Martin Simpson @ Firth Hall
Some might wonder just how much passion, power, and electricity one man armed with an acoustic guitar can generate. The answer, if it’s Martin Simpson, is just as much and more than any teen-dreams armed with telecasters, overdriven Fender Princetons, skinny jeans, and skinnier attitudes. Martin’s show at Firth Hall had been showcased by ourselves as a sort of homecoming – the last gig of another busy year, on home turf, and for a home crowd. But there was little sense of Martin preaching to the choir; this was no comfortable canter through the classics of an astonishingly varied career. With Andy Bell providing superlative sound, and with a new album in development, Martin went out on a limb with his choices of instrumentation and material in the austere but somehow fitting venue of the hall. The musicianship remains as impeccable as ever, but virtuosity on its own is never enough – as countless fleet-fingered guitarists have found to their cost. The music Martin plays requires engagement, intimacy, delivery, and conviction if it is to connect – and it is a tribute to the man’s skill and warmth, as well as his sense of nuance, timing, and interpretation that the confines of the hall shrank and the distance between the man on the stage and the audience vanished. ‘Palaces of Gold’, Leon Rosselson’s song about Aberfan, and one introduced by Martin as one that he wished he ‘didn’t have to sing’ had the man next to me murmuring astonishment that such rich full sounds and powerful sentiments could be coaxed from a simple box of wood and wire and a singing voice. ‘Never Any Good’, Martin’s clear-eyed encomium to his late father, had my companion muttering that he really needed to call his own dad soon. From down-and-dirty gutbucket slide narrative poems to simple and honest expressions of faith and hope, Martin ran the gamut of human emotion, frailty, and achievement, taking the audience with him on every journey. I’ve heard folk music described as being like jazz – middle-class music for those with the time and money to appreciate it. It might not be the expressive medium of choice for the urban or rural poor anymore. But that doesn’t mean it can’t still speak clearly and incisively in the modern age. While Martin Simpson continues to play, it will continue to do so. If you have already seen him live, you already know this. If you haven’t, make an appointment with him next time he’s passing through your town.