It’s 29 years since Martin Simpson last played in the isles, and for those who saw him at Mareel last night, it was more than worth the wait.
Conjuring the kind of inexplicable magic, which engages and audience and only comes with music of the heart, Simpson is an enchanting performer, not only for his guitar playing, but his storytelling and musical interpretations.
Simpson opened with the dark and brooding In the Pines – a story of death, humming bullets and train tracks, with famous blues musician Lead Belly responsible for one of its many incarnations.
Slide dancing on the fretboard, Simpson painted the pictures of the sinister, deep, dark woods, transporting the audience across the pond with the chilling tale.
Simpson spoke of living in the US, the Mississippi Delta, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and the interesting characters of New Orleans.
His love of blues music, oozes from his playing, and it was clear that his was a man who really understands the blues and its musicians.
His self-penned Delta Dreams tells the story of driving from New Orleans in a 55 Bel Air , with descriptions of a bench seat, car radio, and “Bird Breath”.
The 1985 Shetland Folk Festival was the last time Simpson made the trip to Shetland, and he joked that he was trying “desperately to remember” what he said that meant it took 29 years to bring him back.
Simpson mixed folk ballads, with blues numbers and impressive fingerpicking. His performance of Heartbreak Hotel, Bert Jansch’s favourite song, really made the guitar sing – with plenty of gusto and grit as metal slide hit the strings.
At times his playing was charmingly organic, melting into numbers from free-flowing guitar intros.
When a Night Won His Spurs was such a piece. Having last heard the words in school assemblies, I found myself mouthing the lines as the instrumental morphed into the familiar melody.
Simpson’s Jackie and Murphy was nothing short of beautiful, telling the extraordinary tale of a man from Tyneside who ended up in the Dardanelles on the first day of the Gallipoli landings and saved hundreds of men with the help of a donkey.
Equally as impressive was Never Any Good, written about Simpson’s Dad with the words “you were never any good with money, you couldn’t even hold a job”.
Arthur Nicholson provided support on the night, and as always, gave a polished performance – vocally and in the quality of his guitar playing.
Nicholson played a number of tracks from his debut album Sticks and Stones, which were warmly received by the audience.
Having listened to the record since Christmas, it was great to hear him play his version of God Only Knows, which Nicholson strongly delivered – complete with a full and varied guitar accompaniment.
Simpson was also impressed with Nicholson’s musicianship.
“That was good wasn’t it,” said Simpson after Nicholson left the stage.
Simpson said he hoped it wouldn’t be another 29 years before he travels back to Shetland to perform.
I and many others definitely hope to see him again soon.