A Famous Flower of Serving Men

16 Jun

Fifty or so tired, grey-bearded boomers and I got to see Martin Carthy play at the Upstairs Cellar Folk Club in Euston last weekend. Talk about classic fingerstyle! This man’s warm, percussive acoustic gtr playing never goes outta fashion in my book.

For those who don’t know or care, Martin has been the voice, guitar, & guiding spirit at the prow of the British folk revival for nearly 45 frickin’ years now. He’s laid down crucial recordings with STEELEYE SPAN (circa Please To See the King & Ten Man Mop), Ashley Hutching’s ALBION COUNTRY BAND (Battle of the Field), the glorious WATERSONS (For Pence and Spicy Ale), not to mention his mighty BRASS MONKEY. Inspiring collaborations with folks such as violinist Dave Swarbrick (FAIRPORT CONVENTION) and the great concertina player John Kirkpatrick (Richard Thompson’s band) are legion. And damn near all his solo recs – including recent work like Waiting For Angels from 2004 – never fail to make my spine shiver.

Stateside, a guy of this cultural importance – say, John Fahey or Pete Seeger – would not be playing to a less-than-capacity crowd of smelly old farts in a dingy multifunction room above an unassuming working men’s pub on a Camden backstreet. No, it’d be an event. And it wouldn’t be only the 60+ set that care to witness it all; there’d be some young dudes there too, I’m sure of it. Unlike how old blues or C&W is perceived by US hipsters, there’s something about Brit trad folk that invariably turns off the young ‘uns in England.

Yes most Brits can get down with the fey cluelessness of Vashti Bunyan. They can always oogle the alluring depressive episodes of Nick Drake. And they can even nod along with the spaced-out, pinwheel eyes of Syd Barrett. But when it comes to traditional folk music – you know, those really old songs that Uncle Henry used to weeze out on his accordion at Christmas time! – they balk. I’m guessing here, but I imagine it all hits too close to those things people here are still trying to break free from: uptight Victorian morality, post-war frugality, rigid class boundaries, etc.

Whatever, it only means they’re all missing out on some of the most awe-inspiring musical/literary turf left to explore in this country. No, Martin didn’t write it much of it – but he actively delves into it, interpreting, arranging and playing the fuck out of it so’s we don’t never forget it. And I ain’t forgetting this gig anytime soon.

Martin played “Geordie” with the kind of deep, passionate reverence on display here. He banged out “Willie’s Lady” with an alternating rhythm that slowed down during verses to ram home key words, and picked up speed during choruses to match the audience group sing-along. And he did a near-operatic take on “Famous Flower of Serving Men” with such heavy, dragging time I almost imagined a magical hind was somewhere in the room with us. Sure, he forgot the words to one song halfway through, which really wrankled him . . . but it made only his performance that much more endearing! All the rest of his words and his gtr playing glistened like shiny diamonds polished into sharp little teeth. The kinds of teeth all you heavy doomsters and serious punk rockers oughta be able to appreciate, too.

Martin Carthy – “Willie’s Lady” (from Crown of Horn, Topic Records, 1976)

Thanks to Galena Divan Eleven for the recent photo of Martin

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