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Tonight Martin Simpson played the second of two consecutive nights on his home turf at The Greystones in Sheffield. Greystones Road appeared to be the only thoroughfare in the city still lined with mounds of snow, a remnant of a bitterly cold January, but inside the warmth circulated the pub creating a welcoming atmosphere as the concert room, or to be more precise, the Backroom, filled up once again for the latest in a long line of Bright Phoebus concerts. The warmth from the radiators was echoed equally by the warmth provided by our hosts who welcomed us all in for the evening, namely the father and daughter team, Roy and Kit Bailey.
It makes a refreshing change to see the artists, sound technicians, promoters and assistants mingling with the audience instead of hiding away backstage or in the green room, especially in an age where we are used to darkened dungeons serving as venues with little or no introduction and barely any communication between the artist and audience whatsoever. Not here though; Bright Phoebus is all about communication, community and social connection.
The family connection tonight was apparent from the start as Martin's father-in-law Roy Bailey opened the show with one of the songs immediately associated with the singer, Si Kahn's What You Do with What You've Got. "I'll do just the one song" Roy smiled, going on to say "because he hogs the gig." Introducing his son-in-law, Roy referred to Martin as "my accompanist... at any opportunity."
Despite covering the relatively short geographical distance between his birthplace of Scunthorpe in North Lincolnshire and his adopted home of Sheffield in South Yorkshire, Martin Simpson's world is a much travelled place, both in terms of his widespread peregrinations and the music he makes along the way. Tonight some of those locations were covered in song, one of the most effective ways of taking us to those places without actually leaving the room, places like the French Quarter of New Orleans, Gary, Indiana and the meandering banks of the Mississippi. A life lived for sure. Some of that life can be traced along the crow's feet and laughter lines upon his face, effectively captured in the portrait on the front cover of his latest album Vagrant Stanzas.
Opening with the traditional In the Pines, complete with an instrumental introduction reminiscent of something from the soundtrack to Wim Wender's flick Paris Texas, so similar in fact that we wouldn't have flinched if Harry Dean Stanton walked aimlessly into the room at any given moment, grabbed Nastassja Kinski by the waist, slung her over his shoulder and soically made for the door, returning from whence he came (red baseball cap and all.) Martin Simpson brought the backroom to a complete silence as that metal tube navigated those freshly applied strings.
During the first set, long-time collaborator Andy Cutting joined the guitar player for a couple of songs including Charles Causley's Morris Noir Angel Hill and the 'broken token' ballad Plains of Waterloo. It was towards the end of the first set that Simpson turned his (and our) attention to his stateside years, with his own meandering travelog Delta Dreams, where his journey through the Deep South in a 55 Chevy came immediately to life.
Richard Hawley once again made just the one cameo appearance at the end of the first set sharing the verses of Heartbreak Hotel with Martin, reminding everyone that the last time this happened was at the Royal Albert Hall. If you're going to name drop a posh venue, then it might as well be that one.
"They're all true stories" Martin quipped during the second set, before launching into Never Any Good, a warts-and-all tribute to his own father and now a firm favourite amongst his loyal audience. Andy Cutting once again provided some empathetic melodeon as the song effortlessly conjured up thoughts of our own respective fathers. I guess we all have a tale to tell truth be known.
Legend has it that Martin once arrived at a folk club sometime in his distant past and startled his audience by playing the banjo all night. To some, this would be akin to wartime torture, but in the hands of this particular musician, the banjo is an implement of beauty. The instrument stood patiently on its stand throughout the first set and for most of the second until it came out for a couple of songs toward the end of the night.
With Kit and Roy dealing with the obligatory raffle, another fine Bright Phoebus night reached its conclusion with a little tribute to the late Mike Waterson, one of the two singers who provided the inspiration behind the collective's name, along with Mike's sister Lal. It's good to see Martin Simpson in such good spirits amongst friends, some of whom have no doubt been with the musician for a long time, if not right from the start.