Colston Hall, Bristol
And then there are evenings which you can't even try to review: evenings when the singer -- and, come to that, the audience -- are "in the zone"; when nothing could possibly be better. Evenings which you just don't want to end. The environment had a good deal to do with it, I think: since I was last there, Colston Hall has spruced up the minimal Hall 2. It's still a small room, where you're up close to the singer (and bring your drinks in from the bar) but it's got a proper stage and proper lighting and people sit in rows and listen to the singer. In silence. You don't sing along at a Martin Simpson gig; that would be a kind of sacrilege.
I've sometimes felt he's the kind of performer who improves as he goes along, as if it takes him a few songs to get into the groove. Or maybe it takes me a song or two to get attuned to his musical style; or just that he tends to start with a couple of his Nworelans songs which don't speak to me in the quite the way the English ones do. (He recommends the Princess and the Frog, by the way.) But a few songs in, and I'm with him all the way. A lot of it's the usual Martin Simpson set-list: he has a formidable list of songs that the audience would be dispointed if he didn't play. He finishes the first set with "Never Any Good", of course, and I swear I've never heard him do it better: the left-turn in the final stanza hits me in the gut as if I hadn't heard it fifty times before; he opens the second set with "Come Down Jehovah" and I still maintain he does it better than Chris Wood himself. He does the unbearably sad "One Day". He does that wonderfully bittersweet piece where the oral memories of a nonogenarian folk-performer are set to one of his own accordion tunes.
But he also does a couple of things I've never ever heard before. He does a Leon Rosselson song called "Palaces of Gold", a strange, bitter piece, written in a sort of mourning plainsong. It was originally written in response to the Aberfan disaster: the children of the rich, it says, don't go to schools where there is a risk of them being buried alive in mining debris. Now we have an old Etonian prime minister claiming that "we're all in this together", Martin thinks it's time to start singing the song again. The slide guitar continues to play the tune for several minutes after the last stanza; as if Martin is responding, musically, emotionally, to the devasting argument that the song has made.
It occurs to me that that makes three of my all time favourite songs are Leon Rosselson covers. Actually, four: Billy Bragg singing "The World Turned Upside Down", Dick Gaughan singing "The World Turned Upside Down" and, for reasons I don't propose to explain this afternoon, Dick Gaughan singing "Stand Up, Stand Up for Judas". (Chumbawamba wreck "The World Turned Upside Down", I have to say.)
And then – then – Martin does "Hey Mister Tambourine Man", which he may be singing on Dylan's 70th birthday tribute album. He's only done it a few times before, he stumbles once over that swirling, complex lyric, growls at himself, and then carries on. And that may be why this is, I think, the single best thing I've heard during the forty or so gigs I've been to this year. Well, partly because Martin is the best musician I've had the pleasure of hearing, and partly because any reasonably unbiased commentator would regard Mr Tambourine Man as among the best songs ever written by human hand. But more, because this was still partly a work in progress; a performer exploring, coming to grips with, learning about a great song. To borrow a phrase from our friend Andrew Hickey: how can the human race be capable of producing such beauty?
Not to mention Boots of Spanish Leather.
The best thing about these small gigs is that you can grab a word with the performer after the show. I thanked Martin for the show, and asked him to reassure me that he'd be recording Mr Tambourine Man. And he said what a wonderful song it was, how great it was to be exploring those lyrics on the stage, how amazing that Dylan could produce such a song at the age of 20, when all he'd done up to that point was protest songs. Martin may be one of the worlds greatest guitarists and he must have known he'd just done a very special set, but we're all just fans basking under the genius of the almighty Bob.