If the traditional folk scene is having a good year in 2011, I think it’s fair to say that Eliza Carthy is having a bloody great one. She’s riding on the success of her best album to date, Neptune, and is diversifying and experimenting with her solo output like never before. As a live performer she has never been on better form. This is something with which few people watching her in Bristol’s Colston Hall, we suspect, would disagree.
The evening opens with a reminder of Carthy’s roots in the form of her support band: her cousins Mary Waterson and Oliver Knight. A slow start perhaps, but the set builds nicely towards the duo’s most charismatic numbers and may have done some work to soften the transition for the audience’s traditionalists into Carthy’s own set, which, like her album, makes folk the background – not by pushing it away, but making it a sort of vital context: a rulebook to test, bend and doodle around in.
And this is very much a tour of the album, with just a few old favourites. She’s supported by a full band – a pianist who sometimes simultaneously plays keyboard; a small string section, and a drummer, who also seems to be the strongest backing vocalist. “Who’s doing those lovely low barbershop notes?” you find yourself asking, before finding your answer sat suavely behind the drum kit.
It’s one of those shows where there’s always plenty going on and you never know what to expect next, especially since the instruments onstage aren’t always the same as those on the album – all those brass assortments have to fit themselves into new and inventive shapes.
We also learn plenty of fascinating bits of context: the opening line of ‘Blood on my Boots’, “I was drinking champagne with Jerry Springer”, is not a fanciful imagination of decadence, but actually a near-literal rehearsal of Carthy’s attendance at the premiere of Jerry Springer: The Opera. And the lovely Spanish vocal on ‘Britain is a Car Park’ is actually, we’re told, a list of foods followed by the Spanish for “with chips”. I’ve never had more enjoyment from being so greatly disillusioned.
This was a fantastic gig, as a gig always is when an experienced musician is absolutely at the top of their game.