What can I say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? There’s the problem. I have to confess that I’m sometimes uneasy about the way that Sandy Denny’s catalogue has been managed. There are just three tracks among the forty presented here that haven’t been released before and they are demos from The Bunch album. Which means that the barrel has been well and truly scraped clean. There is nothing of any significance left to unearth.
The two CDs are arranged chronologically and present Sandy in acoustic mode – demos, radio sessions and stripped down masters – to offer “the best album Sandy Denny never made”. If you have a taste for Sandy rocking her socks off on ‘Down In The Flood’ you’re out of luck here. The first track is her best known song, ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, recorded in 1967 with The Strawbs. The notes are vague about its origins but it isn’t the version that appears on the album and I suppose that it was possible to extract it from the three-track master. What it is, however, is the voice that Dave Cousins fell in love with, young, fresh and clear and it can be argued that this is the best version of the song that you will ever hear.
With All Our Own Work failing to get a release, Sandy returned to the folk clubs, recording two albums with Alex Campbell and Johnny Silvo and these are represented by two songs written by her then boyfriend, Jackson C Frank. Then Fairport Convention – two demos and two masters which presumably preceded the band’s involvement. Fotheringay is next with two demos and two radio sessions presenting Sandy solo. ‘The Lowlands Of Holland’, solo and unaccompanied, is particularly lovely.
The next six tracks come from her first solo project – two demos, a radio session and three from the BBC’s In Concert programme and the first disc closes with the three demos from The Bunch – guitar and vocal tracks featuring Linda Peters on ‘When Will I Be Loved’.
The second set continues Sandy’s solo career and adds her second stint with Fairport. It opens with ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’, which the band tried out but which Sandy eventually took for herself. Here are some of her best known songs including possibly the best ever version of ‘Bushes And Briars’, more up-tempo than we are used to. It comes from a radio session as does an equally superb piano-led ‘Solo’. There is a piano demo of ‘The End’ which flashes past for all its seven and a half minutes.
The Fairport tracks are all demos, including ‘Rising For The Moon’, ‘One More Chance’ and ‘What Is True?’ but, sadly, no ‘Stranger To Himself’. Oh well, you can’t have everything. The next two tracks are live from Marc Time and I still find the idea of Denny and Bolan in the same studio a bit mind-boggling. Quite what his teenage audience made of ‘Blackwaterside’ I can’t imagine. Sadly, Marc’s introductions are not included. The final track is the last that she ever recorded, Bryn Haworth’s ‘Moments’. This is one of three demos made and features Ralph McTell on guitar.
So, how is my unease? This set has been put together with a specific purpose and that is to present Sandy’s timeline in solo, acoustic performances. The mastering is excellent – a big hand for Paschal Byrne here – Mick Houghton’s sleeve notes are written from an expert perspective, there are some good photos and it’s true that some of Sandy’s best performances here. I guess that’s good enough.
Fotheringay are returning bright eyed and bushy tailed for another spectacular string of live dates in June 2016 that follow the release of their new 4-disc box set, Nothing More, The Collected Fotheringay, and Mick Houghton’s inimitable biography on Sandy Denny: I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn.
The musical achievements and professional experiences of the band combined is too long to list and spans 40+ years, in fact it would be hard to find folk who know more about folk! The line up is the original founding members Jerry Donahue on Guitar, Gerry Conway on Drums, Pat Donaldson on bass with very special guests PJ Wright filling Trevor Lucas shoes, Kathryn Roberts and Sally Barker respectfully filling the shoes of Sandy Denny.
We caught up with PJ Wright last year backstage at Cropredy 2015 after the TRADarrr set so thought this would be a good time to run that interview again. I can’t remember who was playing the main stage on the day but the set was very much part of the interview, so expect a lot of background noise. Click on the play button to listen.
Come back to your folk roots and let the Fotheringay’s demonstrate why this genre of music is still so truly loved.
I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn is the best album that the late Sandy Denny never made. This 40-track/2CD set, comprised of demos, live, radio and TV recordings, captures the sublimely gifted British singer-songwriter at her most intimate as she runs through stripped down arrangements of songs she performed with the Strawbs, Fairport Convention, Fotheringay and The Bunch, along with material from her four solo albums.
Exclusive to this masterful set are three demos recorded at Richard Branson’s Manor Studios in December 1971 for the 1972 rock and roll covers album, The Bunch Rock On; alongside ‘Love Made A Fool Of You’ and ‘Learning The Game’ by one of her teenage heroes, Buddy Holly, she sings a charming duet with Linda Thompson on Phil Everly’s ‘When Will I Be Loved’.
