Martin Simpson is a phenomenal guitarist! I’ll broach no argument on that – he just is. And I don’t mean a “he’s a bit tasty, I must practice a bit more and get better” sort of phenomenal. No no! I mean a proper “touched by the Hand of God, throw your guitar away as soon as you get home and never delude yourself into thinking that your ham-fisted awfulness could ever have played it” sort of phenomenal.
If you’re not familiar with his prowess, look up any number of live performances on YouTube, or the series of masterclasses he has recorded for Guitarist Magazine. He’s played with everyone, and everyone who’s anyone knows what a proper virtuoso he is on a multitude of stringed instruments.
However, if you’re on the hunt for out-and-out, show-offey penomenality (some of those words are real words), you won’t find that kind of ostentation on this new album, his 20th solo recording.
He describes this collection of songs as being “about nature, about travels, and about real life stories”. And a fine collection of songs it is too. You’ll probably find it on the “Folk” shelves of your local on-line record streaming store, but that pigeon-holing probably does the record, and you, a disservice.
Simpson’s constant habit of effortlessly blending and fusing any number of styles and sub-genres might leave the more pedantic listener slightly confused as to exactly how to label the music. The songs sound folk, but the guitar is littered with phrases and flavours that are blues, or bluegrass, or jazz, or Irish traditional, or, or, or…
But if you stop for a moment trying to classify, and simply listen – or better still, just allow yourself to hear – what you’ll hear is Simpson’s perfectly pitched instrumentation and arrangements weaving a series of intricate, delicate, almost ethereal backdrops, within which his lyrics pick out perfectly formed narrative details. The overall effect of which is to draw you in, sit you down, make you a cup of warm comforting tea, and pass the time in a simple, yet simply luxurious way. And that’s true whether the songs are simple love songs, or deeply tragic catastrophes, or anything inbetween.
The true scale of his virtuosity as a player is, for me, highlighted by the fact that it’s so very easy to stop noticing his playing at all. He has always been a musician for whom the playing is only the frame for the song. And so he seems always to play Just Exactly Enough to give the song it’s meaning and its vitality, and not a single note more.
Look out for Simpson on tour. When he plays live, he nods frequently to those in his audience who are there to be simultaneously amazed and depressed, inspired and crushed by his phenomenality. But on “Trials & Tribulations”, you’ll be able simply to revel in the beauty of the best of English folk, while your guitar can relax in the knowledge that it is safe, for another day or two at least.
Trials & Tribulations is out 1st September via Topic Records