Eliza Carthy, Cargo, London
Wednesday 25 May 2011
Eliza Carthy's Neptune, released at the start of a month-long tour, takes its title from an astrological reading given by a family friend. With a five-piece band and in full throttle as a singer, she gave the album a fabulous outing at this launch gig.
There are no traditional tunes, although there is plenty of music drawn from Carthy's deep knowledge of and immersion in English folk. Behind her, the stage is decorated with a large shell, the kind stepped from by Botticelli's Venus, and a Méliès-style man in the moon.
Carthy's band – the pianist Phil Alexander, of Salsa Celtica, cellist Beth Porter, Emily Smith on double bass and drummer Willy Molleson – are supple and fluid, as any servants of Neptune should be. Carthy wields a fiddle as well as a guitar and also straps an accordion over her chest for the opener, "Little Big Man", which is from the album Dreams of Breathing Underwater.
"Oh how you make the girls sigh," she sings, "Oh how you make the big men cry." Carthy's voice is both plaintive and embracing, with more cream than a bottle of gold top. Though she has been celebrated as a great fiddle player, the emphasis and power is all in her voice tonight – a voice with the body of a Gainsborough Pictures heroine.
Across a 14-song set, Carthy parades much of the superb Neptune. The songs draw on a visceral mixture of confessional romanticism and Hogarthian riot. They are big-hearted songs, in need of a big voice, and Carthy obliges with an easy stage command and a way of weaving her audience into a song with stories interrupted by bursts of laughter and asides on everything from violin strings to accounts of a night on the tiles for the premiere of Jerry Springer – the Opera – "the best night of my life," she sighs, as she sets the scene for the album opener, "Blood on my Boots". This brilliantly fashioned lyrical hack takes in rickshaw rides, exorbitant bar prices, late-night missteps and the kind of half-remembered mayhem that turns a night out in the Smoke into a riot of fast-moving colour where everything seems to be happening at once.
After the ebullient ska of "Britain is a Car Park" and the aching soul of "Revolution" and "Write a Letter", Carthy closes with "Thursday", a piano-led ballad dedicated to her daughter that is proof that mother, not only the devil, has the best tunes.
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