30 May 2012
Thirty four years after her untimely death Sandy Denny is as revered a figure as ever with any number of younger artists tipping their hats in her direction. An iconic singer with Fairport Convention and the under appreciated Fotheringay and the creator of a clutch of the finest singer-songwriter albums as a solo artist. Her place in music history was assured as soon as she had written 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes', but she was so much more than that. She is one of those artists who inspire devotion amongst her fans, as attested to by the appetite for every latter day release of a taped folk club session or rehearsal tape. Building on the concert put together for the 30th anniversary of her death, this touring celebration of Sandy Denny's music aims to cover all these musical bases. Much of the impetus to revive The Lady came from Thea Gilmore's 2011 recording of her settings of previously unrecorded Denny lyrics that showed that her early death robbed us of a treasure trove of superb songs still to come. And the concert certainly features a stellar line-up including amongst others Maddy Prior, Thea Gilmore, Dave Swarbrick, Lavinia Blackwall (of the marvellous Trembling Bells), and several member of Bellowhead (Pete Flood, Andy Mellon, Benji Kirkpatrick) acting as the core of the band with Jerry Donahue (at various times a member of Fairport and Fotheringay) taking lead guitar duties.
A well-known photograph of Sandy Denny - severely beautiful, all wild flowing locks and impenetrable stare - looms over the stage as the band file on. The first of many vocalists, Lavinia Blackwall, launched the evening with 'A Sailor's Life', with Dave Swarbrick adding the fiddle part just as he had on Unhalfbricking. Blackwall is the perfect modern folk voice for a song such as this, fuller and stronger than a Rusby, less earthy than a Carthy; if her cohorts in Trembling Bells have any sense they'll ensure she faces punitive damages if she ever tries to further emulate Denny by leaving her band. And, speaking of bands, this prime cut of English folk-rock showed that the backing band were on top of their game as the rumbling bass and hypnotic guitar thrilled on this deep drifting epic. Green Gartside offered quite a contrast when he stepped up for his two songs, a quieter take on Denny - and it's impossible not to notice that 'The North Star Grassman' is another song using ships, sailing and the sea as metaphors for tangled emotions and disconnection, and there were more such to come. This, and his second choice - 'Stranger to Himself' - are wonderful songs dripping with lyrical richness.
Thea Gilmore, all in black, with Lavinia Blackwall like a latter-day Maddy Prior adding backing vocals, offered up two of the new songs - reflecting that when she was offered the lyrics to set to music she thought it was either a wonderful opportunity or possibly a poisoned chalice. Her album, 'Don't Stop Singing', proves it was the former, and she delivers two sides of Sandy Denny - the reflective and nostalgic 'Glistening Bay' and then one of Sandy's glorious "life on the road" songs - 'London' - which bounces along as if it was always meant to have this gifted tune and naturally, considering the location of the venue, garners a huge round of applause.
Sam Carter strips everything back to the folk club routes for 'Bushes and Briars', just a voice and a guitar - recalling Sandy's version on the posthumous Live at the BBC set. It's a quiet pause and a jarring contemplation on death which brings a stillness to The Barbican, a stillness that will soon be shattered by Maddy Prior. Her rendition of 'Fotheringay', that ethereal study of melancholy, is simply perfect and rather moving in its haunting beauty. Nothing could be more of a contrast than the disturbing and violent 'John the Gun' and Prior gleefully revels in the barely disguised violence skilfully evoked by the band, particularly the percussion of Pete Flood. Denny's palette was wide, it's easy to classify her as a melancholic or lovelorn songwriter - but there were these much darker songs as well.
Then it's the turn of "the baby of the band", Blair Dunlop (Ashley Hutching's son) who leads the band through 'The Sea', which drifts past quite pleasantly. He makes more of a mark on 'It'll Take A Long Time', continuing the nautical theme with its opening line "well it's like a storm at sea". And it's yet another side of Denny, intimate and confessional. And recalling that this is a homage it's a positive thing to hear different voices take on these songs, and none more so in this first set than Joan Wasser (aka Joan as Policewoman) who takes 'By The Time It Gets Dark' and 'The Lady' and turns them into New York tales, breathy jazz club numbers spilling out of some club foggy with the swirling smoke of a thousand cigarettes. Taking the songs, changing them somewhat, keeping them alive for new ears - that's a good thing and something that would become more pronounced after the interval.
