad Martin Carthy, and then translated into Spanish “so he couldn’t take it back again”. Best of all, though, is Jack Frost, by (uncle) Mike Waterson. His expert, icy lyric is complemented by spidery guitar from Delarre, precise fiddle playing from Carthy and a perfectly pitched chorus from the string-singers. Among all the energy and passion, it brings a rare chill to a warm June evening.

The eyepatches make a return for Rolling Sea, which gets a shimmering, sensual treatment, along with another of those free-form trumpet solos. The band is once again on great form for Gallant Hussar, the happy story of which is reflected in a gigantic, joyous performance that’s given weight by Yen-Yen Toulouse’s mighty trombone. By the time Carthy finally gets round to one of her own songs – the riotous, sealife-themed Great Grey Back – we are in full party mode, shiny hats and party poppers included.

Moray’s gorgeous Gibson kicks off an irresistible finale of Willow Tree, and there’s thankfully time for an encore – the full-on, frenzied Cobbler’s Hornpipe, with Carthy dancing about at the centre of a joyful musical whirlwind, thrilling in the moment. Everyone – whether in the crowd or on the stage – is left with a huge, silly smile. Let’s hope it’s not too long until another significant anniversary comes around, so we can all do this again. Please?

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February 7, 2013 by markdishman

Carthy Hardy Farrell Young: Clair Hall, Haywards Heath, February 6 2013

Laylam: it means ‘singing in chorus’ apparently. And the inherent warmth of the harmony is at the heart of the union of Eliza Carthy, Bella Hardy, Lucy Farrell and Kate Young.

carthy hardy farrell young laylam

From left: wall-dwellers Carthy, Hardy, Farrell and Young

The quartet got together at the suggestion of Kathryn Tickell (which seems as good a reason as any). It was only later, apparently, that it occurred to Tickell that her supergroup all happened to be female fiddle players, as well as singers.

At the foursome’s Haywards Heath show, the vocal element is certainly what hits first. Scots singer Kate Young leads the line on opener Greasy Coat, her bold delivery and musical brogue lending itself pleasingly to the old-timey Americana. The fiddles initially act as a subtle bed for the singing, and the harmonies from Farrell, Hardy and Carthy are warm and considered. Proceedings are leant a certain swing via Young’s ankle-mounted tambourine, and Carthy’s bass drum, which she stomps at all night.

Farrell keeps the momentum going, leading a song about birds from Cecil Sharp’s Appalachian collection, and a wonderful Myrtle Tree (a relation of the more familiar Flash Company). Her sweet-sounding voice lends a fresh layer of innocence to the regretful piece.

Bella Hardy is, tonight, suffering from a cold, which gives her speaking voice a husky quality she’s evidently quite pleased with – but it does mean her singing duties are scaled back. In order to ease the strain, Eliza Carthy sings Dream of Napoleon, unaccompanied. It’s one of those truly jaw-dropping, unforgettable performances, full of emotion, soul and verve. That Carthy can – apparently quite casually – pull something like this out of the bag at short notice is simply stunning.

Quite an act for Hardy to follow, then, as she announces she’s going to lead on a version of Patsy Cline’s Walking After Midnight. There’s a palpable tension in the room as she clears her throat, but Hardy’s opening notes dispel any fears – her voice is as rich as ever, her delivery as finely pitched, and the slight rasp in her voice makes it all sound… pretty sexy, frankly. There are – genuinely – gasps of admiration from the audience.

I’d not heard of Kate Young before Laylam was announced, but she more than holds her own in such illustrious company (check the video of her standing in a lake, below). Young’s own composition, Green & Gold, is inspired by Slovenian figs (yep, Slovenian figs) and characterised by unexpected percussive scrapes and changes in direction. And her singing is just as good – she leads a sassy version of Why Don’t You Do Right with confidence.

Although the group’s singing is, as Tickell figured, complementary, with Carthy able to explore the lower register of her remarkable voice, it turns out their fiddle-playing styles are too. Farrell is a keen ‘plucker’, Carthy’s “whale” (a mighty, thick violin) provides a teeth-vibrating bassy element, and Hardy and Young thread their way in and around. The quartet seem totally at ease, too, jokily bossing one another around and spreading a happy mood through the venue.

Other highlights include Farrell’s moving My Love is Like a Dewdrop, the magnificent “Welsh sea shanty” 100 Years (Carthy’s drum gets another walloping here), and two Mike Waterson moments – Chickens in the Garden and Country Life, which end each half.

A heavenly chorus encore of “God song” Better Home only goes to illustrate Tickell’s prescience even further. Good call, Kathryn. Good call.

As I write, you can still catch Carthy Hardy Farrell Young at Diss, Great Torrington, Birmingham and London, if you’re quick.

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August 2, 2012 by markdishman

Sidmouth Folk Week: preview

When I first went to Sidmouth Folk Week it was as a teenager, before I had any real interest in folk music. My friends and I would just loaf about on the rocky beach, chatting, drinking and enjoying the atmosphere of the parades, dancing and general good spirits.

