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.
Knaresborough Frazer Theatre, Saturday October 25.
Originally published in the Harrogate Advertiser / Knaresborough Post.
Internationally successful chart-toppers aren’t exactly queuing up to perform in Knaresborough, to put it mildly. But although it’s a long way from Madison Square Garden and Live Aid to the 130-capacity Frazer Theatre, Kiki Dee and her long-standing musical partner Carmelo Luggeri have grown fond of the venue; by their reckoning, this is their third visit. “There’s a warm atmosphere here, isn’t there?”, Kiki remarks. “That’s because we can’t turn the heating off!”, someone calls back.
At this stage in her career, with over fifty years in the business behind her, Kiki could be playing it safe on the concert hall circuit: all the hits as we remember them, safe cover versions, maybe a Classic Love Songs collection or two, surrendering artistic evolution for “heritage act” comfort. But that’s just not her style.
Instead, over the course of two sets that span a full three hours, Kiki and Carmelo take us on an “acoustic journey”, twisting old favourites into startling new shapes, and showcasing an undimmed talent for thoughtful songcraft and musical invention.
Of the old favourites, none is twisted further than Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. No longer the playfully light-hearted duet of old, it re-emerges, with subtly altered lyrics and melody, as a pleading, touching torch song. This adventurous approach infects the covers, too. Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill becomes an episodic epic, climaxing with a stunning guitar coda from Carmelo, whose multi-layered, echo-drenched arrangement brings John Martyn to mind.
As for the newer material, drawn from the duo’s three studio albums, influences range from Indian raga drones to swampy bottleneck blues. While Carmelo dazzles on his fretboard and effects pedals, Kiki adds ambient keyboard textures, fleshing out the sound. Amen and Goodbye, a song about rejecting false prophets, segues into She’s Smiling Now, which describes the fulfilment and freedom that Kiki’s mother discovered in her later years.
A couple of weeks ago, the duo were surprised to find Robert Plant in their audience. After the show, they discussed the difficulties faced by older artists who still strive to push forwards with their music. (“In America, Led Zeppelin tribute acts get bigger crowds than I do”, Robert confessed.) On the evidence of this bold, spellbinding and warmly received show, it’s clear that Kiki and Carmelo have chosen the right path. They can come back as often as they like.