Last year saw Eliza Carthy celebrate her 30th year in the music industry. Before this gig, Eliza took to Twitter to ask fans which songs they would like to see reinterpreted for a new LP. This resulted in her latest album Queen of the Whirl. Carthy's many successes include collaborating with accomplished artists including Jools Holland and Billy Bragg, but the pinnacle has to be having her father Martin Carthy as her supporting act for the first half of the show.
With a black flowery shirt, Martin stood tall with an acoustic guitar and sang “High Germany”. The clarity of his diction and emotion injected into this song instantly permeated the audience offering them bittersweet elation. Following “High Germany” Martin was joined by a sitar player and cellist to play “Scarborough Fair”. A mere mention of this song was always going excites an audience who knew their folk history, for “Scarborough Fair” was the song Martin taught Bob Dylan when Dylan first came to the UK back in 1962.
“Scarborough Fair” would inspire Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country”. The wonderful reinterpretation of “Scarborough Fair” by Martin was a testament that whilst folk music owes a debt to the guitar and woodwind instruments, allowing traditional songs to mix and collaborate with other instruments including the sitar allows new joyous adventures with greater people participation.
Eliza and The Gift Band later joined Martin on stage. Eliza and her late mother Norma Waterson collaborated with The Gift Band. The ensemble brought the accordion led country and blues with jazz sounds. The choice of songs and their lyrics had a traditional and folk feel to them such as “Dream of Napoleon” about “Legless John” which has similar themes to “Mrs McGrath” covered by Bruce Springsteen. Rudyard Kipling's “The Widows Party” which Kipling wrote about Queen Victoria was given a new lease of life through folk music arrangements. Other songs played got the audience in unison to engage in seated rowing movements whilst others such as the “The Galaxy Song” reached distant places.
The second half saw Eliza return with the six-piece Gift band to play mostly songs from her 2022 Queen of the Whirl LP. From the outset, there were soothing cacophonies of the organ, accordion and drums. Once Eliza began playing the fiddle, there was a sense of wholeness at the Barbican Centre. The juxtaposition of the lyrical content of the songs was amusing. For instance “Blood on My Boots” was a jazz and swing arranged song about claiming to have drunk champagne with Jerry Springer in London contrasted to “My Fathers Mansion”, a Pete Seeger cover with themes about the importance of safe public places with deep haunting and acerbic jangly guitar notes.
Eliza then reached perfection when she covered her maternal Aunts song “Stumbling On” by reimagining it with a happy unison of pop, blues and Motown along with up-tempo piano solos. Another stroke of genius was Eliza's cover of Mighty Sparrow's sixties calypso carnival song “Good Morning Mr Walker” by giving it an upbeat wall of sound folk injection reminiscent of Bellowhead's “New York Girls”.
Eliza has always been prepared to introduce sounds from other musical genres throughout her career. Eliza's original version of “Red Rice” saw drum and bass take centre stage. Across several of the songs Carthy played at the Barbican, other musical styles led the way whilst folk, in its traditionalist-preconceived format was a supporting partner.
Eliza knew which songs this relationship would work best with. The outcomes and receptions were welcome innovations that did not betray the genre that has been good to her and is part of her inherited DNA. After all, Eliza's greatest instrument is the violin. At the Barbican Eliza proved herself a worthy ambassador of folk music honouring the legacy of the Waterson family songbook, whilst demonstrating the bright future where folk harmoniously collaborates with others without losing its essence.