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Martin Simpson, The Green Note, London, February 4th 2010

February 5, 2010

If you want to stir up controversy among folkies, just mention the name ‘Martin Simpson’. Some British folkies peculiarly resent his spending 15 years in the States, while others see his use of ragtime, blues and jazz as lacking that tedious folk authenticity they crave. He’s not easy to pigeonhole, which confuses some people – and as The Suit pointed out, his publicity material includes the quote ‘Widely acknowledged as one of the finest acoustic guitar players in the world’, next to this photo of him…

Then there’s his personality. Two out of the five of us who went along to see him at the cosy veggie cafe the Green Note said they ‘don’t even like him’. I’ve never used that as a criterion for enjoying an artist’s music: so Neil Young is reputed to be ruthless and to drop people when he moves on to something new? I don’t really care…

Martin doesn’t come across as a likeable performer, which is not to say he isn’t courteous, chatty and frequently funny. He just doesn’t do the gushing stuff. I notice that he Twittered this just two hours before the gig: ‘In my usual pre-performance state of turning my give-a-shitter down to manageable levels.’ Which is pretty funny.

For my part, as soon as he starts playing – hell, as soon as he starts tuning up – I forget my reservations about him and feel utterly caught up in the highly emotional nature of his playing. Yes, it’s hugely proficient, but he’s not a tedious pro showing off his chops (unlike acoustic guitarists such as Martin Joseph and Adrian Legg, who leave me cold) – he’s a performer who imbues his songs with real passion.

The evening kicked off with two of my favourites – Home Again, an autobiographical number from his recent album True Stories, and Louisiana 1927, his wonderful take on Randy Newman’s classic song, made more potent by Martin’s own years spent in New Orleans and the fate of that city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, it’s so good, let’s take a quick break from my yakking and enjoy this video:

The second half of the show included his fine version of Sir Patrick Spens, which earlier this week won the award for Best Traditional Track at the prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. So Martin can do ‘authentic’ when he wishes, although he also does a fine line in cover versions, including Dylan’s Boots Of Spanish Leather and the ‘atheist spiritual’ Come Down, Jehovah by Chris Wood, who’s another unlikeable folkie whose music I like.

His own highly personal song Never Any Good, about his father, is beautiful, funny and touching. It was the highlight of a tremendous show. Go and see Martin if he’s on a stage near you.

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