Sunday, September 20, 2009

Chris Simpson, a living legend - live!

This blog has, since its inception, been a retrospective, nostalgic sort of trip. But suddenly I found myself faced with the opportunity to fast-forward 40 years – and to see a global rock legend performing live right in my home city of Port Elizabeth.

Billed as Magna Carta, the duo who performed at a small venue, Toni’s Place in Newton Park, comprised Chris Simpson and Tom Hoy. Simpson, of course, I knew instantly as the “leader” of the original group from the early 1970s which had such an impact on us. He wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the album, Seasons, as well, I suspect, as on Lord of the Ages and my personal favourite, Songs from Wasties Orchard.

Let me stress, at the outset, that this is not my “official” posting on Magna Carta. I intend to devote my full attention to their pivotal role as soon as I get the chance. But time, at the moment, seems in particularly short supply. I am labouring to complete my piece on Donovan, and am aware that many, many other worthy and legendary groups and individuals still need to be covered.

So this is jumping the gun, somewhat. But I knew I had to see Simpson this time, since I missed a previous visit he made to these shores a few years ago.

Remember that evocative black-and-white photograph of Simpson, Lyell Tranter and Glen Stuart on the inside cover of Seasons? These were young men, with thick locks and dressed in paisley shirts. There were in the prime of their lives. They were idols at a time when we could not get enough of them.

Chris Simpson and Tom Hoy (Magna Carta, 2009)

How would 40-odd years have affected Chris Simpson? I had seen a photo of the now-bespectacled performer and Tom Hoy in a press preview which alerted me to the event in the first place, so knew what to expect. More concerning was would he still be able to play and sing as well as he did all those years ago? I confess I lost all track of the trio after those aforementioned albums, but clearly a career in popular music means you have to keep on keeping on. Once a performer, always a performer. Especially, I suspect, if you’ve tasted the sort of success Simpson did with Lord of the Ages.

So it was a middle-aged crowd of about 120 people who trundled in to Toni’s for the 6pm show (another would follow at 9pm) on a cold Friday evening, September 18. The venue was ideal – laid-back and intimate.

There are some larger than life characters among the British rock legends, and Simpson is one of them. Indeed, when he started playing I was struck by the fact that he looks and even sounds, at times, like another of those great performers from the British and Irish Isles, Irishman Christy Moore, of Planxty, who I had seen perform on a BBC documentary video, made in about 1990, called Bringing It All Back Home.

Chris Simpson (right) and Tom Hoy – sketches I did at Friday’s concert

Simpson opened the show, after a bit of banter in which he revealed he was recovering from a bout of laryngitis (not a good omen), with a Dylan song – if I recall correctly, Tangled Up In Blue. Anyway, it was off Blood on the Tracks. But, while pleasant, we had come to hear Magna Carta… When Tom Hoy joined him on the “stage” – in fact the performers are on the same level as the audience, which sits at tables in a rustic, cafĂ©-style set-up – there was an instant chemistry between the two which continued throughout the roughly two-hour gig, which was split by about 20 minutes for supper.

The show had a huge emotional impact on me. Not only did I become acutely aware of how old we are all getting, but I also realised that with age indeed comes some wisdom. Simpson’s world view is that of an elder statesman. And many of his more recent compositions performed that night, reflect his incredible ability to translate experience and insight into art.

Hoy, who intimated during the show that he was part of a 1970s Magna C line-up, is a delightful Scot with an impish sense of humour. Indeed, at one point Simpson, a Yorkshireman, noted that a Yorkshireman is “a Scot without the generosity”, or words to that effect.

The bridge at Knaresborough town – photos I took on a visit in the early 1990s

Why the Yorkshire connection affected me was that I spent some time with relatives of my wife in Leeds during the early 1990s, during which we got to visit the Dales and became acquainted with their great scenic beauty. We also visited a town called Knaresborough, and another called Grassington, where I recall tasting my first pint of Theakstone Old Peculiar, a particularly pleasant Yorkshire bitter.

And on Friday night Chris Simpson and Tom Hoy referred to both places. Hoy, it seems, now lives in Knaresborough, and of course when the pair played the song, The Bridge At Knaresborough Town, it proved a great hit with the appreciative audience. The audience. We were, I’m sure, all white. Such is the slow pace of racial integration in our society. But obviously that was purely due to black people not wanting to listen to music which, had they indeed turned up, would certainly have impressed them.

