This was the second time I’ve seen the folk legend in front of a bijou audience in Beverley. Legend is a word chronically overused these days, but it really does apply here; Carthy has been performing for more than 50 years and almost inexplicably seems to be getting better in his advancing years.
Quite simply, he plays the guitar like no-one you’ve ever seen. His picking style, mainly in the unusual tuning CGCDGA, ensures the guitar follows the song, rather than the other way around. It’s percussive, but the rhythm is often complex, mirroring the words and phrasing of the intricate ballads he sings in his imitable style. I’m no guitarist, but even I could tell his bottom two strings are deliberately left quite loose, with the occasional strong twang driving the song along.
The guitar always has the last word. Carthy is not one for crowd-pleasing chorus songs one after another, but when he did play one, I thought it was telling that, after the final refrain, he rounded off with another four bars of intricate guitar work.
But for all his finger-picking wizardry, it is almost easy to overlook his wonderful earthy, expressive voice, which is instantly recognisable. It hasn’t diminished with age, either; perhaps it’s a little huskier nowadays, but this adds to the richness. It draws you in, and compels you to listen.
His legendary status does allow him to get away with a few things mere mortals would not, though. Some find his incessant re-tuning a little off-putting, and bordering on obsessive, but to me that’s part of the intrigue. He can clearly hear things the audience can’t. Similarly, during an instrumental he is prone to the odd grunt and groan, which seems to be part lost-in-the-moment, part annoyance at the odd minute error no-one else has noticed. He slipped up on the words during Jacky Tar, and despite being over halfway through it, he insisted on starting again. I can’t think of many other singers who would have the balls to do that, especially during a long ballad; most would either abandon hope, or press on regardless, but this is Martin Carthy. He’s allowed. And his perfectionism pays off every time.
Towards the end of the night, Carthy raised the bar yet further with Bill Norrie, a fabulously dark ballad about a jealous husband who kills his wife’s suspected lover, only to find out he is her son. It contains the lines, “Husband he had a long knife, it hung down his knee / He took the head of young Billy and off his fair body. / And he’s run home and home there and down into his hall / Tossed Billy’s head to her, crying, ‘Lady catch the ball’.” Carthy re-tuned his top string for this one, and demonstrated an entirely different and utterly captivating technique using a plectrum instead of finger picks. It was just… wow.
Then he put his guitar down and did an astonishing a cappella version of Oor Hamlet, which pretty much brought the house down. Word-perfect, superb delivery, great humour. What can’t this guy do, I was beginning to wonder?
And true to form, for his encore, there was no more singing – Carthy’s guitar had the final say, with a brilliant rendition of Anton Karas’s theme from the Third Man, and it left everyone whistling and humming it all the way home.
This was a fantastic night, and it was great to see the club packed out again. I must give mention to the club regulars who provided the support, namely Sue, Pete, Hissyfit and Dave and Joan. It is these people who keep the club going week in, week out, and it would be fantastic to see even half the number of people who turned out to see Martin Carthy attend regular singers/musicians’ nights more often. Without them, there would be no Martin Carthy.