November-December 2007

ARTIST: MARTIN SIMPSON

TITLE: PRODIGAL SON

LABEL: TOPIC RECORDS

By Brooke Alberts

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  Martin Simpson has long been one of my favorite guitarists. I love his sense of timing.  The fluidity of his picking conjures for me cascades and swirling eddies that buoy up the melody. What wonderful control he has- and he’s not afraid to just let it ring, either.

He starts off with a few ballads that have made their way to America- Batchelor’s Hall and an instrumental version of Pretty Crowing Chicken on the banjo, (both of which were collected by folklorist/musician/photographer John Cohen in the 1960s,) and Lakes of Champlain, a version of the Irish Lakes of Coolfinn. They are enhanced by the gentle cello and concertina accompaniments by Barry Phillips and Alistair Anderson, respectively.

There are several of his own very personal compositions on this disc as well. She Slips Away is an instrumental Simpson wrote just before his mother died. It’s a moody and brief slide guitar piece. I particularly like Never Any Good - an emotional song about his father’s life on which the well-known singer Kate Rusby joins him on the chorus. My favorite of his instrumentals is a charming and sprightly number named La Rivolte after a villa where he was teaching some workshops.

There’s some stridently American material here also, including a New Orleans blues ballad, Duncan and Brady.  He also reprises Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927  (which he recorded on his first album, The Golden Vanity, in 1976) with the help of Jackson Browne on vocal harmony, adding the line, “six feet of water in the streets of the Lower Nine” in remembrance of Katrina’s devastation. Later he taps into his inner hobo for Good Morning Mr. Railroad Man.

Back to the British/Celtic folk material, on “The Hills of Greenmore” he uses three different techniques on a repeated motif to suggest a hunting horn , and the cello accompaniment enhances the misty atmospheric feeling of a dawn hunt. He admits in his liner notes that he was intimidated by having to “follow” Dick Gaughan’s version- the first he heard- but I feel that he succeeds in making it his own here. He also does a great job on another of the major ballads, Andrew Lammie or Mill O Tifty’s Annie. 

This is a well-rounded  CD for Simpson, where he uses the opportunity to show all of his best features. The arrangements and accompaniment (which also include Danny Thompson on bass and Kellie While on vocal) are pleasant as well.


Brooke Alberts is a songwriter and has a Masters degree in Medieval Studies.