Martin Simpson, June Tabor

imageMartin Simpson, June Tabor and Dick Gaughan, Kings Place, London, review
Three titans of modern folk – Martin Simpson, June Tabor and Dick Gaughan – on one stage makes for a memorable concert.

There was bound to be some banter. June Tabor had swept the boards at the BBC folk awards and come down to London the following evening (Thursday 9th February) to be part of Martin Simpson’s Purpose + Grace events at Kings Place.

“Last night June Tabor won 1800 folk awards,” said Simpson, introducing her.

“1797,” Tabor joked. It was only four.

The pair have collaborated for more than 35 years and they launched into an exquisite version of Richard Thompson’s haunting song Strange Affair. It could have been the same person singing and playing virtuoso finger-style guitar such was the musical synchronicity.

Simpson said when he was deciding how to make this series of Purpose + Grace events special, his wife Kit’s simple advice had been “invite your friends”. The first people at the top of his wish list to perform said ‘Yes’ and included Dick Gaughan. I’ve loved the Scottish singer’s music for more than 30 years and John Peel once wrote that “Dick Gaughan is one of the five or six great voices of our time.” Simpson’s praise was as fulsome. “He is one of the best singers there has ever been and one of the most committed men you will ever meet.”

Simpson backed him expertly on a lovely rendition of Ewan MacColl’s heartrending song Jamie Foyers. This was a night when top class performers took on great songs and conquered them.

Among the many highlights were Gaughan-Simpson – superbly backed by upright bass player Andy Seward – singing a version of the 1931 song Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?, as timeless as ever, alas. Tabor-Simpson takes on Lal Waterson’s The Scarecrow and the breezy folk classic Flash Company were also on the money.

Tabor said the key qualities of a song are that they make her think; cry; laugh – and that they have “graphic, strong storylines that unroll like a film”. This last strength was shown to its full with her moving version of Bill Caddick’s Cloud Song. It was also there in Simpson’s fine rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s song about the plight of Vietnam veterans called Brothers Under The Bridge.

An honourable mention too for Andy Cutting, whose magnificent accordion playing was sprinkled throughout the sell-out concert, especially on Simpson’s version of Leadbelly’s In The Pines.

Folkies can usually chatter, too, and Simpson told some amusing stories. He explained, with frank humour, the pitfalls of having a poncy rock music manager and joked about his almost OCD-like habit of tuning his guitars (they did seem to be misbehaving but the overall sound quality in the beautiful concert hall at Kings Place, one of London’s best modern venues, was splendid).

Simpson recalled the story of a young punk musician who spent ages before a concert at the Royal Albert Hall sitting on the edge of the stage and tuning his guitar. A cleaner on his way past stopped, lent on his mop, and said: “We had that John Williams in last week and he didn’t tune up like that.” “Well maybe he didn’t give a shit,” the punk rocker replied.

Late into the second half of the concert, Simpson, Tabor and Gaughan, three titans of modern British folk, did a medley, taking turns on vocals for three songs written during the American Civil War. It was memorable stuff and a privilege to hear.

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