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Vagrant Stanzas

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Album Review

In 2011, guitarist and songwriter Martin Simpson released Purpose + Grace, an album where he surrounded himself with friends from the fertile British folk scene. Vagrant Stanzas stands in sharp contrast. He performs it completely solo, singing, playing guitar, banjo, or both — though there are a few overdubs. Simpson credits his neighbor, songwriter Richard Hawley, with this tack, inspired by evening song-swapping sessions at the kitchen table in Sheffield. Co-produced by the artist with American Peter Denenberg and Hawley (depending on the continent where he was recording), this set closely approximates Simpson's live show. According to his liner notes, much of it was recorded in first takes. The title is taken from a term used by American banjo player Buell Kazee, in reference to the "floating verses" used in traditional songs. And there are several here, along with originals, Scots ballads, contemporary songs, and instrumentals. The set's highlights are many; they include the traditional banjo tune "Diamond Joe," with Simpson's subtly whining slide guitar in the backdrop, and an ageless rendition of "Blue Eyed Boston Boy." His reading of "North Country Blues" contains within its grain all of the time-weary wisdom that the 22-year-old Bob Dylan was trying to convey. Simpson's version eclipses the original; in his treatment it feels like a cousin to Henry D.L. Webster's doleful instrumental "Lorena," written more than a century before, and the traditional banjo tune "Lady Gay." Of the songs from the British Isles, his slide guitar-accompanied reading of the (criminally underrated) Leon Rosselson disaster ballad "Palaces of Gold" is devastating. "Waly Waly" is a scandalous folk song that inspired many of the "vagrant stanzas" tunes from the American South — including Kazee's "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies." The guitar playing on it is exceptional, even for a master like Simpson. The best songs here are his own. "Jackie and Murphy," written to fulfill a request from June Tabor, relates the true tale and tragedy of a WWI soldier and his rescue donkey. "Delta Dreams" is a fingerpicked country number; its narrative details a road trip Simpson took with Spencer Bohren from New Orleans through the South in a '55 Chevy. This set all whispers to a close with his all-too-brief and beautiful instrumental "Come Write Me Down." In Vagrant Stanzas' 52 minutes, Simpson has taken us not only though the music of the British Isles and America, but through his own history, directly, honestly, and poetically. [The Deluxe Edition contains a bonus disc that features eight session outtakes; they include a reprise of "Diamond Joe," the 16th-century English ballad "The Death of Queen Jane," and a killer version of Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell."]


Born: May 5, 1953 in Scunthorpe, England

Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Martin Simpson is one of the most visible examples of the relationship between the Celtic folk of the United Kingdom and American musics such as country and the blues, which branched away from their British sources as American immigrants became distant from their past countrymen. Simpson's life charts a similar journey -- one of the most technically gifted guitarists alive in the 2000s, he was born in South Humberside, England, but moved to the United States in the late '80s (after recording several...
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