A folk legend and a star ascending!


An intimate gig in an ambient church-setting with Martin Carthy and Katie Spencer Words and pictures: Alan Dearling

Soon after I entered the Unitarian Church in Todmorden, I said to Andy and Lou who had organised the gig:

“Wow, what an amazing sound quality!”

That sound was Katie Spencer commencing her set. A captivating, clear and enervating soundscape created by Katie’s vocals and the sound-waves she was producing from her 1952 Gibson guitar. Katie explained her purchase of this ‘special’ instrument. She had spotted it in a specialist guitar shop in London’s Soho, but it was closed. She then stayed overnight, returned to the shop to find it no longer in the window…but thankfully it had just been moved and it is now an essential element in Katie’s personal and unique sound. And this produces an almost out-of-body, other-worldly experience!

Many of the tracks in her set came from her 2021 album, ‘The Edge of the Land’. These are powerful songs featuring beautiful jazz-inflected playing. I was in thrall. I bought the album and learned from Katie that she is hard at work on tracks for her next album, but in the meanwhile, ‘Forevermore’, ‘Take your time’ and the ‘Edge of the Land’  offer examples of real-time musical ear-worm holes. I look forward to hearing much more of her music. She is still developing her own musical lexicon and could become a major ‘name’. Hope so!

Katie’s sound is reminiscent of early Pentangle, John Martyn and Michael Chapman. A really rather lovely musical tapestry on which to weave a new legacy. The acoustics in the church were perfect for her music and her final John Martyn tribute, which I think was ‘Small Hours’, with its refrain, ‘Keep on Loving’.

It was something of a transcendental performance, lovely harmonics from her guitar playing, and fabulous vocal harmonies. And, as I have since discovered, Katie Spencer is involved in both John Martyn and Michael Chapman events. Definitely a charismatic young lady with talent aplenty.

It’s too early in her career to predict which musical routes she will follow. Perhaps in the wake of earlier folk guitar heroes like Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, or, the songwriting and singing of Joni Mitchell and Laura Marling.

‘Home’ at the Green Note in London (2023):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VRkYv4vb4rc&t=39s


Martin Carthy

On his recent 83rd birthday this was posted on the Waterson’s site:

“He is my rock of intuitive understanding and the loyalist, most wonderful neurodivergent genius weirdo anyone could ever hope to have for a father.”

And, in many ways, that is the Martin Carthy who went on stage at the Unitarian Church. He’s still a slightly mischievous octogenarian.  Still naughty after all these years, and now one of the elders and standard-bearers of traditional folk in the UK and beyond. His set list underpinned how much Martin has returned to his original folk roots in folk clubs with Dave Swarbrick in the 1960s.

Kevin Boyd on the ‘Come Sing it Plain’ Martin Carthy fans’ Facebook page:

 “Martin played a slightly shorter than that usual single set, which lasted in the region of 75 minutes. The songs would have been familiar to anyone who’d attended any of his immediately-pre-lockdown gigs or any of the shows with Jon last year. The only slight surprise (for me) was the inclusion of The Eighteenth of June, which is familiar from a couple of recordings but which I can’t remember ever hearing him sing in person.

His introductions to much of his repertoire are pretty well worn in by now, so there were few surprises in that respect. His memory failed him briefly during both Scarborough Fair and Eighteenth of June, but not to the detriment of the set as a whole.”

Set list: High Germany; Her Servant Man; When I Was A Little Boy; Scarborough Fair; Invitation to a Funeral (The Funeral Party); Nancy of London; Bendigo, Champion of England; Dream of Napoleon; The Fall of Paris (Downfall of Paris); The Eighteenth of June, and A Stitch In Time.

Martin Carthy is a real folk-minstrel. He has trawled far back into the musical archives for rare songs, forgotten versions of tunes and words to familiar songs. Many songs from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. An early highlight of his set was his version of ‘Scarborough Fair’.  He explained that the version had been used in a TV series, ‘Remember Me’, starring Michael Palin, near Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire.  In the auspicious church setting Martin rightly cast his magical spell on an audience in awe of his presence.

I had probably last seen Martin Carthy perform in the musical play, ‘Corunna’ in 1971 at the Gulbenkian Theatre at the University of Kent on 1st June immediately after the premiere at the Royal Court Theatre in London.  This was during Martin’s period in Steeleye Span Mk 2. Martin left Steeleye at the end of 1971 after ‘Ten Man Mop’ album was released.

‘Corunna’ was written by Keith Dewhurst, and the play featured various actors, including Brian Glover and the members of Steeleye. The play was a mixture of singing and acting as it enacted the British army’s retreat at Corunna in Spain under Wellington in 1808-09. But at that time, Martin was mostly playing electric guitar, and Steeleye was largely viewed as an electric-folk band.

Here’s what it says on the Steeleye Span fan web site, ‘A celebration of Steeleye Span’:

With regards how Martin joined Steeleye:  “… he ‘just fancied it…it was this huge thing – why not?” This then encouraged Ashley to leave the Peggs, with whom he was working with again to come back and try again with Steeleye. As Maddy said, Martin joining gave Steeleye ‘A stamp of approval’ amongst the Folk audience.

The significance of Martin joining cannot be underestimated. As well as providing a folk ‘legitimacy’ Martin also drove the group to being a fully electric band.”

‘Tradfolk’ recently invited a number of musicians to ask Martin Carthy questions. Here is Martin’s reply to one about his blue Telecaster electric guitar:

“Well, it was the fact that I was joining an electric band and it seemed the right thing to do. I went into Sound City and I bought that blue electric guitar. I asked Ashley, “What should I play? Should I play a Stratocaster?” And he said, “No, I think you should play a Telecaster. You and the Telecaster seemed to go together.” And I just took his advice and I spent £110 on this bright blue second-hand Telecaster, and I bought a lead with it. I just turned up and just turned it on and tuned it to my tuning.”

The days of Martin in a folk-rock band are long gone. But, from his performance at the Unitarian Church, Martin Carthy is still a trusty purveyor of folk’s traditions and the revival of interest in those early songs.

Here is the 2021 American Library of Congress video of Martin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XyZmrauw2Ws


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