Moving from band duties on the bass, Ben Nicholls (of Dennis Hopper Choppers) opened up the second set when he took the lead on 'Matty Groves' sporting a banjo slung gunslinger low and growling out the words a combination which makes the song dark and doom laden - it's a superb rendering, the clear tone of the banjo only adding strange glamour. Sadly, against the run of expectations, this is his only lead vocal of the night. He's replaced centre stage by Thea Gilmore for the aching, yearning 'Long Time Gone', a late lyric which seems to reflect the emotional chaos of Denny's last years with its keening chorus of "Will he come/ will he ever come / will he come, home again to me ?". To balance the emotions there's the more cheerful tune of 'Don't Stop Singing", featuring five year old Egan Stonier on violin (and an accomplished performer he was too, very comfortable on stage). Again Thea Gilmore's tune for this song seems perfect, but I have a nagging doubt that "don't stop singing, don't stop singing till you drop" could have fitted as well to a simpler down beat arrangement. This interpretation works though, and who can ever know the truth of it?
Dave Swarbrick returned to the stage to accompany a sparse 'Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood' and remained there for 'It suits me well' with Sam Carter - and I could take an hour of this guitar and fiddle pairing down a crowded sweaty folk club, we're well back into Sandy Denny's roots here. 'Nothing More' sees Green Gartside dredging up one of Sandy's less well known songs, an argumentative and defiant statement of self-reliance - "Oh it's true, it's very true he said / some hard times I have known / but I have always overcome them / on my own". It's hard, knowing how things would turn out, not to read more into lyrics such as - "why cannot you see reason / our lives they are not long / why can you take no time / to tell us all we're wrong?". Isn't this always the way with personal lyrics, and Maddy Prior admits to her own confusion - "I always thought it was a song about leaving a band, but apparently not" - she says by way of an introduction to 'Solo' done, as Denny did, as a huge stage shaking number. Some say it isn't Sandy Denny's best song, but it's a hell of a belter and Maddy Prior nails it to the floor.
At which point you could have been forgiven for thinking that's about as good as it can get - and you'd be so wrong. PP Arnold, a rocket in a pocket soul singer, might not be everyone's first choice to sing these songs, but as she quickly proves 'I'm a Dreamer' was virtually a soul belter all along. It may take her three attempts to overcome unanticipated stage nerves and get past that introduction ("you make me nervous" is perhaps too self-fulfilling a prophecy of a first line) but when she goes she soars. Surely though 'Old Fashioned Waltz' won't be so amenable to the same treatment though? Wrong, wrong, wrong - PP Arnold takes hold of this song and throws it around the auditorium, without ever losing a grasp on its central tenderness. And by the time the gospel soul of 'Take Me Away' fades away I'm convinced - what the world needs is an album called "PP Arnold sings Sandy Denny", with this same band to back her up (Jerry Donahue has been superb all night, but never better than here). And whilst we're waiting for that, it's worth noting that 'I'm A Dreamer' is available as a free download from her website!
A two song encore - Joan Wasser sings 'No More Sad Refrains' from the piano. It is elegantly mournful, but then that's what this song is - far and away her best performance of the night. And if that were not tear jerker enough the inevitable closer is the whole band, with all vocalists singing a line or two at a time, for 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes". Is it really 34 years? Really, who does know where the time goes? Whatever the answer is to that puzzle, it's obvious that Sandy’s songs are still going on and will do for a long time.
If you weren't able to be there, the concert was filmed for BBC4 - so that's something to look forward to!
Set List (& lead singer)
- A Sailor's Life (Lavinia Blackwall)
- Late November (Lavinia Blackwall)
- North Star Grassman and the Ravens (Green Gartside)
- Stranger To Himself (Green Gartside)
- Glistening Bay (Thea Gilmore)
- London (Thea Gilmore)
- Bushes and Briars (Sam Carter)
- Fotheringay (Maddy Prior)
- John The Gun (Maddy Prior)
- The Sea (Blair Dunlop)
- It'll Take A Long Time (Blair Dunlop)
- By The Time It Gets Dark (Joan Wasser)
- The Lady (Joan Wasser)
- Matty Groves (Ben Nicholls)
- Long Time Gone (Thea Gilmore)
- Don't Stop Singing (Thea Gilmore)
- Quiet Joys of Brotherhood (Lavinia Blackwall / Dave Swarbrick solo)
- It Suits Me Well (Sam Carter & Dave Swarbrick )
- Nothing More (Green Gartside)
- Solo (Maddy Prior)
- I'm A Dreamer (PP Arnold)
- Like An Old Fashioned Waltz (PP Arnold)
- Take Me Away (PP Arnold)
- No More Sad Refrains (Joan Wasser)
- Who Knows Where The Time Goes (All)