‘Swarb & Carth’: An appreciation

10 June 2016

Posted by Kevin Boyd, 10 June 2016

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“My wife calls me Spider-Man… because I can’t get out of the bath”. Dave Swarbrick

It’s been a week since the passing of Dave Swarbrick and social media has been filled with celebrations of his life from some of the thousands of people whose own lives were touched by his music, kindness and wit. I never really knew Swarb but I saw and heard him more times than I can remember over the last 30 years: guesting with the late-80s Fairport lineup at Cropredy; leading the brilliant acoustic quartet Whippersnapper; as a virtuosic solo performer, but by far the most frequent guise I witnessed, maybe not surprisingly, was his duo with Martin Carthy. So whilst the wider media may, perhaps rightly, heap praise on his more commercial achievements with the likes of Fairport, it seems more appropriate for me to pay tribute to his partnership with Carthy.

My best guess is that I saw ‘Swarb and Carth’ 17 or 18 times in nine different towns or cities between October 1988 and September 2015. You never quite knew what you were going to get at one of their gigs, perhaps because they rarely rehearsed and both relished the challenge of ringing the changes and equally abhorred the idea that their music might become staid, petrified, a beautifully preserved fly in Jurassic amber. If you saw them on the first date of one of their annual September tours it’s likely that their first song would have been the first time they’d performed together in anger since their last gig, which could conceivably have been the best part of a year ago. On that basis you might have forgiven them for playing safe when they had the opportunity but that was never their style so that opening number might well have been suffixed by a sly look between the pair and maybe a chuckle, as if to say, “We made it!” and the last gig of a tour could differ vastly from the first as they tweaked and generally mucked about with either the repertoire, specific arrangements, or both.

Right up to the last time I saw them, on what transpired to be their last full tour about nine months before Swarb’s death, they were tinkering with some of the oldest pieces in their repertoire – the likes of Sovay and Byker Hill – as well as some of their more recent work. Occasionally (usually at Swarbrick’s insistence) they would wing it completely, such as the occassion when Swarb insisted on playing a set of tunes they’d not yet fully learned. Carthy was not entirely enamoured of the idea but they did it nevertheless – just about – and in the process displayed not just their musical chops but a collective fearlessness and confidence in their own abilities that is perhaps the greatest clue to the puzzle of how and why they continued to innovate and experiment up until the end.

Despite Swarb’s passing we still have their recordings – their innovative and occasional controversial sixties albums and their all-too infrequent post-reunion CDs from the late-eighties onwards – but these never really reflected anything but the briefest of snapshots of what they were doing at the time they were recorded. Their union really came alive on stage, in front of an audience, and in many ways Carthy and Swarbrick were the ideal partnership. Each was equally the other’s teacher and pupil and the respect with which they held each other was evident whenever they played together. Ask Carthy now who taught him the most about music – not just ‘folk music’ – and the odds are he’ll not hesitate to credit Swarb, perhaps quoting him as saying, “You can do anything to music, it doesn’t mind”. It’s a simple enough phrase but one which, when acted out in the hands of two masters of their craft, resulted in some incredible, diverse and often boundary-breaking, music.

They were the first to admit they didn’t do ‘happy’, but despite the often bleak, if not downright heartbreaking, nature of much of their material, their live shows were scattered with humour and good natured banter. Not for nothing was Swarbrick labelled ‘the world’s first sit-down comedian’. They would often end shows with My Heart’s In New South Wales – Swarb’s beautiful, plaintive paean to the time he spent living in Australia – which would invariably be introduced through a hilarious catalogue of the various ways in which you could be killed by the country’s indigenous wildlife. It may be this incorrigible streak of humour, often as self-deprecating as it was wicked, that I’ll miss as much as the music about those regular September dates with Carthy and Swarbrick.

My thoughts are with Swarb’s wife Jill, his regular touring companion in recent years and sitter to Ruby, the most widely-travelled dog in the folk world who has no-doubt slept through more Carthy and Swarbrick gigs than I could ever hope to have seen.

Kevin Boyd, 10 June 2016

Here are a few personal favourites of my photographs of Carthy and Swarbrick. The shot above was taken in Bury in September 2011 and is one that Dave asked if he could use for publicity – he thought it made him look almost presentable! I was happy to send him a copy and have been pleased to have seen it used frequently over the last few years. The rest are from subsequent gigs, with the exception of a couple of early shots from their ‘first farewell tour’ in 1988.

 


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