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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
MARTIN SIMPSON
Union Chapel, Islington, London, November 13th 2007
This is my first visit to the Union Chapel, which sits in distinguished company in this little Highbury Corner of North London: the Hope and Anchor (home of Pub Rock and a leading Punk venue in the seventies) is just across the road, and a bit further down is the Garage, a Mean Fiddler venue currently being refurbished. And right by the Highbury and Islington tube is the very busy ‘indie’ Buffalo Bar underneath the Famous Cock Tavern. The chapel was built in 1877 and sits in an elegant terrace of houses set back from Islington’s Upper Street. Designed by leading Nonconformist architect James Cubitt (author of the famous Church Designs for Congregations (London, 1870)) it is widely regarded as “a magnificent example of Victorian Gothic architecture and displays many features which were at the cutting edge of technological advance in their day”. Union CHapel
The building fell into dereliction in the 1960s and 1970s but since the late 80s, successful campaigns have been mounted to restore the building (an on-going process) and bring it back to full use as a place of worship, as a centre for the homeless, and as a performance venue. Which is why we’re here tonight enjoying excellent acoustics and perfect sight-lines to the imposing pulpit, in front of which stands singer and guitarist Martin Simpson.
Martin Spimpson
It’s not exactly a full house, but fortunately the audience are joined by a film crew of about fifteen souls which makes the place seem pretty busy. They’re all over the place, and characteristically disruptive for the audience, but I guess that’s the price we pay for getting a gig in such sensational surroundings. Simpson, if you don’t know, is the British folk musician of the moment, which is not bad going seeing that he recorded his first solo album over thirty years ago. His most recent album, Prodigal Son, has received an enthusiastic reception in all quarters, flew into the Indie top twenty charts and has resulted in five nominations for Simpson in the annual BBC Folk Music Awards. And he’s scheduled for an appearance on the last Jools Holland ‘Later with Jools’ show of the year on the TV, which, believe me, means that in UK terms, he’s hot property. And quite rightly too. The album is exceptional; largely due to Simpson’s performance, but also to his arrangements of a variety of British and American traditional tunes and some striking original compositions.
Needless to say, we get the majority of these songs in the course of the evening, which is neatly divided into a solo set, and then (after drinks in the bar – yes a church with a bar, Serge!) a group performance with Andy Seward on bass, Andy Cutting on a wonderful old accordion, and Kellie While on vocals. Behind us there are a gang of boys down from Yorkshire who are in a state of other-worldly spiritual ecstasy, provoked by Mr Simpson’s guitar playing. Now – I guess if someone’s lashed out lots of quids on a big film production unit then you’ve got to be careful not to make too many mistakes – but honestly Simpson’s playing goes way beyond this. He favours a number of open tunings which allow him to focus on a quite unique finger style. It’s a sort of step on from Martin Carthy, with a lot of Bert Jansch’s bent notes – some quite exaggerated – and occasional touches of Richard Thompson – well really only when he plays Thompson’s ‘Strange Affair’. Actually, thinking of all these influences, and his tendency to play blues songs and sing with a strong American accent (he didn’t get that in Lincolnshire, but might have picked it up from living in the United States for many years) I have to admit that I have sometimes thought of Mr Simpson as a sort of superior folk-club singer (not, I hasten to say, that I have anything against folk clubs, or folk club singers), slipping through genres with a imitative ease. But really when you listen to him play, or look at the material on Prodigal Son, you have to confess that he has a very complete voice and style of his own.
Anyway – back to the ecstatic boys. Do you remember the famous Ravi Shankar moment during George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh? Shankar picked up his sitar and started playing, only to receive a (frankly patronising) ovation from his audience. 'If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you will like the playing more' he chided them. It’s a bit like that with Simpson – every time he checks his tunings he does so with bewildering fret board intensive routines which simply leave everyone gasping.
Harrison Shankar
George Harrison and Ravi Shankar
His singing isn’t bad either, particularly on tunes like Musgrave (“One day I remembered Nic Jones’ recorded version on his first album Ballads and Songs. I didn’t go back and listen, I just started to play”), Bachelor’s Hall, and the wonderful Andrew Lammie, a ballad collected in the nineteenth century that recounts a particularly brutal honour killing. He turns in a very acceptable version of Randy Newman’s ‘Louisiana’ and sings his own song about his father, ‘Never any good’, quite beautifully. It might be just a tad Radio 2, but it certainly hits the spot.
Martin Simpson Yes, apart from the wretchedly intrusive film crew (let’s hope we don’t see them on the DVD too!) and the cold (chilly places churches) there’s really nothing to fault the performance - au contraire, as one might say. And if you buy Mr Simpson’s CD, or go and see him play, and are as enamoured of his guitar playing as we were, then you may like to know that his website is not only full of generous tips on how he does it, but you can also spend a week with him in a guitar workshop – in France! Are you going Serge? - Nick Morgan
(photographs by Kate, Rex Features)
Kate's Martin Simpson photo album



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