Newhampton Arts Centre, Wolverhampton
For all of those who have been searching for that elusive and definitive answer to the great question in life - what is folk music? Martin Simpson can put you out of your misery. According to him, folk music is any music accompanied by a raffle, which was just one of his many musings in between showing his absolute mastery of guitar and banjo.
|Folk legend Martin Simpson
Sometimes you are never quite sure whether he is tuning up or sliding gracefully into one of his songs but it doesn't really matter because both are worth listening to.
He opened with The Pines - a spine-melting slide guitar number which segued into Hold On, a soft ballad written by Tom Waits.
You get the full package with Simpson. Not only do you have the fantastic, precise and perfectly executed songs but you also get the background, inspirations to the songs and the experiences of Simpson which are behind them.
The 15 years he spent living, working and exploring the US had a massive influence on him and of course allowed him to pick up some incredible tunes which he either interprets, using his own distinctive style, or he plays them as they were created, as his is wont.
Delta Dreams from his most recent album Vagrant Stanzas opened with Simpson showing why he's a virtuoso on the guitar before rolling into the face-paced lyrics outlining some of his time in the States, specifically cruising in Mississippi in a '57 Chevy.
He followed this with another from the album Jackie & Murphy, which he wrote after being asked to do so by June Tabor.
The poignant narrative is about an unsung hero in World War One who saved hundreds of lives on the battlefields of Gallipoli using a steely nerve and a donkey.
Only because of bureaucracy the donkey ended up earning the Dickin Medal and the soldier, who guided it into the hell of the battlefield, was never officially acknowledged.
It's very rare Bob Dylan's work doesn't crop up somewhere and as Simpson is a big admirer of the legend it was hardly surprising here. So after a potted history of the song he produced a wonderful version of Blind Willie McTell, with his intricate finger picking filling out the song right from the beginning.
|Jackie and Murphy
Using his incredible blues skill he produced a really laid back version of Heartbreak Hotel with his finger slide making his acoustic guitar wail like it was made of platinum.
Simpson opened his second half with a party political broadcast sticking four fingers up to the Tories, following on from Newhampton Arts Centre manager Christine McGowan's plea for support for the site which is having its council funding cut.
This out of the way, Simpson continued showing his guitar prowess with two gentle instrumentals, the first of which was a traditional English rendition, Come Write Me Down, followed by his own composition, Molly As She Swings- inspired by his daughter.
He pulled out another from his Vagrant album, The Stranger Song which is a slightly dour ballad which suits Simpson's the melancholic way of singing he sometimes employs.
Simpson lifted the tempo for Dear Boy which was inspired by a theatrical gentleman of the Deep South whom he encountered while living in New Orleans, and is a lovely biographical song about Henry and the love of his life into which Simpson throws a great honky tonk ending.
There is no two ways about it, whether he is singing or playing guitar Simpson shows an expertise which can only be gained from putting your time in. The very fact he makes it look so easy and natural is testament to his skill and determination. Although it seemed, on this occasion at least, he is feeling the strain as on a couple of tracks he seemed to be trying to loosen up his fingers almost like he was trying to stave off cramp.
One tune he played was a lament for the loss of the demonised Napoleon of history which, you may be surprised to know, is one of many in the English folk tradition.
|Simpson's guitar playing is incredible
With a real jump he went back to the 17th century with Wally Wally (Lord Jamie Douglas) opening again with the gorgeous slide guitar sound which he does so expertly.
It's a fractured song but it's also one of those you can either just sit back and let the languorous sound of the slide wash over you or you can indulge in the narrative or take the third option and enjoy them both as a whole.
Simpson then did what a lot of people were waiting for him to do and pull out his banjo.
He produced the gorgeous sound of Diamond Joe, from his Vagrant album, which is without doubt one of the best tracks on the CD and the incredible thing is that listening to him in the confines of the studio at the centre there was little discernible difference between the live version and the album track.
If you are one of these people who is baffled as to why a wonderful instrument such as the banjo is so maligned then in listening to someone such as Martin Simpson you realise how wrong those people who look down on it are.
Towards the end of the set he pulled out what was essentially a rant in Three Day Millionaire which led into Don't Put Your Banjo In The Shed Mr Waterson from his 2011 album Purpose + Grace.
For his encore he stayed with the instrument for the appropriately named Banjo Bill.
The wonderful thing about Simpson is that whether he is relating a story, playing an instrument or singing a song he is always worth listening to.
The next time you can catch him in the Midlands is with two dates at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival where his will be playing solo on Sunday August 24 and as part of The Full English the following day.