The last night of Eliza Carthy’s winter tour brought her – somewhat surprisingly – to the largest of the three venues which make up The Junction. And whilst this was a winter tour – with the temperatures to go with it – it was not that folky money-spinner, the Christmas show complete with carols and mulled wine – fun as those can be, Eliza Carthy was not having any of that malarkey. This was a full blooded big electric folk band delivering selections from Eliza’s thirty years as a professional performer, tying in with the new album ‘Queen of the Whirl‘ which reimagines some of the highlights of those years. So it was no Yuletide party-frocked folk singer that took to the stage in the, frankly quite cold, Junction 1 – rather it was a purple-haired, black-clad and booted vision with tribal face paint, boots solidly placed, and ready to take no prisoners. Backed by Saul Rose on melodeon, Dave Delarre on electric guitar, Phil Alexander on keyboards, Ben Seal on electric bass and Willy Molleson on drums.
It was to be a gig of two sets – with quite a lengthy interval during which the band, Carthy included, staffed the merchandise stand and were happy to chat in what was a relaxed folk club gig style. The first set had got underway with an acapella rendition of ‘Napoleon’s Dream‘ before the electric folk-rock of ‘The Snows They Melt The Soonest‘ which moved from what might be described as a conventional arrangement into something more sinuous and groovy with Carthy adding a coda seemingly questioning where all the lovers the song boasts of have gone. Following this with a masterly rendition of ‘The Pretty Ploughboy‘ which tells of a spirited woman who rescues her beau from the press gang allowed Carthy’s strident fiddle playing to be thrillingly unleashed. Is this Eliza Carthy at her best? Well, it’s quite hard to argue otherwise. Carthy though is more than just a singer of traditional songs as demonstrated by the accordion driven ‘My Father’s Mansion’, Pete Seeger’s manifesto for inclusivity and acceptance, which was originally recorded by Carthy with Billy Bragg for a Pete Seeger tribute album. It’s certainly a plea that rings true with the times, with a passionate call for freedom and equality.
Good as the first set had been the return after the interval brought two of the finest songs in Carthy’s extensive repertoire – the devious ‘Jack Tar‘ who tricks his way into a lady’s bedroom only to be bawdily welcomed, and the superb comeuppance tale of ‘Mr Magnifico‘ (which Carthy explains as being only about 95% true) in which a sleazy narcissist thinks he can trick two naive French girls into his bed, only to find that they are less interested in him and more interested in his valuables. It’s an outcome that a wiser man – or at least one who was more familiar with folk song – might have seen coming, but it’s a story that Carthy unfolds with relish.
All this seriousness got a balancing with one of Ewan McColl’s more unlikely songs – the fifties Science Fiction B-movies trope capturing ‘Space Girl‘ which lays out the potential perils and pitfalls of those who take up a life of rocket-based commuting between planets. It’s a light-hearted joke, sung as it deserves in a playful manner. There’s nothing playful about ‘Blood on my Boots‘ (another 95% true tale we are told) as Carthy aggressively recounts a night-out that didn’t quite end as planned. “The night started warm and so balmy” she sings, but it concluded with an unfortunate encounter and “blood on my top, blood on my top, blood on my top” and a resolution to “go to the shop and buy me some plasters / And then I’m gonna set my big old hackney-arsed mates / On that little bastard.” And from the boot-stomping fiddle playing that accompanies this tale then one doesn’t fancy his chances too much…
The encore took Carthy’s mother’s advice not to waste time on all that walking off and on again, and also paid her a nod with the closing song, ‘Good Morning Mr Walker‘, a song that Norma Waterson brought home with her after DJ-ing in the West Indies for four years in the 1960s. It’s a rousing tune with, were it to be taken seriously, some perhaps questionable lyrics to the modern ear, but the exhortation to take the last chance to get up and dance did get some response – although few could last for the whole of the lengthy rendition. A fine end to a fine gig.