Martin Simpson

Date: 10 October
Venue: Fibbers, York
Rating: ****

Martin Simpson holds what must be the record for most BBC Radio 2 Folk Award nominations, but tonight there’s no sense of superiority or self-importance, either while he’s onstage or when wandering through the small crowd here beforehand and afterwards.

His voice and playing are just as good live as on record, with the added bonus that his raconteurish side is allowed to shine. Certain songs like ‘One Day’ are given an extraordinary personal backstory, others like ‘Never Any Good’ are left to speak for themselves, and before playing one cover he even asks the crowd to guess the name of its composer – presumably not Sting, whose folkish pose on a recent album is made fun of. Simpson draws off his own work and that of established songwriters like Bruce Springsteen and Randy Newman, as well as playing a handful of traditional songs. All of these tunes are merged into a singular sound, with a voice remarkable not only for keeping up with the rhythmically and melodically complex guitar playing underneath it (which can get astonishingly fast) but also for its ability to passionately incorporate musical traditions from different cultures. He can do American blues numbers, English ballads and Irish folk songs without a hint of affectation in his performance.

The set is fantastic, and the biggest letdown is the fact that today is arrivals day for new students; the revamped Fibbers has got a club night to put on. Their sound isn’t as good as it’s been for other folk acts I’ve seen here, the air conditioning’s a little noisy, and halfway through the gig a light above Simpson’s head starts flickering comically from one colour to another every two seconds. A pack of freshers outside are becoming audible. I have no idea if he can hear them or not, but Simpson grins and earnestly thanks us before launching into a commanding encore.

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