The Apex, in Bury St Edmunds, is starting to attract bigger names from the music world to its stage and this week has seen arguably the best so far as two folk legends came to town; a special event not simply due to location.
When, 10 years ago, Martin Carthy accepted a lifetime achievement award on behalf of an ill Dave Swarbrick he promised ‘this is not the end’ but many a realist could have doubted his optimism. Carthy’s long-term collaborator had been battling health and medical issues for a number of years by then, he’d even read his own printed-in-error Daily Telegraph obituary whilst laid up in hospital in 1999 (prompting the memorable quote ‘it’s not the first time I’ve died in Coventry’) and would go through a double lung transplant later in 2004.
For all the dogged optimism spoken by his friends and colleagues at this time, we have genuinely been close to losing ‘Swarb’ so one can’t fail to appreciate what a privilege it is to still have the guitar and fiddle folk duo Carthy and Swarbrick playing and touring today, nearly fifty years since they first worked and recorded together.
A fairly low-key and odd-looking couple on stage from the second Martin Carthy slips out from the wings with a nervous ‘hello’. Sat alongside each other, the show has the intimacy of a folk club night where nearly every song is peppered with some chat. Carthy is the more earnest, recalling how he loves finding out little historical details like ‘the 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street used to be the Blacksmiths’ and colouring his tales with delightfully named characters such as Will Knott. Dave Swarbrick has an abundance of amusing anecdotes and reveals as deft a touch with the comic timing as his fiddle bow. The duo are playing a tune written by John Stickle called ‘When I Was A Little Boy’ (which Carthy noted has echoes of other better known folk pieces, notably ‘Nottamun Town’). Tickle was from Unst in the Shetlands, the mention of which leads Dave into a stream of comical scenes, a little slapstick too actually, touching upon the loss of his tooth in a pot of cranberries to customs tribulations and the consumption of “confiscatables” on the way to Unst with Simon Nicol.
The far-reaching set touches on baroque material and plenty of the familiar, too, like English ballad ‘The Death Of Queen Jane’, ‘John Barleycorn’ and ‘Young Morgan’ by the gypsy singer Phoebe Smith. Not that there’s any evidence of set list or preparation with this informal session. Chatting to each other between songs debating what to play next it strikes you that this is clearly not rehearsed spontaneity, this is the real thing.
These two have the folk tradition in their DNA and the historical context and preamble delivered breathes new life and wonder into their music. I came away with a desire to find out more about the Irish composer Turlough O’Carolan and I’m sure this pair’s enthusiasm and insight must open the doors for many others too. More pleasing to witness than anything though is the unashamed pleasure each takes from their partner’s playing, not in a contrived way, the reactions are sincere and in the moment.
They finally reach one of the few constants in the show with 1967’s ‘Byker Hill’, a piece that has more changes and conflicting parts than your head and ears can cope with but it does bring us full circle on a truly unique 50-year association that’s always merged tradition with progression and an incredible musical spirit of discovery and exploration.