Live Music + Gig Reviews

Martin & Eliza Carthy @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

6 June 2014

Martin & Eliza Carthy The Carthy-Waterson clan have dominated English folk music for half a century or more, a dynasty that in its own quiet, amiable way has become the scene’s equivalent of the Bushes and Kennedys of American politics. An acknowledged influence on the young Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, Martin Carthy rivals Bert Jansch as the most important British folk performer of the 1960s, while his daughter Eliza Carthy has been integral to the revival of the genre over the past two decades after the wilderness of the 1980s, with two Mercury nominations to her name.

With the combination of their individual achievements and family collection, the news of a new album and live tour by Carthy senior and junior has understandably been heralded as a major event. Although the father and daughter have collaborated regularly over the years, The Moral Of The Elephant is their first record as a duo and has been enthusiastically received. So why then was this concert something of a disappointment?

The answer is that eventually, through the inexorable passage of time, legends become old. At 73 years of age, Martin Carthy’s voice remains a yearningly powerful instrument, and his unorthodox guitar playing retains its dextrous and elegant qualities. But on at least four or five occasions at a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall, the elder statesman of British folk forgot his words and was forced to start the song again, gently shepherded by an impeccably poised Eliza.

With her energetic foot stomping, exuberant but tender fiddle playing and wonderfully pure, expressive voice, the younger Carthy was unquestionably the focal point of the performance. As a result, the impression was very much of one artist still at the peak of her powers carrying another who is entering the twilight of his career.

The first half of the concert also featured sitar player Sheema Mukherjee, a veteran of the Transglobal Underground and The Imagined Village folk super group project, which gave the early songs a world music flavour at odds with the Carthy’s homespun, quintessentially British image. Eliza’s flawlessly beautiful rendition of the late, great Nick Drake’s mother Molly’s 1950s composition Happiness was an undoubted high point, although the subsequent poetry reading by another Drake, Nick’s sister Gabrielle, was heartfelt but rather trite.

After an interval, it was all about the principals and the songs from The Moral Of The Elephant took centre stage (as indeed did some toy elephants generously donated by audience members, prompting some amusing ‘selfie’ action from Eliza). The epic juxtaposition of Grand Conversation on Napoleon, a north-east song dating back to the days when Bonaparte’s shadow loomed over Europe, and The Elephant, adapted from a philosophical John Godfrey Saxe poem about the necessity of always seeing the big picture, was perhaps the best example of the Carthys working effectively in tandem, with Martin showing that his ability to imaginatively adapt traditional material still endures.

The Queen Of Hearts, a much loved number from Martin’s first solo album back in 1965, also makes a welcome appearance and sounds as sinister and spectral as ever, with Eliza’s ghostly harmonies adding an extra, The Unthanks-like dimension.

The concert was over relatively sharply, with just one brief encore leaving the crowd wanting more. Although polished and amiable throughout, there was a strange timidity about the Carthys’ performance, an unwillingness to really cut loose, which can perhaps be attributed to Martin’s evident limitations at this advanced stage in his career. Nevertheless, the intuitive ability of this remarkable family to bring the historic songs of these islands to a modern audience means that even with flaws, there was still much to admire and enjoy in the music they played.

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