Authored By Dale Nickey:
I am thankful. I saw David Swarbrick perform live. Twice. Both times with Martin Carthy. Both times at MaCabe’s Guitar Shop. And, it wasn’t until I heard about Swarb’s passing that the fog of years parted and I remembered that I actually spoke to the man. A brief encounter to be sure, but still I touched greatness.
McCabe’s is an L.A. music institution that goes back decades. It sits in the ocean community of Santa Monica; a safe haven for expatriate Brits. While I’ve been alive there has always been a McCabe’s. It a woody, friendly music shop that specializes in acoustic exotica of all sorts. I bought my Mandocello there. Likewise, if you need paddle tuners for your Beach Uke, that’s where you go. They also host concerts. Their main musical affiliation is with folk and blues. They have a big room in the back with a nice stage where you can squeeze in 150-200 punters on folding chairs. I saw Elizabeth Cotton there. Jean Richie, Pentangle, June Tabor, John Renbourn and John Fahey, I even played there once myself in the folk duo Adie and Dale.
On gig night it’s usually packed out. Fresh baked cookies were offered in the front of the store. The restroom was small and you had to wait your turn. One night I bumped into Bert Jansch exiting as I was going in. I once banged shoulders with Yvonne Elliman whilst trying to navigate the crowded upstairs hallway. It was that kinda place. It might still be.
Anyway, I went there at the dawn of the 90’s decade to watch the duo of Martin Carthy and David Swarbrick perform. I went with my friend Dominic, whom I was in a band with at the time. He was not familiar with either of the folk heavyweights we were about to see. But, because of my recommendation, he decided to check it out.
It was an amazing show. Martin Carthy had a youthful, bouncy spirit and his chunky, finger styled guitar playing was as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. Then there was Swarbrick, he played standing for the entire hour plus set. I remember there was a very tall gooseneck microphone stand that arched far above and pointed downward towards his fiddle. He burned for the entire set. He didn’t sing, he just played. Virtuosic and effortless. My companion leaned over and offered that “The Bloke” was a real monster. – the musician’s code word for an instrumentalist of uncommon skill and virtuosity. Swarb would be bequeathed the nickname “The Bloke” for the remainder of the evening and his exploits were discussed at length on the long drive home to The Valley.
I didn’t hear Swarbrick play a bum note the entire set, and he played a lot of notes. If he did hit one, his confidence and experience probably spun it to gold somehow. There he stood, taking the occasional drag from (what looked like) a home rolled cig. He had a bowl styled Beatle haircut. Swarb got the biggest laugh of the night when McCarthy told a joke and Swarb reacted a good half minute later when a helpful audience member in the front row translated it to the diminutive fiddler. Even then, Swarb’s ear problems were legend.
During this period, the duo of Carthy and Swarbrick cranked out two fine albums; “Life and Limb” (1990) and “Skin and Bone” (1992). It was upon their return to McCabe’s to tour the second album that I saw them perform again.
This time I went with a female companion (and future ex-wife). I was sad to find Swarb playing seated for the entire set. His bearing seemed less robust than the first gig I saw. However, the playing remained the same. Flowing, effortless and perfect. My English challenged companion had never heard of these two musicians. She whispered into my ear about “The Little Guy” and how “strong” and “very correct” his playing was.
After the set we loitered at the front of the store, everybody congregated and chatted. My date held court with Billy Connelly, Maddy Prior and Martin Carthy near the repairman’s counter. She was blissfully unaware of the celebrity she was confronting. Martin Carthy laughed broadly and was animated by a sweaty post-gig buzz, Connelly seemed bemused and Maddy looked a bit put out. Meanwhile, I made my way to a hunched, solitary figure sitting at a round wooden table near the album bin. It was Swarbrick. I’m always flummoxed and shy around musicians I admire. I sheepishly told him, “great set” and offered up a rare vinyl copy of “Fairport Convention Live at Sydney Opera House” for his signature. I seemed surprised at being presented with such an artifact. He perused it and quietly mused, “I wonder if I ever got paid for this one?” He then signed, and I slowly backed away and thanked him in the manner of an acolyte retreating from the master. I told it you it was a brief encounter. But we met. I’m so glad we did.
Fast forward to the new century. I was pleased when David Swarbrick accepted me as a Facebook friend. Oh, me and lot of people. I’m sure he would not have remembered my name, we only exchanged the odd thumbs up and the occasional pithy aside in the comments section. But I valued the connection none the less. It’s one of the few upsides to this digital media world that David Swarbrick could still remain present and connected with fans and friends the world over despite his restricted mobility. Think about all the musical giants of the previous century who lived out their winter years with only a rotary phone and a black and white television as their links to the outside world. Forgotten and sad.
I’m at that age now. I’m surrounded by so many friendly ghosts and people preparing for the great transition. I’ve been lucky so far but I am nervously clutching my ticket number dreading my turn to be called. Swarb did alright in the life sweepstakes. He made it to 75 with loads of memories, accomplishments and a loving family at the end. He laughed in the face of death twice. He was a one-off. It seems like this year more than any other, the great upward migration has begun. RIP Swarb.