Pop: Songs of love and fish

SONGWRITERS FESTIVAL: ELIZA CARTHY, PADDY CASEY, PAINTING BOX RONNIE SCOTT'S BIRMINGHAM

ONCE UPON a time in the Seventies, no concert seemed complete without the down-bill presence of a lone singer-songwriter. Alternatively elfin or grizzled in appearance, with only a Martin or Epiphone acoustic guitar for protection, the poor souls were obliged to ingratiate themselves with an audience so impatient for the heavy rock headliners that tolerance for the folk tradition or Tolkien-style whimsy didn't stretch very far. Perhaps as a result, singer-songwriters appeared to go into hibernation for the next 20 years or so, but now they're back again, with a vengeance.

The likes of Rufus Wainwright and Damien Jurado are flavour of the month; Songwriter's Circle is on the telly, and this week Billy Bragg was even invited on to Newsnight to talk about the House of Lords.

In Birmingham, the Songwriters Festival has taken over Ronnie Scott's for three weeks, with coming attractions including such disparate artists as Glenn Tilbrook, Neil Innes and Miles Hunt - all happy to be singer- songwriters once more. The second night of the season offered an impressive mix of ancient and modern, with Eliza Carthy's 18th-century fisher-folk's tales paired with the new Irish kid on the block, Paddy Casey.

The duo of Painting Box, who opened the show, had the jangly acoustic guitars and the harmonies alright, but something about their songs was sorely lacking.

Paddy Casey, however, was the real McCoy. Described rather uncomfortably by Q magazine as sounding like Van Morrison's grandson and the son of the Waterboys' Mike Scott, Casey is happily nothing of the kind, although there's a beguiling touch of Seventies soft-rocker Terry Reid in his off-centre chording and sweet, mid-Atlantic, singing voice. Inclining towards the elfin end of the singer-songwriter scale, with a satisfyingly atavistic apprenticeship as the arena support-act to REM behind him, Casey sings sad and mellow self-penned ditties about love and loss with great charm. He also mumbles meaningfully between songs as if to the manor born. A version of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" was especially affecting, all the more so because of the giant-sized David Redfern portrait of Holiday looking down at him from the wall as he sang. The stadium support-gigs may have caused Casey to accentuate the down-strokes of his guitar playing more than strictly necessary for a small venue, but he's a genuine talent and well worth seeking out.

On the singer-songwriter front, Eliza Carthy was a bit of a cheat, preferring to deliver the songs of anonymous toilers in the Tin Pan Alley of English folk ballads more than her own compositions. Accompanied by Saul Rose on accordion, she played fiddle as much as she sang, and sounded great doing either. "This is a song about love and fish on the North East coast," she'd say by way of introduction, and off they'd go, heading pell-mell down the slopes of traditional jigs and reels. Most effective were the laments and ballads, which sounded like a lost English soul music: fatalistic, phlegmatic, even downright curmudgeonly.

Phil Johnson

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