The set comes complete with sleeve notes by Mick Houghton, the author of the critically lauded 2015 Sandy Denny biography, I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn.
All those who knew Sandy Denny well, and who worked closely with her, recall how brilliant she was as a solo acoustic performer and many welcome this compilation as fitting homage to her unique and true talent.
“Sandy was, as are our most brilliant performers, much better solo; I so wish she had recorded a solo album, and told her so.” (Linda Thompson)
The idea of holding a folk festival in Skegness in December probably raised a few eyebrows when it was first mooted. The suggestion that it should be held at Butlin’s may have caused a pursing of lips but it makes perfect economic sense. The artists have a major venue and a captive audience to add to a winter tour and the camp and its staff gets extra use and revenue. There are two main venues, both are very large and both were packed on Friday evening.
Entering the Pleasure Dome, sorry, Skyline Pavilion trying to figure out where everything was it was nice to be greeted by the harmonies of Said The Maiden on the Introducing Stage – the third open venue in the middle of the pavilion. It was nearly the end of their set, unfortunately, but we stayed to hear Kings Of The South Seas before insinuating ourselves into the Centre Stage for False Lights. Live, they are less reliant on Jim Moray’s synth wizardry and proved themselves to be an exceptionally good folk-rock band in the classic style. They may prefer to think of themselves as mould breakers but they are actually doing what some bands seem to have forgotten how. Their attempt to perform ‘How Can I Keep From Singing’ without PA was not a success, however; the natural acoustics of the room are not as good as they believed.
At an event like this you can’t hear everything so I was now faced with a decision – Eliza Carthy And The Wayward Band or Billy Bragg? The fact that we now had decent seats settled it and we stayed put for the first half of Eliza’s set. Her twelve piece band are set to be the next Bellowhead (whatever anybody says) and are more than up to the task. As well as old favourites, including a “duelling fiddles” interlude with Sam Sweeney in ‘My Boy Billy’, there was a new song, ‘Devil In The Woman’, slated for their first studio album. Bragg called, however, and we arrived for what seemed like the mellow end of his set with ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’. No! Amongst the polemic he sang ‘Between The Wars’, still powerful and relevant, and ‘There Is Power In A Union’. I reflected that the latter needs some revision with the unions battered down. We may discover that there is power in unity. ‘A New England’ wrapped up his set perfectly.
CC Smugglers followed with the sort of set that only a band as youthful as them could have the energy to play but shouldn’t have the chops to pull off. They have played so many gigs since I first saw them, even ones they weren’t invited to, and have become so tight and slick. Richie Prynne prowled his stage like a circus ringmaster, never still and rarely silent, cajoling and haranguing the audience, the songs and even his band-mates like a true showman. If the idea of the last set of the night was to wind the audience down then CC Smugglers were not the right choice.
The first and last time I heard Moulettes was at very uncomfortable gig and I was looking forward to hearing them in a nice chair. Actually, the best seating for the band is a bean bag with a lava lamp, joss-sticks and a guy dishing out small squares of blotting paper. Sadly the only mind-altering substance available was a pint of Hobgoblin. This was the final gig of the Constellations tour and Moulettes were also previewing their new album, Preternatural, with songs which, for want of more specific titles, we’ll call ‘Octopus’, ‘Nematode’ and ‘Behemoth’. I love the sound of the band, I love their instrumentation and their style but I really don’t know what they are about a lot of the time. “Surreal dreamscapes” were mentioned and I guess that’s about right.
I chatted to Ruth Skipper after the set to ask her impressions of the festival. It turned out that they had only just arrived and gone straight on stage, which accounted for some of the sound man’s problems. At their simplest Moulettes can be two guitars, bass and fiddle but at various times will be added electric cello, bassoon, autoharp, some meaty drums and keyboards and a balance that’s right for the beginning of a song may be wrong by the end. I did discover that the band were looking forward to the water-slide and hearing more music later which proves that I have no future as an investigative reporter.
Next up were Magna Carta. Chris Simpson on-stage is pretty much the same as Chris Simpson off-stage – he’s a raconteur, discursive and philosophical and Doug Morter is his perfect right hand man. Chris has surrounded himself with some very fine musicians but the set felt loose and the decision to give Morter a solo of one of his own songs seems questionable. Back on the firmer ground of The Fields Of Eden things were much more sure-footed and ‘Airport Song’ was a nice encore.
