Anyone who has been around independently produced acoustic music for the past twenty years has certainly heard the name Martin Simpson. Like others, I have seen his name listed as a performer at concert venues and folk festivals, but have not been lucky enough to attend one of his live performances. And so it was with great anticipation that I chose to listen to and review Simpson's latest effort, Prodigal Son. I immediately learned why Simpson's name is always mentioned as one of the best acoustic musicians around. He clearly admires, follows and has learned from the acoustic folk and Celtic traditions of the UK. But then he marries that sound to some of the great music coming out of the African American tradition, as well as the music of such late twentieth century greats as Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson. Mix in the fact that he is an exceptionally gifted guitarist. The result is a perfectly self-produced CD that makes you sit up and listen.
From the very first cut it's clear that we're in the presence of a first-rate guitarist. Batchelor's Hall begins with a beautifully rendered instrumental introduction before launching into the lyrics. While it is a traditional folk song, Simpson shares something here with one of our best folk interpreters, Carol Noonan. He has the uncanny ability to make everything he sings sound contemporary, immediate and new. We have all heard hundreds of songs, especially in the traditional folk genre, about boy losing girl and becoming despondent. Simpson offers a new window on love and loss.
Pretty Crowing Chicken is a mesmerizing instrumental featuring Simpson on a gorgeous sounding 5-string banjo and Andy Cutting on accordion. I'm sure that listening to it for the first time on a cold, rainy day contributed, but I had goose bumps listening to this piece. It's a beauty.
The moving instrumental She Slips Away was written by Simpson on the afternoon before his mother died, according to the liner notes. Both slow and melancholy, it resonates with deep feeling and perhaps a touch of regret.
I love A Love Letter, a mature look at love cultivated over many years.
Simpson wrote Never Any Good about his father. It paints a portrait of a man with many sides, and a son with conflicted feelings about that man. There is great pain here as well as recognition that the father has passed on some useful things to the son. I think I like this wise and simple song most of all.
But I can't bring this review to a close without mentioning Simpson's superb version of Randy Newman's poignant Louisiana 1927 about the 1927 flood which echoes the ravages left behind by the recent Hurricane Katrina. "They are trying to wash us away, wash us away," indeed.
Martin Simpson is a musician's musician, a guitarist's guitarist and a songwriter's songwriter. He is also a master interpreter of both traditional folk and contemporary songs. Simpson's Prodigal Son got me through a miserable night of wind and rain; a nor'easter of a storm. I know that I can rely on him to produce music that I want to listen to; music that will last over time. Prodigal Son is a contemporary classic—something to marvel at, cherish and listen to time and again.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2007, Peterborough Folk Music Society and Roberta B. Schwartz.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
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