Sunday, November 22, 2009

Martin Carthy + The Owl Service

November 21st, 2009, Orange Street

This was another Twilight Folk event - put on by Jason from Canterbury Wholefoods, his most ambitious to date.

Naomy started things off singing a couple of unaccompanied songs - an Irish one about a sailor lad (you know the sort of thing), and a moving Martin Simpson song (about his father) called "Never Any Good with Money".

The Owl Service were a perfect choice to support Martin Carthy. They give their influences as "The folklore, myths and legends of the British Isles, the English folk revival, magick and the great outdoors. Martin Carthy, Peter Bellamy, Anne Briggs, Lal Waterson, Dolly Collins and the seminal British folk recordings of Topic and Trailer/Leader." (their blog also suggests they listen to a lot of doom metal!). I'd listened to them online and knew I'd like them, but still managed to be very pleasantly surprised. At first, it seemed that everything was miked/amplified wrong - the vocals seemed too far back, or something, but my ears adjusted, and it actually worked really well. Some of the songs sort of drifted into each other in a dreamlike way, and there was some amazing singing, particularly their rendition of "The Bold Poachers". Nancy Wallace, who's apparently got a solo career going on, played concertina, smiled radiantly and sang beautifully. We got a version of "Willie o' Winsboro" (exactly the same verses that Martha Tilston sang in Whitstable, less than a week earlier), a song based on Welsh mythology, which Naomy joined them for, and "Byker Hill".

The Owl Service, elsewhere - photo by Oliver Naudin
The Owl Service, elsewhere - photo by Oliver Naudin

They were clearly honoured to be supporting Martin Carthy, and seemed like exceptionally nice people. It seems that they're playing at some kind of annual wassailing event at a pub in Rochester on the 20th, and I intend to be there. The Owl Service had whatever it was I felt Espers were lacking when they recently played in Canterbury.

Mr. Carthy was on particularly good form. I've seen him half-a-dozen times (on his own, with Norma Waterson, with Eliza, with Swarbrick), and this was certainly the best of them. As usual, he spent a good proportion of the gig tuning up while rambling cheerfully about the origins of songs, and various tangential topics. He started with "John Barleycorn" (a good choice), and the set then went something like this (a good exercise from my recently acquire mnemonic tricks):
"Green Broom"
"The Doffing Mistress" (industrial folk!)
"The Cuckoo's Nest" (a tune Swarbrick recorded ages ago)
a mining song he learned from Geordie Hamilton
"My Son John" (an anti-war song, quite recent, as it mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan)
a Kentish song he learned from a Maidstone gypsy
an a capella version of "Don't Go In Them Lion's Cage, Tonight Mother" (very amusing - an old music hall song?)
"Long John"
"King Willy" (introduced as "Willy's Lady") - with an interesting guitar drone
another comical a capalla number, a hilarious Irish one set to the tune of "The Teetotallers Reel" about going to a funeral of someone who turned out to be still alive, going out celebrating, getting blind drunk, fighting, getting arrested, etc. - the lyrics are here.
We then got a long spiel about Köln railway station, a book of Orwell essays, Gandhi... I think this was leading inot he next song, which I didn't recognise - seemingly about human dignity (and not 'passive' resistance).
He encored with naggingly familiar tune - what was that tune? Something off children's TV? No one I asked could put their finger on it.

It occured to me that Martin Carthy's appeal is similar to that of John Peel. He's an extremely genuine, likeable person. There are the rambling tangential intros, etc. And when he starts a song in the wrong key or can't remember a line, the audience reacts much as Peel's would when he started a record at the wrong speed (i.e. feeling even more affection for him, rather than thinking he's being "unprofessional").


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