Live Reviews

The Magpie Arc – Newhampton Arts Centre : Live Review

Pre-festival flourishes deftly applied in a rollick of a night.

With the band booked into a rash of festival appearances this summer, I guess some sense in keeping the chops honed, by slotting in a few warm ups around and about the country. This was the first, in the bijou surroundings of this Victorian arts centre in downtown Wolverhampton, previously a grammar school. A somewhat tortuous drive around the ring road got me there in one piece, if after the car park had filled. A decent sized room, tables and chairs scattered about the room, a stage at the front and a bar at the back. So far so good. By the lateish (billed) start of 8pm, a reasonable crowd had gelled, somewhat mature in demographic, ready for some good old fashioned folk-rock. None of yer post-folk, folktronica or neo-trad here, this was to be a night of meat and potatoes electric folk, led, from the back, by a thumping rhythm section.

If I’ve mentioned the engine room, let’s mention them again, they being Alex Hunter (Adam Holmes & the Embers) on bass and Tom A. Wright (Albion Band/Melrose Quartet/any number of other Simpson/Kerr associations) on drums. Wright also adds additional vocals and tinkers, as all modern folk drummers seem to do, with the programming of effects and additional sounds. At the front, stage right, Nancy Kerr on fiddle, guitar and pristine vocals. Stage left, Martin Simpson, more electric guitars than you have ever seen, at least in a folk setting, and his more gravelly nuance, leaving, stage centre, “new boy”, Findlay Napier, on rhythm guitars, electric and acoustic, and honeyed baritone.

Looking, it’s true, a little apprehensive, admitting it an age since they last played live together, their stage patter unrehearsed and, endearingly, overlapping, it was for Kerr to open proceedings with Canon. This, the first track on their first EP, all of three years ago, and was a good start for all to get their bearings, whether the band and their sound balance, or the audience and any preconceived expectations. Thankfully, well briefed, it seems nobody was expecting acoustic whimsy and/or any honouring of the tradition, the impact immediately up front and in your face. As in play loud! (But not too loud.) Despite the anxious on-stage glances between each other, all seemed good to these ears, Simpson showing, from the start, how equally accomplished he is with the electric instrument. Or when he was more “sensible”, to paraphrase a Mojo review, as he did himself, with glee, later on in the evening. The balance between Kerr’s vocal and the band was just about right, her fiddle arguably a bit low.

Next came All I Planted, the opener from the last November’s album, reviewed here, again with Kerr singing the way forward, over the pounding rhythms, leaving only the smallest of gaps for Simpson to twist off some exquisite peals of rippling guitar. Onward through What You Do With What You’ve Got, Wright now demonstrating how well his vocal slots in with Kerr’s. What, no Simpson? Worry not, hold your horses. Roll Your Stone follows, as the guitarist applies a bottle neck to the appropriate finger. My notes suggest this also saw him take the vocal, the song originally sung on record by erstwhile member, Adam Holmes. I like the croaky charm inherent in Simpson’s voice, and the one step behind delivery of the words, it good to see him both play and sing. Not quite a comfortable rock god yet, and yet to master throwing shapes or gurning, but give him time, first night on tour and all that. The sound, of course, is scorching. Kerr adds a cajun fiddle frenzy to this, not for the first time. More Kerr for Darling Charms, ahead the band’s cracking version of Townes Van Zandt’s Loretta. Napier’s warm Gaughan-esque burr is now the lead vocal and, you know, should the band ever forgo this folk malarkey, there’s a damn fine country band inside of them, awaiting a full escape. The first half closes with Long Gone segued into the joyful bombast of Gay Goshawk. Time for a breather.

This gave some opportunity to take a peek of Simpson’s rack of axes, to the side of the stage. The quite beautiful shiny black job, used whenever he wished to give an extra roundness to his soloing, turns out to be a Gretsch. It also turns out that the quiet bearded fella, tasked with guitar tech duties for the night, is no less than Louis Campbell, guitar wunderkind himself, player alongside the likes of Sam Sweeney, and later offered the onstage praise, by Simpson, as being the best guitarist in the country. A good tech, too, as, when Simpson picked up the wrong instrument, in the wrong tuning, mid set, as a song had already begun, he calmly and competently sorted the correct one, just in time for Simpson to rattle of a flurry of notes at just the right time, to Napier and Kerr’s relieved glances.

Looking a tad more relaxed, back they stride, opening the second half with the distinctly heavy Jack Frost, it hard to believe it originally a song by a capella vocal giants, The Watersons. Gloriously maudlin, Simpson intones the lyrics with painful intensity. Kerr, whose violin has just offered the full gypsy jazz, apologises for the generally wintry nature of much the material played here tonight. None needed, the audience were lapping it all up. A word here, for Hunter, whose fingers have been surreptitiously running up and down the neck of his instrument, fingering out clusters of notes to complement and compliment the playing elsewhere. Cutty Wren is just the job to follow, the traddiest song here, at least in presentation. Kerr really claims it as her own and the jangle about her is life-affirming. More country tropes for I Should Have Walked, before Simpson takes charge for Pans Of Biscuits, leading the room through this faux-spiritual, just the sort of song he excels at, plugged in or out. With wiggly fingers aloft in the air, Napier introduces the “last song”, Don’t Leave The Door Open. Described by Wright as their disco song, it gets a resounding start with juddery sounds released by the drummer, ahead his torrent of sticksmanship. Napier channels again the full Gaughan for his own song, and it is great way to end, Simpson employing once more that black Gretsch to good effect.

Not, of course, that they do stop, not even leaving the stage, accepting the applause gratefully, ahead into cranking up once more for Wassail, segued into a song described, by Kerr, as being a mix of all the three previous versions of it she has cut in the past, and, by Wright, as the proggiest number in their canon. And, sorry if you saw this coming, it was a blast and a terrific song with which to close an evening of some consolidation. Off to Sidmouth next, they told us, and the seaside town is going to love ’em!

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