Wood Wilson Carthy:
Chris Wood, Roger
Wilson & Martin Carthy
The Anvil, Basingstoke, England
(28 January 2001)

There were long queues for food at the informal Sunday afternoon luncheon show. All three musicians checked their watches, and one headed to bar for a glass of water. Finally, once everyone had been served their drinks and ploughman's lunches, Martin Carthy, veteran of the English traditional folk scene, joined the stage with "newer" artists Chris Wood and Roger Wilson for what was to prove a delightful afternoon of traditional ballads and new compositions.

With Carthy on guitar and Wood and Wilson on fiddle (Wilson occasionally laid aside his fiddle for a guitar or mandolin), the men launched into that casual sliding march style that is so characteristic of Carthy. Starting with the tune "Santa Ana's Retreat," they segued into a banjo tune, "Turtle Dove," and Carthy then started singing. With "Fare Thee Well," he lit into a romantic song about how the narrator will never be false to his true love until the stars fall down from the sky. Mournful sounding fiddles ended the piece.

Wilson then picked up the lead with one of his original numbers, "Indian Tea." Starting with a quick joke about being more of a coffee drinker at that time of day, he mentioned that it was "based on a Robert Frost poem" ("The Road Not Taken") that he set to music with additional lyrics and a chorus. The two fiddles and guitar gave it a very bold feel reminiscent of early Steeleye Span. The overall effect was New Englander Robert Frost, who indeed had honed his poetry skills in England, transported to England via imagery and sound.

The first song for Wood (the men took turns, and due to Wood's and Wilson's insistence, Carthy wound up with more) was "The Shouter," based on a Sufi story called "The Preacher" and set to "Bold Archer," a traditional English slow waltz. With a long instrumental opening, the song is slow-paced and thoughtful, with lyrics about how the preacher explained he used to shout so the people would be more like him; now, he shouts so he won't be like them.

The afternoon's repertoire continued at that pace, with traditional songs intermingled with modern pieces and adaptations. Carthy's version of "Wife of Usher's Well" was unique in that he set the traditional lyrics to a Basque tune; it had a slow, yet magical sounding, pace. Carthy's detailed stories and song introductions are a highlight of his live shows, and his prologue to this song was no exception. "Usher's Well" is about a mother who mourns her dead sons too much -- her mourning slips past the usual year and a day limit, and they must return briefly to explain that they can't stay with her. Carthy mentioned an interesting anomaly in British law. A man who had been beaten had been kept alive on machines for three years. Because he died more than a year and a day after the incident, the men who'd beaten him couldn't be charged with murder.

Although Wood performs contemporary material, he may have inherited Carthy's skill at storytelling while introducing traditional material. While explaining "Lord Bateman," a song about the legendary exploits of Gilbert Beckett, father of Thomas Beckett, the famous archbishop found murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, he added some interesting folklore about the knights who killed Beckett. While caroling with friends in Kent, he was told not to sing by a certain house. The building, his friends explained, was named Slaybrook. Indeed, there was a brook running by the house, and according to legend, the knights who slew Beckett stayed in the house. Wood concluded his introduction by stating that he didn't "know how true it is, but like a lot of the ballads, there's a kernal of truth." His version of "Lord Bateman" was very slow and solemn. Some audience members closed their eyes, but they didn't do it out of boredom. Their heads were nodding to the beat, as if they had closed their eyes to visualize the story better.

If Wood is following in Carthy's footsteps regarding traditional ballads, Wilson's original compositions, such as "Little Miss Muse," and voice fit neatly into the American-style singer-songwriter vein. Wilson's voice works nicely on the traditional songs, but it truly takes off on his own compositions. He has a voice that could make hits in American singer-songwriter circles.

Despite the fact that the performers decided not to take a break in order to make the most of their time, they did have a deadline set by the Anvil. They closed with what they called "Hordes of Jovial Welshmen," a combination of two songs. First up was "Six Jovial Welshmen," a St. David's Day carol that, as Carthy clarified, wasn't religious at all. Since it only has two verses, it was juxtaposed with "Three Jovial Welshmen," a song completely unrelated to the first. Wood joked that he could believe that there were there were nine men who were Welsh, "but not jovial," and quickly added, "Some of my best friends were Welsh." Wood was thrilled by the audience's kind response. "This is the second time we've played here, and you, the audience, has grown fourfold." Carthy took lead vocals while the other two men joined with him on the chorus (the three harmonize nicely together), and Wilson played mandolin to blend well with Carthy's guitar and Wood's fiddle.

"We've been told we have to clear the building very quickly, so we thought we'd finish with some Morris tunes," said Wilson with a grin to an audience that quickly burst into laughter. Actually their final encore was an interesting choice -- a cover of Tom Waits' "Shiver Me Timbers" with Wilson on lead vocals. It was an unexpected choice, but it worked.

As the three men made clear, they're not a group. They're merely three solo performers who get together occasionally to perform in a sort of round-robin manner. May they continue to do so. Would all Sunday lunches be that pleasant!

[ by Ellen Rawson ]