Martin Simpson - Skydancers

2024 studio album

Skydancers - Martin Simpson

the bright young folk review

The latest addition to Martin Simpson’s considerable catalogue, Skydancers finds the formidable folk guitarist and singer in fine form. Bringing together transatlantic traditional and could-be-trad repertoire with his own writing, the double album features all the strands of Simpson’s career that has made him one of the most called numbers in festival and club bookers’ address books.

There’s ten all new tracks recorded in the studio, with the warm and intimate feel supplemented with choice guests, while the bonus live album that shows Simpson doing what he does best, wrapping an audience around his finger all by himself.

As always, his considerable guitar skills are front and centre, from the rapid figures on the title track that circle round like birds in flight, capturing the euphoria of the birdwatcher, to the interesting suspended chords on an instrumental version of Lowlands being an example of how he manages to take some of the most well-worn numbers in the canon and find a new angle to them.

The additions to Simpson’s guitar and voice include the galloping double bass on Tom Sherman’s Barroom, a Wild West-based relative of St James Infirmary and Pills of White Mercury. Meanwhile a bevvy of backing singers add their voices to Billy Waters, a brand new sea shanty that tells the stranger than fiction story of black American born in the 18th century who found fame busking on the streets of London after being invalided out of the Royal Navy.

Regular collaborator Andy Cutting trades blows on melodeon with Simpson’s banjo on Roger’s Cascade, while cello fills out the lower end on that track and many others on the album. In some places it provides a mellow and more subtle alternative to having a guest fiddle player clashing with the upper register of the guitar, though other arrangements such as Alan Tyne of Harrow could live without it.

Which is a shame, as Simpson’s tricksy version of that song is another great addition to the recent mini-revival of what must be the ultimate highwayman ballad from the English tradition, and a fitting one for our times of increasing inequality?

Speaking of which, another of Simpson’s talents is his ability to blend empathy with righteous anger when singing songs about the victims of systemic failures, from the Welsh Valleys to New Orleans. Deportee, a Woody Guthrie number about Latino fruit pickers, has added resonance at a time when migration is rarely out of the news.

The sleeve notes bring out the intersection between folk music and his other loves, not least a keen eye for nature influencing the selection of The Cherry Tree Carol. On the live album, Buckets of Rain is an appropriate choice of Dylan cover from someone who’s made his home in Yorkshire.

That second half also features some deep cuts, such as a swaggering version of Flash Company that’s been refined by Simpson over nearly half a century alongside June Tabor among others. Self-effacingly, the sleeve notes simply state “I’ve been practicing it for years”.

There’s nothing on Skydancers hugely unexpected for longtime Simpson admirers, but what is impressive is how he manages to keep finding new material, and bringing the same level of enthusiasm that you find in his first recordings for Topic 32 years ago.

If he makes it seem unremarkable, it’s only because this level of instrumental and vocal craft coupled with a genuine expressive warmth is what we’ve come to expect from any release with the name Martin Simpson on.

Nick Brook

Released April 12th on Topic Records on CD, vinyl and digitally. Produced by Martin Simpson and Tom Wright.

CD1 & Vinyl

1. Skydancers
2. New Harmony
3. Alan Tyne Of Harrow
4. Tom Sherman’s Barroom
5. Lowlands/Billy Waters
6. Roger’s Cascade
7. Fragile Water
8. Cherry Tree Carol
9. Deportee
10. Donal Og

CD 2

1. Leaves Of Life (Live)
2. Yew Piney Mountains (Live)
3. Buckets Of Rain (Live)
4. Donal Og (Live)
5. Ridgeway (Live)
6. In The Pines (Live)
7. Flash Company
8. Cactus Tree

Martin Simpson discography