“Martin Simpson is listed in Gibson Guitars' Top 30 Acoustic Guitarists of all time, and Acoustic Guitar readers voted him number 12 guitarist in the world”- thus read the blurb advertising this concert. Undoubtedly Martin is that, and in addition he is a songwriter, a fine singer, storyteller and a kind of music historian, who could keep an audience enraptured even if he did not play anything at all.
I have been a fan of Martin's since first coming across him at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2007, at the time of his 'Prodigal Son' album. I have followed him since, seen him many times over, mainly at Cambridge, and bought every subsequent release, yet he never seemed to come to Ireland - unless I missed it of course, but I do watch gig listings rigorously.
The Hot Spot Music Club in Greystones, a venue above a pub/restaurant, was sold out for this rare performance. I arrived really early as I very much wanted a front row seat. This was partly a muso audience. Men around me were discussing technical guitar stuff that I have no understanding of. I take it from friends knowledgeable in these matters that Martin is an absolute master on the guitar.
Support came from a sympathetic singing fisherman from Wexford. Then some local musicians played, and the audience readied themselves - drinks, rest room, everything out of the way so as to not miss a minute of the gig. Martin himself was sitting on the edge of the stage, looking down and seemingly getting himself mentally ready, in the way I have seen musicians do this at house gigs, where there is also no dressing room to provide privacy. Martin was flexing his fingers and I noticed he was wearing one leather glove, on his right hand. He looked up and shot me a smile. Then an audience member walked over and they talked animatedly for a bit. After that Martin stood up and the gig started, without fanfare.
What followed was a dream of a show. It was a joy and a privilege to be there. Martin played the entire set on one guitar, tuning in between songs in his unique way. His tuning is like short instrumental intermezzos. He played three songs before addressing the audience, but from then on he talked at length about the songs. His introductions are an integral part of the gig and to me he is like a favourite teacher. I could listen for hours. And so it seemed to be for everybody present. If only audiences could be so quiet and appreciative at all gigs!
'Dark Swift and Bright Swallow' from the Simpson Cutting Kerr album was an early highlight. 'The Plains of Waterloo' from the same album was played as well. Martin had no setlist and did not pause at all, only to tune. He just kept playing. There were no requests, we did not have to sing. Everybody simply listened intently.
Martin talked about his father and his family and played what he described as his hit, 'Never Any Good'. He also talked about his time in the U.S. and played, 'Delta Dreams' and one of my favourites, 'An Englishman Abroad'. He spoke about Leonard Cohen and the wonder of his late career renaissance, followed by a beautiful cover of 'Stranger Song'.
As the gig went on I was aware that we would be missing the last train back to Dublin, but leaving was out of the question. In the end my partner and I were rescued by a kind American who let us share his ride. This man was over in Dublin on business and presumed that Martin plays here regularly. Not so.. I asked Martin afterwards why he does not come over to Ireland more often, to which he replied, "I should really. People don't seem to be opposed to me being here". An understatement if ever there was one.
Martin has a new album coming out this year and it seems he will once again be back at my favourite festival.