The queue for Tom Robinson curled twice round the pavilion and things were clearly running late so what might have been another difficult decision was made easier and we settled in to hear Sam Carter. He opened his set with ‘Yellow Sign’, the song he began with when I first heard him, and I was shocked to realise that that was six years ago. He has grown as an artist so much. Just when we were settling into the style of his own songs he switched to ‘The Wife Of Ushers Well’, which he sings with False Lights, and ‘Rocking The Cradle’. He played a superb set which showed the power of one man and his guitar. Sam was probably the highlight of the weekend for me.
We got back just in time to catch the end of Tom Robinson’s set so I did get to sing ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ again before The Unthanks appeared on the Centre Stage. With the full ten-piece band on stage it’s easy to overlook the contribution of Niopha Keegan to the group but her trumpet playing was the fondant icing on several songs. The technical problems rolled on so The Demon Barbers XL were thirty-five minutes late on stage, almost taking the gloss off their excellent set which began with traditional songs and ended as a dance display featuring hip-hop, interpretative dance and a fearsomely fast rapper. It’s quite disconcerting to see a stage bare of wires, mic stands and other clutter but they needed all the space they could get. I got to bed by 2.00 am, more or less – it was a long day.
By midday the pace was beginning to tell and the queues for the afternoon sessions were noticeably lighter and some people I spoke to were planning a power nap in preference to more music. No such luxury for your man on the spot.
TradArrr were excellent. They can really rock and with Marion Fleetwood on lead they can turn in a bittersweet ballad like ‘My Laggan Love’ or ‘Silver Dagger’. Between them they boast five lead vocalists, a full string quartet, a keyboard player who frequently added unexpected flourishes and two drummers, one of whom plays cornet. There were hints of high camp as PJ Wright planted a foot on the foldback and Guy Fletcher prowled the stage hunched over his mandolin but they restrained themselves well. It was then a choice between waiting for Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle or scurrying off to catch The Band From County Hell – sorry Jacqui.
The Band From County Hell are a Scots/Irish group from Lincolnshire and are huge fun – ‘The Day My Granny Died’ is a song everybody should hear at least once. They have been around for a quite a while, with six albums to their credit and it seems odd that they aren’t better known – although they don’t lack for support. The first notes played by Blazin’ Fiddles were on keyboard and guitar which is, I’m sure, their little joke. It’s not logical to find them restful but they are so tight and their music is so hypnotic. I promise that I didn’t nod off but I was definitely on a different plane of existence for a lot of their excellent set.
I returned to the Introduction Stage to hear Chris Cleverley whose debut album, Apparitions, I really like. His set, mixing traditional songs and his own compositions didn’t disappoint and he’s already working in new songs including ‘All I Want’ which will send me back to Joni Mitchell’s Blue as soon as time allows. I stayed for Polly And The Billets Doux, who won the day’s vote for a main stage slot next year, and The Black Feathers, who really needed a more sympathetic environment.
The Ric Sanders’ Trio have finally come out as a fun band with their new album and set of old blues, string band and swing numbers. It might be called the Vo Fletcher Trio since it is his guitar that forms the foundation and his voice that sings the songs but when the singing stops it is Ric’s flights of instrumental fancy that take their music to another place. The album is a lot of fun and their set reflected that. Then it was decision time again. I’d been told that Fotheringay would be playing the same set that they had toured all year “only better”. That was true but I missed the excitement of the earlier gigs when the band were still finding their way into, or back into, the music. Nevertheless, theirs was the set everyone wanted to hear.
Since they lost Messrs. Knight and Zorn I really wanted to hear what Steeleye Span would do. With two new musicians to induct the answer was to go back to first principles so ‘All Things Were Quite Silent’ was followed by ‘Blackleg Miner’ and ‘Weary Cutters’ was teamed with ‘New York Girls’ featuring Maddy Prior on ukulele. And they rocked. Julian Littman added a rap to ‘Boys Of Bedlam’ and Spud Sinclair played the sort of electric guitar that we haven’t heard in the band since Bob Johnson’s time. As a final touch they closed with an a capella version of Rick Kemp’s ‘Somewhere Along The Road’.
There is no getting away from the fact that playing the final set of a festival after Steeleye Span have gone off to rapturous applause is a daunting task but Folklaw threw themselves into it with energy and aplomb. Fiddler and songwriter Nick Gibbs was joined by Gaz Hunt on a minimalist drum kit, Martin Vogwell on bass and mandolin and Bryn Williams on guitar and bodhran – not to mention crossing the venue floor on the backs of chairs! They sent the crowd off exhausted but happy.
