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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Bloomsbury Theatre, London, November 1st 2008

It apparently took Eliza Carthy seven years to produce her new album, Dreams of Breathing Underwater, her second of entirely self-penned songs as opposed to arrangements of traditional tunes. Not that she hasn’t been busy or preoccupied during this time. She’s been dumped by a record company. She fell out with her management, dealt with some difficult personal stuff and, by her own account, spent a lot of time “down the pub”. And now she’s expecting a baby.

Eliza Carthy
She also released a couple of albums, including 2002’s highly-acclaimed and award-winning Anglicana. She has also been involved in some notable collaborations, principally with those bastions of British folk music, mother Norma Waterson and father Martin Carthy. She’s also a leading light of Imagined Village, a very creative exploration of the roots and identity of English music. And she featured notably on the Rogue’s Gallery collection of sea-shanties, making an inspired contribution at this year’s live piratical performance at the Barbican. As it turns out we’re very lucky to be seeing her at all at the start of this tour to promote the new record. After only a couple of gigs she was forced to cancel the tour due to a problem with her vocal chords that can’t be treated during her pregnancy – but like the trooper she is, she hopes to begin touring again in the Spring. Don’t be surprised if the baby’s on stage with her singing along, in true family tradition.
The new album is quite inspired in its breadth of vision, ‘though I have to say it’s one of those pieces of work that is made so much more accessible by having heard it sung in live performance. It draws heavily on the English (and British) folk traditions, but blends these with a disparate array of worldly influences, sometimes not always to best effect on record, but when once heard live, the whole thing seems to work perfectly. Eliza Carthy
Which might explain why the album is top of my current play list (vying for that spot at the moment, for what it’s worth, with Willie Dixon’s I am the Blues), and why “Hug you like a mountain” keeps on being played on the random shuffle of that i-Pod in my head. At the centre of everything is Ms Carthy’s remarkably deep and expressive voice – it owns the songs, despite the very superior nature of her own playing, and the musicians around her. Emma Smith (whose collaborations range from Ms Carthy, to Damon Albarn and Hot Chip) is playing double bass, world-music specialist Phil Alexander plays accordion and piano, and standing in on drums is Tim Wright. Barney Morse-Browne plays cello, and also began the evening playing multi-looped cello and guitar under the guise of Duotone. They turn in a splendid ensemble performance, with Ms Carthy joining on violin, accordion, and a hypnotic electric tenor guitar on songs such as ‘Follow the dollar’.
This, like all of the songs on the new record, has a story to tell, albeit some are more obvious than others. But sung by Ms Carthy they are rich in imagery, and her voice brings to life the colourful characters that inhabit so many of them. None more so than bar-room dreamer and lothario ‘Mr Magnifico’, co-sung tonight in excellent style by guest Tim Matthew, violinist with Edinburgh’s Mystery Juice. It’s one of the songs that doesn’t quite work on the album but live it is pure Alex Harvey Gothic, dark and brooding with a driving dynamic Latin rhythm. It would be hard to pick out other highlights from such an all-round set, but if pushed I’d mention ‘Two tears’, combining strands of Marianne Faithfull and Tom Waits, and the aforementioned ‘Hug you like a mountain’.

But altogether this was one of the more satisfying, accomplished and nicely surprising gigs of the year. So as your Whiskyfun non-whisky shopping adviser I can only urge you to add Dreams of Breathing Underwater to your recession-beating Christmas gift list. It’s a must. - Nick Morgan

Listen: Eliza Carthy's MySpace page


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