MARTIN CARTHY & DAVE SWARBRICK
Roots Unearthed, Lefel 3 Lounge, St David’s Hall, Cardiff: September 1, 2015
The Prince Of Folk and The Demon Fiddler utterly mesmerised a delighted Roots Unearthed audience with a banquet of jaw-dropping airs, tunes, wonderful ballads and hypnotic songs which seemed to jump out and seize the packed rows by the imagination and their very souls. Carthy and Swarb played a riveting concert which lasted just a tad under three hours, but nobody noticed; the time seemed to melt away. These master musicians deserve total respect, awe and love; their ages add up to an amazing 148 years, years which have finely honed and strengthened their vast experience, virtuosity and a lifelong fascination and study for traditional music.
They opened the concert with two well-known and well-loved folk songs, ‘Sovay’ and ‘The Death Of Queen Jane’. Martin told the audience that he used to delete the old songs from his ever-expanding performance, but recently he took it upon himself to revisit his repertoire. Their inspiring inventiveness was astounding; the two songs, and ‘John Barleycorn’, ‘Brave Admiral Cole’, ‘High Germany’ and traveller Wiggy Smith’s version of ‘The Deserter’, were given a fantastic restoration as Carthy and Swarb explored and perfected new guitar chords and brilliant fiddle arrangements. Swarb, in a wheelchair following a toe fracture and other foot problems, held the audience’s attention with his dry mischievous backchat, embellished by many stories; he told with glee of his Fairport Convention touring days, and how an American business conference was startled to see a stark-naked Swarbrick holding a massive unlit joint, enquiring if anybody had a match. Introducing a self-composed air describing the most northerly Shetland island of Unst, he said: “I’ve had all me teeth out, but I can still say it – Unst… Unst!” The prolific writer of many tunes, he called one melody ‘New South Wales’: “The most beautiful scenery in all Australia. I was very sad to leave it – but that’s deportation for you…”
Despite their strong reputation as gurus of the tradition, Carthy and Swarbrick are busy reshaping the proud, ancient songs and writing new tunes; Martin, in particular, recontextualised the Napoleonic broadside ‘My Son John’ into a new song commenting on the Afghanistan conflict. His unique percussive minimal style is a source of wonder and a textbook bible for all aspiring guitarists. Swarb has abandoned that wild, ululating violin trademark, but he is still truly amazing on the fiddle. Long may they reign…