Sitting in Newtownards’ Queens Hall and having to write a review of three amazing guitarists, I feel like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.
The room is packed with guitar fans who obviously know their stuff and who are going to hang on every note and obscure chord progression. Belfast-based John Tracey kicks off the evening with a short but varied set, mixing original compositions with arrangements of more familiar material. A rag-time version of “King of the Swingers” and a lovely take on “When You Wish Upon a Star”, full of gorgeous runs, attest to his self-confessed Disney fandom.
His own tune “39 Hours”, written about the time he got to spend with his wife at weekends, has something about it that reminds me of Randy Newman and there is more than a hint of Tommy Emmanuel about his lively and bright guitar style. Tracey has a lovely way about him, very warm and engaging. His version of “Dueling Banjos” begins with a staccato introduction before hitting a break-neck county picking rhythm. Tracey rounds off his set with the title track of his new album Dangerous to Go Alone, inspired by comic books and their sound effects.
Clive Carroll is up next and is nothing short of a revelation. When writing reviews, I always try to find some kind of comparison with other artists, musicians or styles. Carroll simply defies comparison. He opens with “In The Deep” and has his 6th string tuned to a B which gives a beautiful sound. The deep and resonant bass is faintly hypnotic as he slides and bends in and out of notes. He plays “The Prince’s Waltz” after giving us a short background to the waltz rhythm and its relationship to the length of lady’s dresses, this is an intricate piece with what sounds like Spanish and French themes woven throughout it.
Carroll reminisces about his last appearance at the Ards Guitar Festival some 16 years ago and recalls how he shared the stage with Tony McManus, John Renbourn, Jack Lawrence and Tommy Emmanuel. Then comes what was for me the highlight of the evening; the 7 ½ minute-long “Renaissance Suite”. This is a five-part original composition written for two guitars and tonight Carroll plays it with a pre-recorded second guitar part. On his 2016 album The Furthest Tree, the other part is played by classical guitarist John Williams. Through this piece Carroll swaps his capo and jumps in and out of different tunings. The suite captures a real renaissance feel, telling the story of Sir Gawain and ending with the tune “The Green Knight”.
Next up was the wonderful “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” by Charles Mingus and this is exactly what you would expect – a syncopated but melodic piece of classic jazz. Astonishingly, there is only time for one more tune with Carroll ending his set with “Oregon”, a tune written in the wilderness and inspired by the frozen landscape and silence. Carroll showcases his percussive guitar skills and overlays these with booming bass patterns and a meandering melody.
Martin Simpson takes the stage and begins with two beautifully judged songs that dovetail perfectly. He performs “St James Hospital” with long slow slides, making it sound distinctly American but with a traditional English folk vocal phrasing, then goes straight into the hard and heavy picking of Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell”. Simpson likes to talk about the origins of the songs he plays and we are treated to a potted history of how “St James Hospital” originally dealt with death by syphilis but ended up in a variety of guises such as death by gunshot in “Streets of Laredo”. Next is “Reynardine”, which tells the tale of a mysterious individual who tries to seduce a young girl and who was able to change into a fox.
Simpson introduces “Never Any Good” as his “one big hit.” A touching and heartfelt love song about his father, bittersweet in places and full of longing, this never fails to bring a lump to the throat. Simpson wears his heart on his sleeve and makes no bones about this. A story about how he happened to drive past Grenfell Tower, a few days after the tragic blaze leads into the haunting “Palaces of Gold”, written by Leon Rosselson about the Aberfan disaster in 1966, Simpson’s rendition makes it current and relevant.
There are plenty of songs from last year’s Trials and Tribulations album, and Simpson’s cover of the Jackson C Frank song “Blues Run The Game” is the one that stands out. It was interesting to hear about Jackson C Frank’s failed career in music, with one flop album produced by Paul Simon. Frank’s songs are now covered by nearly everyone, including Simon and Garfunkel who did a very early version of” Blues Run The Game”.
“Heartbreak Hotel” lifts the pace a little, complete with tales of how Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis were fond of rights grabs when it came to songwriting credits. Simpson’s account of how Dolly Parton dealt with them over “I Will Always Love You” by producing both middle fingers, produced a fair bit of laughter in the room. The highlight of Simpson’s set for me was “A Ballad for Katherine of Aragon”; a mix of Charles Causley’s poetry, the loss of a friend and a lament for Katherine herself.
Simpson ends with an old favourite, his re-telling of the old Greek myth “Icarus” before returning for one encore, the very English “Ridgeway” which is a love-letter to the English countryside and landscapes.
This was the last evening concert of this year’s Ards International Guitar Festival; An evening of exceptional guitar music from three very different and very talented musicians – just the way it should be.