Winter, it would seem, is finally ‘pon us- the crisp bite of frost hanging in the air, the increased visibility of our exhalations of breath, the red glow of the industrial sunset, the drawing in of the nights (up here anyway) at anything betwixt 4 and 5 pm. And with this change of season comes a hankering, as ever, for a certain new aesthetic. Begone the hedonism of the Summer, with its leanings towards decadent sleazy rock n roll, AOR and (in some cases) rumbustious Southern boogie: instead, verily invoketh ye the wood-timbered ambience of Olde Albione, the recital of legends, and – by flickering fireside ember – the beatific hymnals of progressive folk music. In other words, the sound of Chris Simpson and Magna Carta.
Next year, the affable Yorkshireman will celebrate not only his 77th birthday, but the band’s 50th anniversary: as Dave Brock is to Hawkwind and John Lees to Barclay James Harvest, he remains the sole constant in an ever-changing series of lineups, permutations and formations so tangled one could script a soap opera from them. And, naturally, as the personnel has changed, so has the approach: rather than harmonising with a theatrical falsetto vocalist in the style of the legendarily (infamously?) androgynous Glen Stuart, or a “traditionalist” such as Tom Hoy, Simpson chooses these days the warmer, earthier tones of the fabulously talented electro-acoustic guitarist/second vocalist Ken Nicol (ex-Steeleye Span) whose ragtime-influenced fingerpicking is, and always has been, a wonder to behold.
Arranged around them, we have a deft young bassist and an almost impossibly beautiful, “heavy metal”- looking female violinist: with all three collaborators providing a near-perfect cushion to their leader’s gently authorative vocals and masterful acoustic strumming, the perky rearrangements of old perennials Two Old Friends and Wish It Was, set alongside latterday favourites as Sun Ain’t Gonna Rise, seem blessed with a new-found sense of longing, lore and mystery. Clearly steeped in the history of his native county, and not averse to a myth or two (indeed, he even at one point refers to his local dale as “the place where God lives”) Simpson repeatedly shows himself to be not just an admirable musician, but a skilful, witty and fascinating raconteur: before he’s even plucked or sung one solitary note of Greenhow Hill, he’s already set a scene so vivid you want to go there immediately. If, that is, you didn’t fear you’d miss the rest of a great evening’s entertainment.
His greatest aptitude, however, has always been in the construction of a chilling prog-folk epic- and in that vein, though there’s sadly no time for Lord Of The Ages, Father John or the mammoth Seasons tonight (neither time constraints nor instrumentation would allow for it, methinks) we are treated to a more recent pilgrimage through time, story and song in the shape of Fields Of Eden, the spoken vocals of narrator Andrew Jackson provided by the ever-reliable Robin sound desk. Switching, over its 15- minute duration, between three and four different time signatures, several moods and at least two keys, with each member showcasing their versatility yet never sacrificing structure or melody, it shows Magna Carta at their precise best: sure, it’s a far cry from those halcyon days of full orchestras and giant halls, but if they could drag a small string quartet into Birmingham CBSO or Conservatoire next year, it would undoubtedly do me. In point of fact, however, the location is the least of my worries as long as I get the chance to witness their magic a third time; the first, in case you wondered, was also in this greatest of venues, supporting Pentangle in 2016, but so special are they, I’d gladly travel further afield if required. And so should you.
This is also, interestingly enough, the second time I’ve seen Matthews Southern Comfort: I did admittedly once work with Iain solo in my former capacity as promoter (something for which he’s long forgiven me, thankfully) but never dreamed- until the announcement of their London Borderline show in 2013, anyway- that I’d actually see the songs from 1970’s unsurpassable trilogy of MSC albums (count ‘em, THREE in one bloody year) played live. And even after I had done so, the majesty of the event was sullied not long after by the announcement of the great man’s impending “retirement”, making me think I’d never see them again. Of course, I should have known better- rock, blues and folk musicians don’t retire in the 2010s, they simply keep going and going until they can go no more- and thankfully for us all, this is evidently what Matthews (although admittedly now backed by three younger players, technically making the band ‘MSC’ in name only) has since elected to do.
Not, I should stress, that they’re the only youthful-looking people onstage: at 72, IM still looks about 45, the only immediately visible difference between him and myself being the colour of his hair. Mind you, mine would be that silver if I didn’t vainly dye it every month. More to the point, his shimmering alto vocals have remained undimmed by the passing of the years: the only slight change is in the addition of an oak-aged gravitas and venom (especially on newer, more lyrically bitter compositions like Bits And Pieces or Age Of Isolation) that was sometimes absent from his earlier work, and it’s no bad thing. Moreover, in structuring the set so that new songs rub shoulders with old classics like And Me (Say A Prayer), Darcy Farrow or Mimi & Richard Farina’s Blood Red Roses, Matthews- these days a Dutch resident, surrounded by an entirely Dutch lineup who undoubtedly bring a flavour of that country’s ownpop heritage to the group’s already potent blend of English folk and Americana- deftly highlights the continuity between both eras, thus also drawing attention to their finest elements.
Of course, even back in ‘69, MSC were never a one-man show: indeed, by way of demonstration that this is and has always been a band (with, might I add, six fine studio albums in total under its belt) there’s not one number from the vocalist’s extensive solo catalogue in the set tonight, nary a Biloxi or a Morgan The Pirate to be found. Nor is their time for any Plainsong, Hi-Fi or Fairport stuff: and even within the group itself, the emphasis (though its past should never be ignored) is very much on presenting the band as it exists now, both as composers and interpreters of others’ material (a balance Matthews has repeatedly favoured since the 60s) Thusly, acoustic six-stringer Eric Devries- in addition to his contributions to the ensemble’s already exceptional four-part harmonies – also asserts himself with a fine lead vocal on Mare, Take Me Home: meanwhile, electric guitarist/mandolinist/ all-rounder Bart Baartmans (leave your tedious Simpsons jokes at the door please) is a revelation, letting rip with several tasteful solos throughout that call to mind both his fellow countryman Chris Koerts (Earth & Fire) and a more restrained version of Matthews’ former bandmate Richard Thompson.
Sadly, there’s nothing in the set tonight from the original band’s much-underrated eponymous third album, but further “golden greats” surface late on in the shape of To Love and (obviously) Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, the sole UK no 1 hit ever enjoyed by any former Fairport Convention member (now there’s a top music quiz trivia fact for you) Recognised as radically different from its creator’s original version even at the time of its release, it’s since been reworked yet again, its new vocal refrain and tempo showcasing yet another unexpected development in the fascinating history of this most iconic “hippie dream” composition: if anything, it actually now resembles its writer’s Miles Of Aisles version more than anything else, albeit with the funky backbeat replaced by the thrumming piano and Rhodes sounds of keyboardist Bart De Win. Yet another concealed weapon in the band’s already resplendent armoury, he also excels on further newies Like A Radio and (by way of unexpected encore) Crystals On The Glass: so much so, in fact, it almost seems a shame to cut him off in his prime.
Forever destined to remain two of this country’s best-kept insider secrets, both Matthews and Simpson are gracefully gliding through their 70s with all the poise and invention of the true artists they are: though outwardly different, both are capable of stealing the listener away from the mundanity of everyday life and into a mystical fireside land of song, and for my own part, I’m overjoyed that glad this gig- allegedly cancelled and rebooked about five times- finally went ahead. And, from the 300-plus turnout tonight, it would seem the West Midlands’ folk-rock fanbase in general shares my enthusiasm. Verily and indeed, and with a hey nonny nonny tooralay.