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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1501

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Martin Simpson: Prodigal Son
by George Graham

(Compass Records 4466 WVIA-FM 10/17/2007)

The English folk scene has been the source of a distinctive guitar style going back to the 1960s. One of the pioneers was Davy Graham who influenced most of the major figures on the scene, including the Pentangle's Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, along with Martin Carthy, to some extent Richard Thompson, and later on people like Pierre Bensusan and more recently John Doyle.

The style has sometimes been called "folk-baroque" with its little ornamental turns and trills, and a sound that can sometimes evoke classical music. It often involves alternate guitar tunings that can give the music an almost medieval, modal texture.

Another figure who has been prominent on the scene for quite a few years now is Martin Simpson, whose new CD is called Prodigal Son.

Martin Simpson was born in Lincolnshire in England in 1953, and was influenced by his father's love of music and singing. He took up the guitar at age 12, and the banjo a year later. He became a professional musician in 1971, playing the folk club scene, and by 1976 released his first album. He was soon appearing with Steeleye Span, and by 1977 began a long association with the much acclaimed English folk songstress June Tabor.

But it was not just traditional British Isles music that influenced Simpson. Like John Renbourn and Richard Thompson, Simpson was also smitten by American blues and performers like Blind Willie McTell. He moved to the US in 1987 where he stayed for 15 years, recording a series of albums usually in collaboration with others, including Chinese lute players, the band Tarika Sammy from Madagascar, and bluesman Kelly Joe Phelps.

Returning to England, Simpson has made his new CD Prodigal Son live up to its title in a way, by getting back to a largely British-Isles traditional sound. And in a departure from his earlier recordings, which were largely or entirely instrumental, most of this CD features his vocals, which are nicely done and perfect for the style of music.

Simpson is joined by some notable figures in British Isles folk scene, bassist Danny Thompson, a founder of The Pentangle, along with Andy Cutting and Alistair Anderson on concertinas, plus notable backing vocalists from both sides of the Atlantic, Jackson Browne and current English folk sensation, Kate Rusby. Simpson continues to show his eclecticism with the use of instruments like a banjo and a Dobro-like resonator guitar played with bluesy slide technique. The material is a generous mix of the traditional, including some classic murder ballads, plus some creative reworkings of old tunes, and a handful of original instrumentals.

Simpson, as he is wont to do, uses a bunch of alternate guitar tunings, which he spells out in the CD booklet, where he also provides a listing of where he found the traditional songs he included. Simpson also admits to mixing influences and taking liberties with the traditional material -- that is, after all, how the folk music process works.

The CD opens with one of those adapted traditional songs, Batchelor's Hall, about losing a lover. He is joined by his small group of supporting musicians, including bassist Thompson and accordionist Cutting. <<>> Toward the end, Simpson mixes it up a bit with some subtle electric slide guitar. <<>>

The following track, Pretty Crowing Chicken, features Simpson on banjo, an instrument he uses several times throughout the CD. He uses Appalachian old-time technique while a cello and accordion give it a sound that evokes the other side of the Atlantic. <<>>

People get killed in at least five of the CD's fifteen tracks. In Lakes of Champlain, which Simpson explains exists as a song in both England and America under different names, at least the death appears to be accidental, with a young man drowning after taking a swim in treacherous waters. <<>>

A hare meets its demise in the song The Granemore Hare, a song about an English hunt, seemingly written from the quarry's standpoint. <<>>

One of the most attractive of the instrumentals on the CD is Mother Love originally done as an improvisation Simpson came up with upon seeing the interactions a between his wife and their young son. <<>>

A lot more violent is Little Musgrave, a kind of classic tale of adultery and murder among the supposedly chivalrous class. It's performed solo, and nicely done by Simpson to emphasize the story. <<>>

Also with plenty of blood and gore, is Duncan & Brady which obviuosly takes place on this side of the Atlantic. It's a story of gangsters and a corrupt cop who gets done in. <<>>

One of the original songs is an autobiographical piece called Never Any Good, which is about Simpson's father who was in his mid 50s when Martin was born. He said the song came about after a conversation Simpson had with his brother. Kate Rusby sits in doing the backing vocals. <<>>

There is one track that does seem slightly incongruous, though it works. It's Simpson's version of Randy Newman's classic Louisiana 1927, which Simpson said was inspired by the suffering following Hurricane Katrina. Jackson Browne is the backing vocalist. <<>>

Martin Simpson may not be quite as well-known as some of his compatriots on the English folk scene, but his new CD Prodigal Son reminds us of his talent as a remarkable guitarist, along with his musical eclecticism and versatility. He's also a pleasing vocalist, which was not as obvious on some of his previous recordings. He combines his musical experience and influences from both sides of the Atlantic, collaborates with some tasteful and subtle guest musicians, and also plays instruments like banjo and slide guitar which are normally not part of the this particular style. The result is one of the finest English folk CDs to come around this year on a scene which is still active after nearly 40 years.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The acoustic instruments are well captured, and there is admirable clarity and warmth to the sound. The dynamic range, how the recording treats the difference between loud and soft passages, is decent, if not outstanding. <<>>

Nearly four decades after the first albums in the English folk style appeared in the US, the genre remains active and strong, with continued occasional releases by about three generations of artists. Martin Simpson is one of the finest contemporary practitioners of the genre, and his new CD emphasizes the style while still showing his versatility.

(c) Copyright 2005 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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