Big Water by Tom Russell (Cover version)
Performed by Small Farm Towns aka me.
Not really having heard about Martin Simpson until his previous album Trails and Tribulations but falling in love with his music immediately after doing so, I didn’t waste time buying Rooted upon its release back in August. Since then there (nearly) hasn’t been a day in which I didn’t listen to at least part of Rooted. Like Trails and Tribulations it’s an album of rare and pure beauty.
As before, I greatly admire his unique and exceptional style of guitar playing. The varied guitar (and banjo) sounds are once again brought to light very well by producer Andy Bell, starting with the first song Trouble Brought Me Here and ending with the equally wonderful More Than Enough. The latter was written by Robb Johnson and is a fine pointer to Simpson’s left leaning political views (don’t know if he’d call himself a Socialist, but from all I know it’s fair to assume he might). The song’s lyrics (appropriately reflected in the music) are both sad and a hopeful (‘… there’s always the money for missiles and tanks, there’s always the money for generals and banks, there’s always the money for new ways to kill but a limited budget for you if you’re ill…’), but ending on a rather more hopeful note (‘… if we’d learn to want less and love more there’d be enough for the poor, cause there’s more than enough for us all’ – truer word was never spoken)
These also come to light in his singular reworking of the (not very well known, but still) classic Ragtime Millionaire, here called Neo (Neo-Liberal Billionaire), it doesn’t take a whole lot of fantasy to figure out the sort of people he is talking about there (‘… trickle down, that’s what I said, it’s just me pissing on your head…’). Great, upbeat song that too, with the brilliant Dom Flemons (Ex-Caroline Chocolate Drops) on bones and a (rather unusual in that context) clarinet giving it a suitable swinging old-timey feeling. Probably the most lovely song on the album is his version of the traditional Child ballad Who’s Going To Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot, which Simpson first heard by Woody Guthrie, I don’t know that or any other versions, but his, mainly played on acoustic guitar accordion (or melodeon) and strings, is utterly gorgeous. I just love his way of playing those incredibly intricate acoustic guitar melodies, accompanying and mirroring the tunes of the songs, very few guitar players I know of can do that similarly well, maybe Richard Thompson and Bruce Cockburn are in the same league.
A large appeal for me is the fact that his music is deeply rooted in both British and American traditions. A fine example of this is his version of the traditional Joe Bowers on which he’s (if I’m not mistaken) playing a Weissenborn (style) slide guitar, and of course that does sound wonderful (love those guitars myself). The whole album is an absolute feast for (acoustic) guitar aficionados, all of the guitar parts are recorded crystal clear (the sound overall is excellent too).
Another thing I love about his music is the creative way they deal with his apparent love of nature (on Trails and Tribulations it was the amazing Ridgeway) and on here it’s Born Human (excellent song that but not written by him) and his own composition Kingfisher – the latter about a walk (?) on a cold and clear winter morning, and it’s easy to visualise that morning listening to the song. That aspect (‘… tells me how alive and lucky I am…’) is also present in the album title and artwork with the front cover finding him nestled among the roots and branches of a large tree.
Perhaps most affecting in a quite understated way of all songs on here is the (true) story of Ken Small, who in 1984 (after a 10 year struggle) succeeded in having a Sherman tank from the 2nd World War pulled out of the ocean and placed in the Southwestern English village of Torcross (where it still stands today) as a monument to the about 1000 soldiers that were killed thereabouts during an military operation in 1944. Ken Small, after a nervous breakdown, spent a large amount of his time at the shore where he found ‘… truth and healing…’ and the song sounds suitably melancholic. That’s another of Simpson’s strength – in contrast to a lot of excellent finger style guitarist out there he’s not merely an outstanding guitarist, while he undoubtedly is that, he’s also a great storyteller in his own compositions, as well as being equally adept at choosing very fine material for his singular and accomplished interpretations.
The rest of the songs I haven’t mentioned so far are by no means any less good (the catchy and upbeat Henry Gray and Fool Me Once are all brilliant as well) – I for one could (and indeed have) listen to them over and over again.
I was fortunate enough to get the bonus disc version, the second CD called Seeded featuring 7 instrumentals including two bluesy ones A Blues and Blind Willie McTell’s Mama It Ain’t Long (Blind Willie McTell), and acoustic solo versions of Queen Jane and Who’s Gonna… from Rooted and the wonderful Waenglapiau.
I almost forgot to mention the fine contributions of the other guests on the album, apart from the lovely strings on a number of songs, especially Andy Cutting on Melodeon and Accordion does deserve a mention here, as one Trails And Tribulations before, his contributions to Rooted play a big role in shaping the sound and making various of these songs as lovely as they are, like Simpson he’s a true master of his instrument.
As stated before I am not really familiar with his earlier work apart from Rooted‘s predecessor, but it’s safe to say that Martin Simpson clearly is on something of a roll right now, which I find all the more remarkable as he’s now at an age in which most other musicians have long surpassed their best work.
Just listen to that amazing guitar playing on Trouble Brought Me Here…
Moth Nor Rust, released in 2009 on Borealis Records, finally found its way into my home only yesterday. The first few listens already made me realise just how exceedingly fine an album it is. Yes, it’s Folk music, but somehow the musical style (as much as I am fond of it) is irrelevant, as the songs on here are quite simply that. Songs, and stories. Brooks could arguably be classified as a songwriter in the tradition of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger or early Bob Dylan. No romanticising for the times of the Dust Bowl, Hobos and such to be found on here, though, his songs are firmly rooted in the early 21st Century.
At first listen his songs aren’t overtly personal, actually quite the opposite, as they are dealing with all kinds of people you meet on the streets. Whether these people are soldiers, working in a pub, an office or at Walmart, does scarcely matter – it’s their lives with all their contradictions, thoughts and problems these 10 songs are concerned with. Yet, for all this, they are highly personal stories too, Brooks’ convictions and beliefs permeate every one of them. So, you hear a lot of words such as justice, mercy, love, freedom and healing. Not many artists (whichever medium they are using) I can think of, can express their beliefs quite as eloquently and touching as Jon Brooks can.
Musically Moth Nor Rust is even more reduced compared with some of his other records (2014’s The Smiling And Beautiful Countryside and 2012’s Delicate Cages, still haven’t got the first two records of his) although these could hardly be described as lavishly produced either. On here it’s only him, his guitar and harmonica (and a bit of percussion, possibly only the body of his guitar). Still, the sound is clear, robust and rustic (but completely absent of traces of traditionalism and/or being ‘Country’), not in the least due to his resonant and muscular voice and the fine, natural guitar playing. Despite the lyrical themes and the often beautiful melodies (as on Small, War Resister, God Pt. IV, there is nothing maudlin or whimsical about these songs.
Moth Nor Rust is good for the soul. It’s a life-affirming record, making me believe the world has got the potential of being a slightly better place. All it does need is some more people taking his stance towards life and the world to heart, and doing the right things.
‘… if it’s not love, we can’t take it when we go..’ (When We Go)
Everything about this is masterful, the song (by Guy Clark, funnily I couldn’t find a single version of this by himself so I am not sure if he even recorded it himself), the vocals by Mr. Lovett and the musical arrangement/accompaniment, especially the lap steel guitar. Not to mention beautiful. An ode to simple living, filled with music and memories.
Wow. ’nuff said.
Dylan’s classic gets a lovely reworking on this version by David Mallett, the video’s lovely too.
To celebrate the arrival of my first Peter Mayer CD (Million Year Mind) in the mail earlier today,
here’s a live version of his song Awake (not on that CD). It’s a fine, lovely and thoughtful song with some mighty fine guitar work.