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Martin Simpson reaches for his banjo as it is handed to him by someone outside the camera frame. This is part of the promotional series for his album, Skydancers, taken by Andy Muscrof.
Photo credit: Andy Muscroft

Martin Simpson, Skydancers – a review

Explore Skydancers, Martin Simpson's latest work, a culmination of decades blending folk traditions with masterful guitar play, possibly his finest to date.

Release Date
12 April 2024
Martin Simpson, Skydancers
Martin Simpson, emerging as a youthful talent in the English folk scene of 1976, remains a revered figure. His debut, Golden Vanity, set a standard for blending traditional British and American songs with masterful guitar and banjo play. Nearly five decades later, his music, possibly the best he's ever created, continues to evolve, marked by natural vocals, effortless playing, and harmonious accompaniments. Simpson's latest work, Skydancers, praised for its quality, showcases collaborations with notable musicians, featuring traditional and original compositions that highlight his enduring influence and guitar expertise.

Many gallons of pre-apocalyptic floodwater have poured down the Trent since Martin Simpson first emerged from scenic Scunthorpe onto an unprepared English folk scene in 1976 as a boy wonder. Well, he was five or six years younger than the bulk of us folk club performers of the day, which is a lot when you’re still in your twenties, so he became – and remains known to his pals to this day – as “young Simpkins”! How did he get to be 70?!

His startling debut album, Golden Vanity, for Bill Leader’s Trailer label is scandalously long-locked away along with the rest of that seminal catalogue in the Bulmer basement in Harrogate (maybe Martin ought to do a Taylor Swift and re-record it), but 47 years later he remains true to the blueprint he established there. British and American traditional and the occasional modern songs, accompanied by acoustic guitar and 5-string banjo, played far better than just about anybody around. His singing has become more natural, his playing seems considerably (deceptively) more effortless and his accompaniments more as one with the songs, but he’s still recognisably the same creature.

Oh, you need to know more? Well, six or seven plays in and I do believe this set could be equal to, maybe better than, anything he’s ever done. A perfect distillation of his oeuvre. Which is quite a lot – an improbable number of albums solo, with bands or collaborators over two centuries. He’s always picked excellent session “friends” but the core here, particularly long-time pal Andy Cutting’s melodeon and Liz Hanks’ gorgeous cello, provide the most perfect musical landscapes. Greg Leisz’s occasional pedal steel is a special bonus, too.

I do believe this set could be equal to, maybe better than, anything he’s ever done

No more so than on the traditional song of a highwayman’s gallows regret, ‘(Alan) Tyne Of Harrow’ [Roud 1553], co-incidentally also found on Jim Moray’s recent ‘career best’ CD, Beflean. Both of them learned it from Peter Bellamy’s now hard-to-find solo version, both have put it into superb band arrangements. If pushed, I’d say that Martin’s probably has a slight edge by not going the folk/rock route, putting the attention fully on the story: there’s nothing Magpie Arc about this album.

Martin was always an A-grade guitar nerd, to get the best out of the music. When we first encountered him it was during the early flowering of British luthiery, as our makers were evolving instruments with a clarity and sustain more suited to home-grown post-Carthy/Jones styles than clomping, heavy American jumbos. At that time he was playing a lovely one made for him by Peter Abnett, as I recall, along with a wooden-bodied Fylde “dobro” for his slide playing. Many boxes later down the years, he must be approaching Simpson heaven with his current ones, in particular his Taran Tirga Mhor, a fan-fretted beauty he’s been using on recent live gigs that he helped maker Rory Dowling develop. You can read Dowling’s blog post about that extraordinary tale by clicking here.

The tune ‘Donal Og’ which concludes the “studio” first of these two CDs, played on the Taran with one of Martin’s astonishing Wolfram slides, which he also helped develop – made from highly polished, ultra-heavy weapons grade unobtainium or some such – is possibly the most beautiful sounding slide guitar instrumental I’ve ever heard. Full marks to recording engineers Tom Wright and Andy Bell throughout. Oh, and the booklet has details of each track’s tunings. He’s gone away to C!

‘Skydancers’ – the original title track commissioned by Chris Packham to celebrate hen harriers – has all the hallmarks of becoming another Simpson classic, even if it does bear more than a little melodic resemblance to his award-winning “greatest hit”, ‘Never Any Good’. Well, a bit of tune recycling never did the great bluesmen any harm, and the subject probably has more universal appeal. In ye oldene dayes when things got picked up and became standards around the then many hundreds of folk clubs (e.g. ‘The Streets Of London’), it would have been a cert for that.

The studio CD1 shows remarkable restraint and good taste (I mean that as a positive). If you’re looking for some classic Simpsonian flash, it pops up on CD2, recorded mostly live (also by Tom Wright, and on the Taran) with plenty of attack and energy and a little fall-back into the Scunthorpe American accent that he used to be more prone to. Dylan’s ‘Buckets Of Rain’ finds the funky fretboard thoroughly explored, for example. He also gets his tonsils around the song version of ‘Donal Og’, and ‘Flash Company’, which he famously recorded accompanying June Tabor on the “posing boots” album. “I couldn’t sing it and play it at the same time,” he confesses in the booklet, but “I’ve been practising it for years.”

If you ever want proof that “practice makes perfect”, he’s your man. You can add to that little proverb, “but playing makes everything natural.” Here’s to the next 50 years, and don’t even begin to assume that you’ve got already enough Martin Simpson CDs: make space for this.

Skydancers, by Martin Simpson, is out on Topic Records on April 12th. It can be pre-ordered by clicking here. Reviewer, Ian A. Anderson, Martin Simpson and Maggie Holland were briefly The Scrub Jay Orchestra in the late 1970s. Their complete recorded works were re-issued last year as ‘Postcards Of The Twanging‘.