And despite his throat problems, Chris Simpson sang superbly. His distinctive voice is coarser, rougher, but if anything this makes it sound even more like the Simpson of the early 1970s. The pair played several classics from that period, including Airport Song and Lord of the Ages (for which Hoy did the Tranter narration part). But they also bowled us over with a clutch of new songs I had not heard before – which is not surprising given that 35-odd year gap. The titles eluded me, but Hoy’s song about Amsterdam was beautifully sung, while a Simpson piece about a young girl’s dream – “pictures in my pillow” – was particularly impressive.

The Yorkshire Dales – photos I took in the early 1990s

Ever one for creating works of lasting impact, Simpson again employed a (recorded) narration as part of a powerful song about the Green Fields of Eden. In this work he laments the way Britain’s involvement in the EU is resulting in the loss of small farms, particularly in the Dales, where for centuries fathers passed their farms on to their sons.

Another aspect about the Simpson genius which struck home was his wonderful ability as a guitarist. This was an entirely acoustic set, with just the two guitars and at one point Simpson playing harmonica. But it is the consummate ease with which he appears to play those superb melodies – such as on Lord of the Ages – which astounded me. He is a large man with big, broad fingers, yet it seems to me this is often the case with folk-style musicians. Indeed, I wondered how a guy his age has come through a lifetime of performing without picking up the sort of wrist hassles I have. Tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome are the bane of most people who do repetitive-action things like playing guitars.

What really hit home for me was that in Chris Simpson we really do have one of the great survivors of that period, around 1970, when the world’s music flowered more prolifically than it has probably ever done before or since. He peppered his songs with wonderful anecdotes – like how he wrote Lord of the Ages on the back of cigarette boxes while on a train, and then put it to music while visiting a friend who happened to “live next door to John Lennon”. He told how producer Gus Dudgeon summarily dropped Magna Carta when he discovered that another of his performers, whom Simpson jokingly called “Fat Reg” – was headed for a stellar career. Reginald Dwight, alias Elton John, would become one of the world’s all-time rock legends. He spoke fondly of his old friend Rick Wakeman, of brilliant guitarist Davy Johnstone. He might also have mentioned bassist Tony Vistonti, Tony Carr, Tim Renwick.

What all this says to me is that I was incredibly fortunate to enjoy hearing, even 40 years on, one of the great performers of an era which will never see an equal. It also reminds me that my task has really only just begun. I still have to cover, fully, Magna Carta and Elton John.

I’ve lined up Leonard Cohen to follow Donovan. Then there’s Kris Kristofferson, David Bowie, Don McLean, Bruce Springsteen …

And what of the South African connection? During intermission at this gig, they played Playgrounds in Paradise, a superb surfing song by 1970s duo (Brian) Finch and (Kenny) Henson, whose shows we lapped up on a few special occasions, and whose eponymous album is a real classic.

And what of Freedom’s Children, whose album Astra was probably one of our most listened to discs and stands alongside the best psychedelic rock albums the world produced. Then there was the African-rhythm-based Hawk, and Roger Lucey, who for a few years – despite boycotts by the state-controlled radio – brought out powerful, insightful albums in the late 1970s. There was also a former Rhodesia band, the Otis Waygood Blues Band, who were possibly the pick of the bunch. Various other folk, blues, rock and psychedelic bands and solo artists made this a rich period in our history. There were also a plethora of more commercial groups who made an impact.

And, while this is a Sixties and Seventies blog, what about the 1980s bands, especially Afrikaans performers like Johannes Kerkorrel and Bernoldus Niemand, who during the latter part of that decade in no small measure helped prepare the Afrikaans youth for the reality of a new, non-racial future.

So much to do, so little time …


Jackie said...

i would like to know if chris remembers playing in Darley north yorkshire in the summer of 1963?

soubriquet said...

I was in Knaresborough yesterday. I live in Leeds, born in Nidderdale, going to see Martin Simpson at Henshaws Arts and Crafts centre in Knaresborough on the 20th august.

Magna Carta! Oh yes, I remember them playing the folk clubs and pubs of Yorkshire, way back in the seventies, their songs travelled with me to faraway places, I found your blog whilst musing about them.
Knaresborough's a friendly old town, a good place to savour a pint and listen to someone singing from the heart.
If your'e ever in Yorkshire again, I'd be glad to buy you a pint of Old Peculier.
The beer's best drunk in the dales town where it's brewed, Masham, Favourite pub there? The White Bear. The pub's a favourite of Jethro Tull and Fairport convention too.

Hit counter