There are guitar players and then there are guitar players—for every one you’ve heard of, there are five unknowns who deserve far more credit and ink. Martin Simpson, although known in some circles, should be known to all, or at least be deemed the British equivalent of multi-instrumentalist Jerry Douglas. Simpson’s first album in six years, and his first since The Bramble Briar, is another stellar and nimble finger-picking gem packed with intricate yet highly melodic performances. Using slide guitar, banjo, lap steel, and traditional electric and acoustic guitars, Simpson nails the leadoff “John Hardy”. Moving between a rapid style and a slower yet meticulous blues type of picking, the song simply soars without much of an effort.
A lot of blues and traditional folk is on the 16-track album, including the initially toe-tapping “Horn Island” which could be played by the Notting Hillbillies. But the Ry Cooder-esque guitar work and quirky bass line puts it off kilter slightly. It’s as if three players are playing three different songs in their head. Simpson also uses a lot of his blues influences on the record, with “I Can’t Keep from Crying Sometimes” paying tribute to slide guitar legend Blind Willie Johnson. Later on, there is there is the boogie-inducing “Rollin’ & Tumblin’”, which also has some mean slide. The harmony vocals from Jessica Radcliffe are another asset here. But when Simpson opts for more of the country or folk elements, mixed with just a bit of Southern gospel, it’s a precious result. “Easy Money” is just that, although it mixes “When I Lay My Burden Down” for its conclusion.
That isn’t to say there aren’t some slight clunkers on the album, including “Payday”, which brings Jeff Beck circa Frankie’s House to mind. It’s a rambling piece of music that finally gets its Delta blues legs a third of the way in. “Who rock the cradle when you’re gone”, Simpson repeats as Reggie Scanlan from the Radiators lends help on bass. It’s no wonder this Southern flavor is embedded on the album, as Simpson recorded several tracks in “The Big Easy”. Possibly the biggest highlight from this city comes during “This World Is a Trouble and a Trial” as he simply plays acoustic blues. And it flows nicely into the British folk of “Ghost in the Pines”.
A song the musician took to heart thanks to the Smithsonian Folkways collection is “The Coo Coo Bird”. Generally, it isn’t that good, sounding far too forced, studio crafted, and layered. The guitar effects recall Mark Knopfler if he decided to go the mainstream adult contemporary route. Thankfully, Simpson redeems himself with “Love Never Dies”, a heartfelt tune about a chance meeting with a guitarist of yesteryear. But what also works well are the brief instrumentals placed between the longer narrative tracks. “Some Dark Holler” is less than three minutes long, but has all of Simpson’s chops audibly apparent. “Rico” follows in the same footsteps, starting out similarly to the opening of Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again”. Rick Kemp’s bass line is added but is basically a needless extra.
The three-quarter pole offers more of the same style and very little in terms of Simpson hamming it up with frantic solos or needless fingering. The six-minute “Georgie”, a traditional British folk ballad that dates back more than four centuries, is a potpourri of all his styles. And being so sparse, with just Simpson’s instrument and his voice, it quickly draws the listener in and keeps them there. “The Devil’s Partiality” is similar to this, even down to Simpson’s fingers being heard moving along the guitar neck. Although there is a larger group effort to it, including Radcliffe’s angelic vocals, at its core it’s Simpson through and through. Simpson has once again only added another cornerstone in an impressive blues folk home of guitar.
// Notes from the Road
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