As a relative grown-up folkie, Sidmouth has become one of my most looked-forward-to weeks of the year. Recently it’s put on some great shows, such the unforgettable, emotional return of Nic Jones to the live stage in 2010, and the brilliant revival of Peter Bellamy’s Transports folk opera last year.

Eliza Carthy Norma Waterson

Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson

This year, with a the return of Alan Bearman as organiser, there isn’t a massive staged ‘event’ of this kind. But Sidmouth has still done well, most notably perhaps in hosting the welcome return of Norma Waterson. Norma will be performing with her daughter, Eliza Carthy, and the formidable Gift Band (Monday 6, 8pm, Ham Marquee) for the first time since she was taken ill in the winter of 2010. Her full-bodied-Bordeaux of a voice has been missed, and it will be a major treat to see her performing alongside her equally talented daughter.

Eliza is in for a busy week. She’s also performing alongside her dad Martin (Wednesday 8, 12 noon, Ham Marquee), who in turn is playing with Brass Monkey (Tuesday 7, 3.15pm, Ham Marquee), with support from the brilliant Fay Hield and her Hurricane Party. Fay is playing alongside Jon Boden (Monday 6, 8pm, The Bedford), who is, as it happens, doing a gig with John Spiers as well (Tuesday 7, 8pm, Ham Marquee). You get the idea.

That’s to say nothing of a host of other brilliant acts such as Jackie Oates, Chris Wood, Martin Simpson, June Tabor and Oysterband, Edward II, Show of Hands and the delightfully named Whapweasel. Then there are the ceilidhs – look out for the mighty Blackbeard’s Tea Party (Monday 6, 11pm, The Bulverton) if you’ve got the energy – as well as the pub sessions, the stalls and the dancing.

There’s far too much for me to cover, but I’ll be writing about my experiences here. I’m not sure I’ll be able to top this moment of Sidmouth magic from last year, when I somehow ended up playing in a handbell choir with this rather familiar-looking bunch. I still tell people I used to be in a band with Martin Carthy…

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May 15, 2012 by markdishman

Wayward Daughter: An Official Biography of Eliza Carthy

We aren’t often treated to biographies of folk musicians. Perhaps it’s the idea that the songs are the stars, the singers largely anonymous ‘folk’ who wouldn’t necessarily make interesting subjects. Maybe it’s just thought that the audience isn’t there. Either way, Sophie Parkes’ Wayward Daughter: An Official Biography of Eliza Carthy is a welcome exception to the rule. Wayward Daughter

While she is, of course, an excellent musician and singer, Eliza Carthy is rather more than that. She’s certainly not anonymous, for a start; her parentage has put her in an intriguing position, bringing with it interesting opportunities, but unique pressures too. She has responded with a fascinating, varied musical career, packed with twists, turns and collaborations. And she’s also proven an unconventional, thoughtful and outspoken figure; offering intelligent commentary on subjects from folk snobbery to the concept of Englishness, too. Perfect fodder for a biography, then.

Parkes does not disappoint. Wayward Daughter offers a fascinating, diligently researched and well written take on Carthy’s life story so far. We are taken from the building of the family homes near Robin Hood’s Bay before Eliza’s birth, through childhood stories, first musical forays, heartbreak, career and motherhood to current and even future musical projects.

The official nature of the book means Parkes has had full access to her subject, and her interviews with the likes of Norma Waterson, Martin Carthy, Jon Boden and Nancy Kerr are revealing and often surprising. And she’s done the job thoroughly, too, even visiting Eliza’s school to catch up with an old music teacher, who offers some interesting insight into the talented but occasionally “infuriating” pupil, who would sometimes improvise harmonies in the school choir.

The book is packed with stories that illuminate Eliza’s career and allow the reader to see her work in a different light. It’s a surprise, for example, to learn of Carthy’s difficulties making friends at school, while some eyebrow-raising stories of her time signed to Warners make some of the major-label unhappiness voiced on 2008’s Dreams of Breathing Underwater much easier to understand. Stories of her bond with her family are more expected, but still make for heartwarming reading. Elsewhere, the tale of Carthy’s first Mercury Music Prize nomination is a hilarious one, while some outrageous – rather unpleasant – behaviour on the part of Joan Baez is revealed, too.

While Parkes (a self-confessed Eliza fan) tends towards an uncritical view of Carthy’s work, and is perhaps a little over-keen to use her Twitter as a source, she is confident enough to mix up the order in which she tells the story, and to devote some time looking to the future as well – Carthy is only 36, after all – in a slightly rambly, but nonetheless absorbing final chapter. An epilogue in which a variety of Carthy’s Facebook fans answer a questionnaire could be a tiresome exercise in the lavishing of praise, but instead serves to remind the reader of the varied, rather wonderful effect she has had on a wide range of music fans, from a “proud beard owner” to an “Eliza virgin”.

Good presentation and the inclusion of some lovely, previously unseen photographs are the icing on the cake. Wayward Daughter is a great read, and should inspire further interest in this singular, inspiring musician. Highly recommended.

Wayward Daughter: An Official Biography of Eliza Carthy by Sophie Parkes is out now, published by Soundcheck Books. You can buy it on Amazon.co.uk here, or plenty of other places, I’m sure.

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