So does a December festival work once you get over the culture shock of rocking up at 5.00 pm on a Friday in the dark? This is still Skegness and with Storm Desmond blowing around us “bracing” just didn’t begin to describe it but when the wind dropped on Sunday it was mild and pleasant. The accommodation and facilities were excellent and the unsung stars of the weekend were the Butlin’s staff who were friendly and helpful and worked long hours. However, this was folk music adapting to Butlin’s not the other way round. The artists existed in a bubble of stage/backstage/ accommodation or arrived, performed and left and there were quite a few I would have liked to have spoken to so I apologise to them. A bulletin board for messages or to arrange meetings wouldn’t take much to set up and would be a big help, too. But, yes, it works and if you have considered going but not done so I can recommend it.
I saw the original Fotheringay just once at a rain-swept festival which was abandoned by the artists, the crowd and the organiser in more or less that order. The sight of that spotlit stage shining in the gloom of a Yorkshire summer remains in my mind’s eye. So when I heard that a new line-up was being put together I had mixed feelings.
With all due respect to Jerry Donahue, Gerry Conway and Pat Donaldson can a Fotheringay with neither Sandy Denny nor Trevor Lucas be anything more than a façade, however good the substitutes are? The three survivors have enjoyed long and distinguished careers in bands and as go-to sidesmen but Fotheringay was Trevor and Sandy’s band. That this is a great band goes without saying. PJ Wright and Sally Barker singing ‘I Don’t Believe You’ rocked and Jerry and PJ’s guitar/pedal steel duet on ‘It’ll Take A Long Time’ was sweetness itself. But was this really Fotheringay?
What persuaded me that the answer is “yes” is the genuine emotion engendered in both the performers and the audience. One young man, who probably wasn’t even born when Sandy died, stammered out his thanks to Sally as he left. “It’s the legacy”, she observed. So, yes, this is really Fotheringay.
They began with ‘Nothing More’ as if to deny the fact of the band’s demise forty-five years ago. There is more. They followed that with ‘The Sea’, ‘The Ballad Of Ned Kelly’ and ‘Winter Winds’ – the order in which they appeared on Fotheringay’s first album – perhaps settling the nerves that they all admitted to – this was only their third gig, after all. It says a lot that Sandy is played by both Sally Barker and Kathryn Roberts, either of whom could fill the role alone. Kathryn handles the piano songs but also brings the textures of flute and woodwind to the sound. Sally has Sandy’s rockier side absolutely nailed and her reading of ‘John The Gun’ is superb.
PJ Wright takes the Trevor Lucas role. He has the rumbling voice and plays pedal steel which Sandy loved. He restored ‘Knights Of The Road’, first heard on Fairport Convention’s Rosie, to Fotheringay’s repertoire and now I want to hear him sing ‘The Plainsman’.
The first set ended with a long, flowing ‘Banks Of The Nile’ and they returned for the second with renewed vigour. ‘Bold Jack Donahue’ was first followed by ‘The Way I Feel’ featuring a bass solo from Donaldson which segued into a duet with Conway and then a superb version of ‘Solo’. ‘Too Much Of Nothing’ was the second Dylan cover and the set ended with ‘Late November’ and a singalong ‘Peace In The End’ before the encore, a rocking ‘Memphis Tennessee’.
The evening was opened by Fabian Holland who started with two numbers from his debut album before turning to ‘Four Inch Screen’ from his second CD, A Day Like Tomorrow, following that with ‘The List’ and an attention grabbing ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’. Opening this show might seem like a thankless task but this audience was friendly and receptive and judging by the rate he was shifting CDs he made the right impression.
Fotheringay are perhaps less famous for what they achieved than for their unrealised potential. They released a single, ‘Peace In The End’ and ‘Winter Winds’, and an album which was probably one track too short – a reprise of Sandy Denny’s titular song would have rounded it out – and then broke up in the middle of recording a second album. Thus they became a legend.
The history of the band is a convoluted one. Their first choice guitarist, Albert Lee, rapidly became unhappy with the role he was being asked to fulfil and left to be replaced by Jerry Donahue joining the drums and bass combination of Gerry Conway and Pat Donaldson alongside Sandy and Trevor Lucas. There is a feeling that Sandy’s management were not happy with her leaving Fairport Convention to form another band and wanted her to pursue a solo career. She was the only vocalist to guest on a Led Zeppelin album and won the Melody Maker female vocalist of the year award twice in succession. There was an inevitability about her future.
