The Julie July Band has built a substantial reputation on reinterpretations of Sandy Denny’s songs, so it comes as no surprise that the CD Who Knows Where The Time Goes, released on July 27th, is a collection of 11 songs written by Sandy, plus one song of Richard Farina’s that she recorded at least twice. Lead vocals are taken by Julie July: the rest of the band (and very accomplished they are too) being Steve Rezillo – lead guitar and vocals; Nick Smith and Don Mac (a former musical sparring partner of mine and still picking a mean guitar) – acoustic guitars; Blake Probert – bass guitar; Garry Low on drums and percussion, and the late Martin Emeny (drums on two tracks); Georgina Groom – fiddle; Chris Hutchison – piano and Hammond organ.
Even though it’s 40 years since Sandy Denny’s untimely death, there are probably few people reading this review who haven’t been touched by her voice and her music. Certainly I can still remember the first time I heard her on radio in the 60s (and even what she sang: ‘The False Bride’ and Jackson C. Frank’s ‘Milk And Honey’!). While some of the songs here date back to her time with Fairport (and even before), most of them are best known from her solo albums. Here’s the track-by-track listing.
- ‘The North Star Grassman And The Ravens’ is the title track from Sandy’s first solo album, from 1971. While Julie captures the spirit of Sandy’s singing particularly well here, the accompaniment here is simpler than either of the Denny recordings I’ve heard, carried by Chris Hutchison’s piano and Georgina Groom’s lyrical fiddle. Will I invite a torrent of hate mail if I say I actually prefer it this way?
- ‘Listen Listen’ is more lightly produced and arranged than the version on the 1972 album Sandy, and none the worse for that.
- ‘Fotheringay’ is the song about the castle where Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned and finally executed: the song gave its name to Sandy’s short-lived quintet project. (Coincidentally, the band’s concert in Bangor was one of the first music reviews I ever wrote.) This version follows the version on What We Did On Our Holidays fairly closely, and it’s rather nice to hear those guitar harmonies again.
- ‘It’ll Take A Long Time’ is also from Sandy: It must have taken a certain amount of courage to compete with the memory of Richard Thompson’s guitar and Sneaky Pete’s pedal steel on the original recording (or, come to that, Donahue and Wilsher on the Royalty recording), but some understated slide and lead work here fill that gap very adequately.
- ‘Solo’ is maybe taken just a little faster than the version on Like An Old Fashioned Waltz with some very nice acoustic guitar. And it suits Julie’s voice very well.
- Does anyone reading this not know ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’? First heard on record on Fairport’s Unhalfbricking (though an earlier version later appeared on the belatedly released Strawbs album All Our Own Work), the song has been covered by artists as diverse as Judy Collins, Nina Simone, 10,000 Maniacs and Daria Kulesh, and in 2007 the Fairport version was voted “Favourite Folk Track Of All Time” by Radio 2 listeners. Julie’s version has the general feel of the Fairport version, but is by no means a slavish copy, and does the song justice. In particular, the lead guitar is more restrained, in contrast to the youthfully exuberant ubiquity of Richard Thompson’s country licks on the Unhalfbricking version, against which even Sandy sometimes struggles to hold the listener’s attention.
- ‘The Lady’ harks back to the Sandy album, with just piano for backing. Lovely.
- ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ is the Richard Farina song that put new words to the melody of ‘My Lagan Love’ (which in itself is a new-ish set of words – usually credited to Joseph Campbell – to an older song). It may seem perverse to give so much space to considering the only song on the CD that isn’t Sandy’s, but I’m going to anyway… Mimi Farina recorded this with a complex orchestral arrangement by Peter Schickele that sets off her fragile vocals admirably. Sandy recorded a folk-rock version with Fairport that I can’t quite learn to love, then a very different version on her second solo album with complex multitracking and an extended violin coda by Dave Swarbrick. Sandy’s second version is a tour de force, but for me, Julie’s unaccompanied version on this CD is truer to the song, allowing it to speak for itself. Up to now, Mimi’s version has been my favourite version, but I’m reconsidering. Sometimes all you need is a beautiful song beautifully sung.
- The slightly Joni-Mitchell-ish ‘The Pond And The Stream’ appeared on the eponymous Fotheringay Julie’s version follows that version fairly closely, even reproducing the ‘Theme From Mash’-ish intro, but it’s very nicely done.
- The mournful ‘Winter Winds’ also blew in on the Fotheringay Again, this version follows Sandy’s fairly closely, but maybe that’s appropriate: the Fotheringay album did mostly avoid the overproduction that sometimes clouded the later albums, at least for me.
- ‘Late November’ was recorded for The North Star Grassman And The Ravens and also appeared eventually on the Fotheringay 2. I particularly like the drum work from the late Martin Emeny on this arrangement, contrasting with quieter acoustic passages. Nice electric guitar too.
- ‘Full Moon’ was recorded for the Rendezvous sessions, but didn’t appear on that album, and I hadn’t heard it before (surprisingly – it’s a gorgeous song). However, three versions have been released on various posthumous collections. This version features piano and fiddle, and makes for a more than satisfying end to this CD.
Clearly, those lovers of Sandy Denny’s music who go to the Julie July Band’s gigs will be glad of this well-sung, well-recorded reminder of the experience (and while I’m not generally a huge fan of tribute bands, I’ll certainly be going to the band’s Cornish gig next year if I can). Hard-core Sandy’s fans and CD collectors may be harder to convince, but to my ears some of these arrangements are actually more sympathetic to the songs than the 70s recordings. And this selection would work very well as an introduction to Sandy’s own songs for anyone who isn’t familiar with her work.
Artist’s website: http://www.juliejuly.co.uk/index.html
‘The North Star Grassman And The Ravens’: