DAVE SWARBRICK (b 1941 )
Swarb, as he is popularly known, is the figurehead of Englands folk violinists. His clearly recognisable playing style, with its exceptional command of varied bowing, and his singular, impish character have allowed him to retain his place as the leading player over four decades despite his many musical and geographical excursions. Even when illness intervened in an otherwise continually busy playing career, his broad fan base remained unswerving in its enthusiasm, ensuring full houses on the diminished number of appearances. He is always assured of tumultuous applause as he comes on stage, to contrast with a rapt silence as he picks up his violin.
Swarb emerged from a pool of growingly accomplished folk musicians in the late 1960s, initially appearing on the leading English folk label Topic. The stepping-stones were skiffle bands, the mighty figure of singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl, the Ian Campbell Folk Group, and a friendship with the guitarist Martin Carthy. The late 1960s saw three joint albums with Martin Carthy which created a new genre and helped lead the way to the folk-rock fusion epitomised by Fairport Convention. In came the world of the electric violin, and it was characteristic of Swarb that he embraced the experiment despite the harshness of the early sound. The album Liege and Lief (1969) and the subsequent years of enthusiastic touring established the Fairport language, and the image was enshrined of Swarb dominating his spot on the stage, with his fiddle and a fag hanging from his mouth in equal prominence.
Deceptively casual despite the pyrotechnics, Swarb charmed and wowed his way through the decades. He regularly appeared playing the mandolin, an instrument he has always loved; and Swarb the singer won growing admiration, all his charisma, rich musicality and deft persuasiveness outshining any vocal deficiencies. In turn and intermingled were Fairport Convention; duo tours with Martin Carthy, Simon Nichol and others; a new group, Whippersnapper; a period in Australia; riotous living; a cameo appearance as the violinist in the film Far from the Madding Crowd; a car crash; solo albums with Transatlantic; and periods of hand-to-mouth existence. His Australian period was underlined by an important duo relationship with Alistair Hulett, and on his return to the UK he formed another duo with Kevin Dempsey.
As a player he has always demonstrated a richly musical character, though one that slips with a smile past easy categorisation. He is a folk violinist, sure, but one unique in sound and colour, influencing generations of amateur and professional players and folk fans. For many, Swarb is what a folk violin should sound like. It is this ability to nail his roots to the mast while being able to rock with the best that makes Dave Swarbrick Swarb.
He has emerged from his lively catalogue of life with yet another existence. Struck down by serious illness, he so nearly died in hospital in Coventry, where he frequently played, that the UKs establishment newspaper The Daily Telegraph printed, prematurely, a glowing half-page obituary. It confirmed his achievements, if somewhat bizarrely, and drew from Swarb the characteristic comment, It wasnt the first time I have died in Coventry. Equally characteristically, he sold framed reprints of the obituary at all subsequent gigs. They are now treasured items.
It was during the early Fairport time that Swarb showed himself to be an individual and original songwriter. From his youthful imagination came Crazy Man Michael, one of the most perfect of the Fairport songs. He wrote it with guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson and it is one of the highlights of the Liege and Lief album. Other songs punctuated his career and his life, such as Rosie, and many of these, for the first time, are gathered together on this album devoted exclusively to his work as composer-performer. His songs are individual to him: not quite folk, not quite rock, not quite ballad, but all of them with sumptuous, persuasive melodies, like that of My Hearts in New South Wales.
There is even a new song on the album, written for the pianist Beryl Marriott, who, when Swarb was just 16, invited him to join her ceilidh band and has been a key figure in the background ever since. It is symptomatic of Swarbs personality that many of the players who have featured in his active performance life have visited his home studio in Coventry to participate in this Naxos recording; and equally symptomatic of his generosity that he marks this special disc with a newly composed tribute to Beryl Marriott, who in many ways started him on his road.