Martin Carthy – Frazer Theatre Knaresborough, Friday August 14 2015
Originally published in the Harrogate Advertiser/Knaresborough Post.
He might be one of British folk music’s most pivotal and best-loved figures – garlanded with an MBE and a Lifetime Achievement Award, his early influence on Bob Dylan and Paul Simon a matter of record – but at the age of 74, Martin Carthy wears his achievements lightly. In best troubadour tradition, he strolls up Kirkgate into Knaresborough town, guitars and suitcase in hand, ready to open this year’s FEVA festival with a solo show at the Frazer Theatre.
With no starry stage persona to project, and no signature songs to present for the umpteenth time, he opens with High Germany, the first track on his recently re-released 1965 debut album. Dating from the eighteenth century, it’s the first of several selections that deal with themes of war.
Ahead of each song, while he sets his guitar to a different tuning, we are given the context. The Doffing Mistress tells the tale of a group of mill girls who go on strike to support their sacked supervisor, one Elsie Thompson. While her charges have been bent double by their labours, Elsie can still stand up straight, hanging her coat on “the highest pin”.
The more we are told, the more meaning we can extract. For Carthy, this is a prime duty: the songs are what matter, and he is not here to distract us with showy dexterity or pretty frills. The playing is raw, unadorned, but full of character, invention and deft tricks of timing. He might forget a line here and there, shrugging off the blunder with an easy grin, but the picking never falters.
There are unorthodox tunings – he’s known for them – which twist new colours from his guitar. By keeping the bottom string tuned low, Carthy supplies his own bass section. On The Downfall Of Paris (“or The Downfall Of Pears, as it’s known in Dorset”), the effect is thrilling.
Some songs are as dark as any Nick Cave murder ballad. A jealous husband cross-dresses to trick his wife’s presumed lover, decapitates him, then learns too late that he is her secret bastard son. A battered wife stitches her sleeping husband into his bedclothes, then whacks him with a frying pan. Whoever said that folk music was twee?
He ends after two and a half spellbinding hours, with an acapella re-telling of Hamlet (“If you thought that was boring, you should read the bloody play!”) and a playfully creepy Harry Lime Theme. The cheers are hearty, sustained, and richly deserved.