Live Reviews: Eliza Carthy

Spiegeltent, Queen’s University, Belfast21 October 2007The woman who was going to drag English folk music into the twenty-first century was at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s in Autumn, but watching the middle-aged and middle-class – that...

Spiegeltent, Queen’s University, Belfast
21 October 2007

The woman who was going to drag English folk music into the twenty-first century was at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s in Autumn, but watching the middle-aged and middle-class – that doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person – audience amble into the venue filled this reviewer with foreboding – it was as if Sandy Denny’s parents had gone AWOL from the cover of Fairport Convention’s Unhalfbricking LP to come to the gig. And when the star turn was introduced by the MC as ‘Eliza McCarthy’ the omens were not good.

However, the set began entertainingly enough with Carthy’s hommage to two of her heroes, Fred and Ginger, on Irving Berlin’s ‘I Used to Be Colour Blind’ from the 1938 musical, Carefree. The Spiegeltent was a fine receptacle for Carthy’s big voice and she does theatricality very well, but her witty banter seemed to get lost in the rafters and a heavy cold didn’t help her cause either.

‘The Lady All Skin and Bones’, a scout song with a strange fiddle accompaniment was particularly effective, but too many of the songs were doom and gloom with the Grim Reaper appearing with an unhealthy regularity throughout the evening, usually with a wailing accompaniment on the box which recalled the Gary Trudeau cartoon, ‘Welcome to heaven, here’s your harp; welcome to hell, here’s your accordion.’ In all, it was a very uneven evening. Certain songs shone brightly into the dancing Spiegeltent mirrors while others were received like a dirty joke at the vicarage, Billy Bragg’s ‘King James Version’, oddly enough, being one of them.

After starting off solo and not making much headway, Eliza called in her mates – Emma Smith on bass, Willie Molleson on drums and Phil Alexander on keyboards and button accordion. As Alan Partridge might say, if variety is the spice of life, then this show was vindaloo. We had everything from rock to reggae, cabaret and hand-on-ear fundamentalist folk. Standout moments included ‘Mr Magnifico’, an Edinburgh melodrama featuring a lovelorn landlord looking for a lodger, a turn which lightened the proceedings immensely, but as the audience warmed, another dirge emerged to send them back into their reverie which was a terrible shame.

Carthy has a huge talent and is a fine instrumentalist, be it on fiddle, accordion, ukelele, or guitar. She is a good storyteller and can craft a song. Her voice is expressive and the band are tight or playful as called upon – the three part harmonies on ‘Little Big Man’ were excellent – and when the material was good, they were very good, be it English folk song, self-penned material or covers of Billy Bragg or Rory McLeod. However, the gig ended with genteel applause and Eliza dutifully came out for an encore – though I did wonder why she bothered.

Published on 1 January 2008

Robert MacMillan is Irish Language Editor with The Irish News in Belfast.

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