Toby Venables reports on Eliza Carthy - Cambridge Folk Festival, 1 Aug 2008

eliza carthy
44th Cambridge Folk Festival

The irresistible, driving bluegrass rhythms of Cherryholmes are a hard act to follow, and for a while I wasn't sure that Eliza Carthy - gracing Stage 1 in the mid afternoon with a rather enigmatic, low-key set of new songs - was going to pull it off.

True, I was a bit distracted by the fact that Adrian Edmondson was sitting two seats away, but I should have had a little more faith. Eliza's been at this lark for quite a while now. As the daughter of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson, she was born into it - and it was evident from the moment she stepped onto the stage that the next generation was not many weeks off the same fate (later, while perching a button accordion on her fecund protuberance she commented: ‘It's quite handy, this. Like a little table. I'm not giving birth to a child, I'm giving birth to a table...')

While other bands assault your senses, Eliza Carthy's new material slowly seduces them. Consisting exclusively of original material - mostly taken from the recent release Dreams Of Breathing Underwater, only her second entirely self-penned album - the set was a very different kettle of haddock from her more familiar English folk material; less earthy, less direct and less danceable. But this is a natural progression for an artist who has always been drawn to new material and songwriting, most notably in 2000's Angels and Cigarettes, from which her opening number, the poignant and haunting Train Song, was taken. Occasionally this has manifested itself as a kind of split personality, as in her Mercury nominated double album Red Rice - actually two albums, one of traditional material traditionally arranged, and one of mostly traditional material gone a bit bonkers; one for folkies, one for clubbers. With her newest work, Carthy finds herself with a more comfortable synthesis of her eclectic musical interests. Little Big Man - ‘a song about fat people in love, set in the glamorous locations of Prague and Whitby' - captured this perfectly; at once cheeky and sad, with a tune that sounded as old as the hills and quirky lyrics that evoked traditional English naughty weekends by the seaside. The overall effect was like a Carry On written by Alan Bennett, or a beach scene painted by a slightly psychedelic Beryl Cook.

So immersed in the tradition is Eliza Carthy that it's impossible now to tell where ‘traditional' ends and anything else begins; it just flows, and all you know is that it has a kind of eccentric Englishness - sometimes with a retro swing, sometimes with an entirely modern slant; a hint of music hall here, a touch of John Playford there, but never with anything that seems forced or out of place. There's a sense that she's just more comfortable in life, too - a more mature person, with a baby on the way, happier with her place in the world. And this is reflected in her voice. A few years ago, when she had just been nominated for the Mercury prize, I saw her perform a more traditional set at Cambridge. Then, her voice was good, but still developing. Now it has found its sound. It's a huskier, more rounded, and deeply satisfying tone, yet without the loss of any of its edge. At the risk of evoking something very un-English, it's like an Islay malt whisky - smooth, balanced, but with a hint of seasalt and smoke.

This is not the kind of material that knocks you out in the first minute. But it does its work on you, nonetheless. By the third song - the epic story of a most unfortunate encounter in a pub, Mr Magnifico - you were entirely drawn into this wonderful world, with its curiously sad characters, its slightly surreal atmosphere and its wholly seductive vocal and instrumental textures. And this really is an epic, both musically and lyrically (with a great voice-over narration from drummer Willie Molleson). I thought for a long time how best to sum it up. I toyed with the word ‘cabaret', but that somehow sounds far too strident and in your face. I thought of comparing the elegiac feel to the early (and greatest) Genesis album Selling England By The Pound, but that's much too rarified and ‘prog'. Ultimately, as the heartbreaking Two Tears got underway I just forgot all about comparisons, and went with it. And that, I suppose, is the ultimate accolade. With Dreams Of Dreaming Underwater Eliza Carthy has achieved something so many strive for in folk and so few achieve, creating something entirely original and of its time that, somehow, still belongs to everyplace, and everytime.

Writer: Toby Venables

Photo: Claire Borley