This box set begins with an expanded version of the eponymous first album. Its style was in some ways a return to her years with Fairport. There were covers of Gordon Lightfoot and Bob Dylan, a bunch of songs written by Sandy and Trevor and the magnificent eight-minute ‘Banks Of The Nile’. It could have been Unhalfbricking all over again. The first song we hear is ‘Nothing More’, a portrait of Richard Thompson after Fairport’s motorway crash, and one of many Sandy songs that seem to come from a mythical world. You can believe that she did keep a unicorn somewhere. It’s followed by ‘The Sea’ depicting the disaster of a flooded London from another parallel world.
Lightfoot’s ‘The Way I Feel’ provides a counterpoint to Sandy’s lyricism with the final version giving prominence to Gerry and Pat’s rhythm section and Jerry’s lead guitar and Trevor’s ‘The Ballad Of Ned Kelly’ points in the direction of Fotheringay’s country rock tendencies, as does Dylan’s ‘Too Much Of Nothing’.
There are six demos and alternate takes fleshing out the disc, all titles from the completed work. Any other songs the band worked on may well have been pencilled in for Fotheringay 2 where they subsequently appeared.
By 2008 Jerry Donahue had completed the reconstruction of Fotheringay’s second album, adding guitar parts and, presumably, sequencing the record which, with the addition of six bonus tracks, forms the second disc of this set. It opens with ‘John The Gun’, a song later revisited by Sandy and Fairport Convention, and one of her most powerful and enduring. It’s followed by ‘Eppie Moray’, a traditional Scottish tale of attempted marriage. Trevor sings the main part but he sounds oddly subdued and the track really comes to life when Sandy takes over the narrative.
‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ is lovely and it was at the height of its popularity at the time. The band’s performance stands the test of time but, with the benefit of hindsight, the song hasn’t. ‘Knights Of The Road’ was later taken up by Fairport and still sounded like a filler on Rosie but the trials and tribulations surrounding that record are the subject of another article.
That is followed by ‘Late November’ which later appeared as the first track on Sandy’s solo album The North Star Grassman And The Ravens – the first of several versions to be released. The Fotheringay rhythm track survived as the basis of Sandy’s solo version but Donahue’s lead guitar was replaced by Richard Thompson and Sandy re-did her vocals. ‘Restless’, another Trevor Lucas song, appeared on Rising For The Moon and ‘I Don’t Believe You’ sounds like a Lucas solo cut with a very Dylan-ish organ, uncredited on the 2008 release. Was that Sandy?
Wonderful as it was/is to have these tracks, they sound like the output of a band which had no stake in their future. The bonus cuts include three Joe Boyd mixes of the original tracks and I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I prefer these to Donahue’s – they seem to have the feel of the time whereas Jerry’s seem to bring the weight of years and experience to them. Still, you have to wonder if they knew which way the wind was blowing – Conway and Donaldson were experienced session musicians and I’d be prepared to bet that they were sensitive to atmosphere in the studio.
Also included are two versions of ‘Bruton Town’ – the second of which is by the new incarnation of the band with Kathryn Roberts, PJ Wright and Sally Barker fronting the original trio of Donahue, Conway and Donaldson.
The third disc collects together live performances and radio sessions. Some have already been anthologised but the majority are appearing on disc for the first time. It opens with ‘The Way I Feel’ from the band’s 1970 Rotterdam concert. Immediately we can feel the energy of the band at their best, with Donahue’s choppy guitar solo a highlight. ‘The Sea’ is more lyrical with Sandy sounding so much at ease and ‘Too Much Of Nothing’ is solid country rock giving both Conway and Donahue their heads. Muddy Waters’ ‘I’m Troubled’ was a song Fotheringay hadn’t recorded and they had a whale of time playing it as they did ‘Memphis Tennessee’, seemingly chosen spontaneously by Sandy. ‘Banks Of The Nile’ is pretty close to perfection.
The second part of the disc is a number of BBC sessions previously unreleased on CD. Prime among these is Sandy’s solo ‘The Lowlands Of Holland’ but I’d venture to say that these are amongst the best tracks that Fotheringay ever recorded as their experience of playing the songs met studio technology at just the right time. Can it now be said that they were better live?
Finally we have a DVD of four songs recorded for the German TV show Beat Club. Two of these, ‘Nothing More’ and ‘John The Gun’ were not broadcast and only ‘Too Much Of Nothing’ has been readily available.
So, everything Fotheringay ever did – as far as we know that is – together with rare photographs and sketches for sleeve art by designer Marion Appleton. It’s perfect but there is a sense of looking for what might have been but never was. Sadly, there is nothing more.
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