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Saturday 18 May 2024

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Skydancers – Martin Simpson

Apr 14, 2024

One of the most itchy-footed of troubadours, Martin Simpson has yet found room to make studio album time almost every two years. His latest release is “Skydancers”, his twelfth full length album since 1992, issued on the near-fabled Topic label. Anyone opting for the CD version gets a bonus disc of live and reworked songs.

The title piece was commissioned by naturalist Chris Packham to highlight the plight of the Hen-harrier. The beautifully-picked opening  captivates, as birds take flight before the landscape darkens at the introduction of the bird-hunting theme (cruelty masquerading as sport), and the question is asked ‘an empty sky is a heartbreak, so what is it to the pearly ring-tailed harrier or this shooting gallery?’ The easy pace of guitar and voice only serves to enhance the acerbic message.

In his handling of the fine old Craig Johnson song “New Harmony” Martin is at his wistful best. Cello, (Liz Hanks), pedal steel (Greg Leisz) and backing singers charm the piece along with an ache-inducing  sensitivity.

A feature of this album is the variation in subject matter, which includes wildlife preservation, gender fluidity and dehumanising politics, all demonstrating Martin Simpson’s ever -restless and diverse approach to traditional music (cue the metamorphosised ‘When I Was On Horseback’ lament for a cowboy riddled with venereal disease).

“Billy Waters” is a small and perfectly-formed seafaring epic – the music bounces along delightfully, (Liz Hanks’s cello is a particular treat all through the album). The song is paired with a gentle but, for me, all too brief guitar study of the old sea shanty ‘Lowlands’.

The final piece is Martin’s faultless steel guitar solo, “Donal Og”. Superlatives are unnecessary by now, best to just settle further into your armchair and enjoy this miniature masterpiece.

Martin Simpson’s transatlantic cracker is full of panache and flair, with songs as soft as a cloud, as breezy as a Highland wind and as steely as his Sheffield homeland.

Bob Langstaff.

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