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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


Pickin’ My Brains Out

23 Jan

Banjo Boy

I’m ruminating on the BANJO this eve. It’s got a real nice sound, the BANJO does: brittle, metallic, hollow-toned and bone dry. Dry like the way my skin usedta feel after spending too much time playing basketball under the hot SoCal sun, in the face of them nasty Santa Ana winds. You know: face feels tight as a drum, and when you smile, lips crack and ooze a bead of blood. Yep, the BANJO sound has a dry, cracked, blood oozing sound.

BANJOS have always been on the periphery of my vision. One of my first memories is of my dad’s BANJO – one of them 4-string, tenor types – rusting out in our garage. Never heard him play it, but it got me pondering what it might sound like, in the right hands. As a little kid, watching cornball Hee Haw TV reruns – ol’ Roy Clark was always front and center, soloing madly on his trusty BANJO. Yeah all his pickin’ & grinnin’ always got me jumpin’ and stompin’ like a little freakazoid. And of course, there were those adolescent, post-soccer victory lunches at the local Shakey’s Pizza Parlour: sharing a pitcher of A&W rootbeer with shin-guarded pals and oogling the guy dressed in cheap, faux-Victorian barrelhouse get-up, as he clawed out Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” on an out-of-tune BANJO in time with a player-piano. Ya see, I just couldn’t shake the BANJO if I tried.

The following fine tunes are only a tiny sampling of the 1000 or so BANJO tunes you just gotta hear before they lay you to rest down in the churchyard. Feel free to point out your own favorites. I’d love to hear em, especially the way I’m feeling tonight.

OBRAY RAMSAY – “Cold Rain and Snow” (from The Music Never Stopped: The Roots of the Grateful Dead CD on Shanachie Records, 1995): An early 60’s classic from the mountains of North Carolina, some of ya’ll will know this from the myriad of versions THE GRATEFUL DEAD waxed throughout their long career. Obray’s high lonesome croon and 3-finger picking crawls down my collar toward my heart like it must’ve to Jerry Garcia’s once, all them years ago.

CLIVE PALMER & BOB DEVEREUX – “D Tune” (from the Suns & Moons LP on Rainyday Records, 1978) Clive’s best known for his involvement with the INCREDIBLE STRING BAND and the great CLIVE’S ORIGINAL BAND, but he’s done a slew of other worthy banjo recordings which explore the edwardian popular songbook in that intentionally stiff, proper English style of his. Here he offers up a more fluid, circular mode of melodic playing that, when I listen closely, makes the floral-print wallpaper turn into spinning pinwheels before my very eyes.

STEELEYE SPAN – “Blackleg Miner” (from the Hark! The Village Wait LP on Chrysalis Records, 1970) One of the first I ever heard by these Brits, and still among my most favorite. That’s Terry Woods on 5-string banjo – he’d go on to play in THE WOODS BAND and, a decade later, the freakin’ POGUES. What a perfect instrument to ram home the no-retreat union miner strike message laid out here. God I love them harsh downstrokes he punctuates the twangin’ riff with throughout.

JIM KWESKIN – “Blue Skies” (from the Jim Kweskin Lives Again LP on Mountain Road Records, 1978) This old Irving Berlin chestnut never sounded so bittersweet. Recorded around the time of Mel Lyman’s death (following years of protracted sickness), I read this as Jim’s packet of good tidings to his old harmonica player, well-loved friend, and almighty figurehead of the cult to which he belonged. Though I could be wrong. Gonna post long ‘n’ hard about this Kweskin guy, as soon as I can find my kazoo.

Pig State Unplugged

17 Jan

Beneath my other life/façade, I spend a heck of a lot of time listening to both British and American FOLK MUSICS. Yes, the scrapings of strings, the wheezings of squeezeboxes, and the howling of love/death letter poems from Sussex to the Mississippi Delta, from Co. Clare to the Appalachians, and then back again. It’s both the artistic heritage of our common people and the collective musical fart of our senile forefathers, and boy it sure sounds/smells good to these ears/nostrils. Expect me to elaborate and pontificate loudly about it all on this here blog throughout 2008. But for now, I’ll direct you toward a few recent YouTube clips that sum it up better than I can right this minute. Do meet

MARTIN CARTHY. This guy is the living, breathing embodiment of the entire Brit-folk revival. The man has dedicated his life toward giving flesh and blood life to the words running up and down the Jungian backbone of so, so many archetypal folk songs. Plus: he spent some real quality time blastin’ eardrums in England’s longest-running electric folk trip of them all, STEELEYE SPAN. I was all set to see Martin play solo recently at the Cecil Sharp House in North London (what better setting?), but work called and I ended up spending the eve on an acute psychiatric ward instead. Sigh.

TONY HALL. Screw all them Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood paintings in London’s National Gallery, it’s Tony whose the real fuckin’ British national treasure. His instrument of choice is the melodeon, and his playing exemplifies the kind of beautifully rough-hewn trad style thay first drew me to this music – and the kind of playing that’s sadly overlooked by so many of today’s hipster “free folk” musicians. His classic Fieldvole Music LP was reissued on CD by the amazing Free Reed label (more on them later) last year, but as you can see Tony’s still alive and well, and still clickin’ and clackin’ with the best of em.

SPOT/ALBERT. Since there ain’t no CHARLIE PATTON on YouTube, it’s SPOT who’s stealing the mixed-race spotlight tonight. Any reader of my blog knows SPOT more for his plug-in-and-off-ya-go SST productions from the first half of the 80’s. But he’s also a real talented player of most any instrument that straps vibrating strings over a hollow body of wood. SPOT/ALBERT is his latest duo, pairing this mulatto wonder with Cuban-American bodhrán player Albert Alfonso. They usually play Celtic music but tonight they’re feeding the maniacal audience with a little taste of TX blues. Can’t wait for their latest CD to go public.