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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan
Jane Seymour
Edward and his mother Jane Seymour

The Half Moon, Putney, London, September 30th 2007

“Swarb and I don’t really do fun” said Martin Carthy, as he acknowledged the reception to the opening song of the night (as I recall) ‘Death and the lady’, a maudlin tale of a woman’s unfortunate meeting with Death on the road (whilst she walked out “one morn in May”). Needless to say despite all her entreaties and best efforts she was unable to escape his icy grasp. If you have the 1971 reprint of the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A A Lloyd, you’ll find this tune on page 31. On page 32 is the equally harrowing ‘The death of Queen Jane’, based on the true history of Queen Jane Seymour, wife of Henry VIII, who died shortly after giving birth to her son Edward (who at the age of 9 became King, but himself died only six years later). The song recounts her agonising confinement, and her pleas for a Tudor caesarean section – “do open my right side and find my baby”.It’s the second song of the night, but the first on Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick's 2006 album, Straws in the Wind, which features nine songs from the Penguin collection, along with a number of tunes old and new.
It is very, very, good, and probably one of the reasons why they were voted ‘Best Folk Duo’ by the BBC earlier this year. The other reason for such an accolade is the sort of performance they turned in tonight, almost perfect, in a room as silent as a Meeting House on a solemn Sunday night. Actually it’s the back room of the Half Moon – which post smoking ban has had something of a face lift. You need sunglasses to go into the urinals these days.
Not that there isn’t any fun – Carthy has a dry understated humour, and Swarbrick, survivor of a double lung transplant in 2004, is at his impish best; literally a fiddler calling the tunes. “I got this tune from the Customs Officer at Unst” said Swarbrick, as he introduced ‘The Brides March from Unst’. “What did he get from you?” asked a wag in the audience. “I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that. Anyway, he was a very nice Customs man, but I still missed the whole gig. Those were the days…” His playing is sensitive and restrained (it’s nice to hear him when he’s not competing at full volume with Richard Thompson), a perfect foil to Carthy’s voice – no better than on ‘The treadmill song’ (‘The Gaol Song’ in the Penguin collection) which opened the second set and perfect captured the dull and hopeless monotony of a repetitive prison life.
Carthy Sawrbrick Carthy’s voice is wonderfully expressive, without a hint of exaggeration or contrivance, and his percussive guitar playing almost hypnotic. His open string tuning gives a sort of drone effect to most of the songs (enhanced by Swarbrick’s fiddle) and his simple but very concise finger-style picks out melodies with precision.
“When I'm playing a traditional song” he said in an interview, “I love to keep it absolutely bog-simple - simple as possible and just drive the narrative on as hard as I can”. Quite right too. And the narrative in many of these old songs is timeless and compelling. Take Sir Patrick Spens, for example, the fateful tale of the attempt to bring Margaret, the Maid of Norway, to Scotland in 1290, and Spen’s battle with the ocean in the face of a deadly storm. Played to Nic Jones’ famous arrangement it’s a driving story of mariners in peril, as gripping as any George Clooney film.
Martin Carthy - Dave Swarbrick and friend (from Whiskyfun crew)
And the sea provides some of the finest song of the evening, and of the album. There’s ‘The Ship in Distress’, a tale of attempted cannibalism at sea, ‘Bold Benjamin’, recounting a disastrous expedition to Spain, ‘The whalecatchers’ , which graphically captures the conditions endured at sea by the Whale fleets in Greenland - “our finger tips were frozen off, and likewise our toe-nails’ - and ‘The Royal Oak’, a stirring tale of a lone English ship surrounded by ten hostile vessels (“Pull down your colours you English dogs, or else your precious life you’ll lose”) and winning the subsequent encounter against all odds. And that Serge, is where I’ll leave this most excellent evening, with that thought of a hapless and outnumbered group of English warriors (“true Englishmen all-oh”), fighting their way to a bold and bloody Victory against the auld enemy, and against all the odds. Let’s see shall we ….
- Nick Morgan (Concert photographs by Kate except one. Err, two).
Kate's Martin Carthy photo album

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