Martin Simpson never disappoints, whether live or on record, but rarely does he surprise. Rather he evolves over time and emerges with something new and different as he has here. Trails & Tribulations is his 20th solo album in a career going back to the early seventies. You sort of know what to expect – Martin is equally drawn to the English and American traditions; he will have borrowed a song or two and written a couple more; there will be a variety of guitars plus banjo and ukulele and it will probably all come together with a fine group of musicians supporting him. And, of course, you’ll be absolutely right.
What’s new is a richness to the music which I suspect comes from working with The Full English and Simpson Cutting Kerr. Both Andy Cutting and Nancy Kerr feature here as does percussionist Toby Kearney, guitarist John Smith, Ben Nicholls on bass and Martin’s daughter Molly on vocals. Toby is generally restrained but the percussion is more noticeable than I remember. Take the first track, Jackson C Frank’s ‘Blues Run The Game’. It’s a short song but Martin takes his time over it, warming up his fingers as he does on stage as the introduction emerges. Bass and percussion provide an unobtrusive foundation and Martin tops everything off with Weissenborn decoration. Next is Emily Portman’s ‘Bones And Feathers’, which he has been singing for a year or so now, and which features banjo – not one of Emily’s chosen instruments. Martin owns it now.
From the Americas we have ‘Thomas Drew’, which would appear to be a distant cousin of ‘John Hardy’, ‘East Kentucky’ and ‘St. James Hospital’ but the first two are written by Martin and perfectly match the period feel – he had me fooled. From the English tradition come ‘Rufford Park Poachers’ and ‘Reynardine’. That leaves four others. Charles Causley’s ‘A Ballad For Katherine Of Aragon’ – music by Alex Atterson – has also been in Martin’s live repertoire for a while and it sounds like a song he would have written if someone hadn’t already done so. ‘Maps’, ‘Jasper’s/Dancing Shoes’ and Ridgeway are three more of Martin’s songs, continuing the semi-autobiographical style that began with ‘Never Any Good’.
Trails & Tribulations will be available in multiple formats including a deluxe double CD with six extra tracks including my all-time Simpson favourite, ‘Joshua Gone Barbados’. I’m holding out for that!
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‘Blues Run The Game’ – live: