JULIE JULY BAND – Lady Of The First Light (Aurora Folk Records JJB19CD1)

Lady Of The First LightThe Julie July Band is best known currently for Julie’s sensitive reinterpretations of the Sandy Denny songbook, and their previous CD Who Knows Where The Time Goes represents a cross-section of classic Denny material. However, the live set I saw earlier this year included a wider range of Denny material (such as songs from her brief time with the Strawbs) and, intriguingly, first glimpses of material from their new CD. Lady Of The First Light doesn’t just move on from material associated with Sandy Denny, but eschews covers altogether, consisting entirely of original material written by members of the band. It’s a brave move, given that there are few bands in the Denny tribute niche, but many focused on original material. After all, any change in direction requires a certain amount of courage for a band that’s doing very nicely by doing what it already does, and you might expect the typical follower of a tribute band to be somewhat conservative. That said, it appears that a number of the band’s fans have been enquiring as to whether they do original material, and I don’t think they’ll find Lady Of The First Light disappointing.

The current line-up consists of Julie July (vocals), Steve Rezillo (lead guitar and producer of the CD), Don MacLeod (acoustic guitar), Gary Low (drums/percussion, sound engineering, production), and Nick Lyndon (bass guitar), though Julie is the only regular member of the band to be featured on the first track. The CD also features Chris Hutchison (piano, Hammond and vocals), Rebecca Rose (cello), Zoe Devenish (fiddle and vocals) and Nick Goode (fiddle).

  1. ‘Broken Wing’ was written by Julie July and Chris Hutchison, and is an effective ballad simply accompanied by Chris Hutchison’s piano and Rebecca Rose’s cello.
  2. ‘Raven’ was co-written by Julie July and acoustic guitarist Don Macleod. It’s an interesting lyric, hinting at the common cultural representation of the raven as a psychopomp, guiding the spirits of the dead into the afterlife. A good folk-y tune with some nice lead guitar.
  3. ‘Hallows To The Hills’ is the work of Nick Lyndon, its straightforward melody punctuated by some interesting time changes and carrying an ultimately hopeful lyric.
  4. Title track ‘Lady Of The First Light’ is the first of several songs written by Steve Rezillo. Lyrically, it’s an interesting parable with lots of Steve’s characteristically fluent lead guitar to back up Julie’s characteristically strong vocals.
  5. ‘Chicane’, also by Steve Rezillo, has less to do with F1 than with emotional chicanery: but who is being most deceived here? The ambiguity of the story is set against an attractive minor-key melody.
  6. ‘The Ballad Of Rory Starp’ (Steve Rezillo) is something of an oddity, drawing tension from the contrast of a lyric telling the tale of a highwayman against a rock-soaked tune and accompaniment, though with prominent fiddle. Yet it seems to work, somewhat like the use of classic rock in the Heath Ledger film A Knight’s Tale, or maybe the Eagle’s juxtaposition of rock and bluegrass on the Desperado
  7. ‘One Drink Is Too Many’ is another song by Nick Lyndon, with a country/folk-ish feel, dominated by acoustic guitar. There’s a nice country-ish twist to the storytellinglyric: “One drink is too many / too many is never enough“.
  8. ‘For All We Know’ (Steve Rezillo) shares a title but not much else with early hits for Nat King Cole or the Carpenters, though Steve Rezillo’s first lead break does remind me a little of Tony Peluso’s work with the Carpenters. (That’s a compliment, by the way.) Come to think of, there’s something a little 60s/70s about the lyrics, with lines that suggest stories not told here directly. Fascinating.
  9. The country-ish ‘The Healing And The Lies’ was co-written by Nick Lyndon & Emily Ewing, and is actually one of the tracks I remember standing out from the band’s set in Penzance a few months ago.
  10. ‘Black Heart’ is another collaboration between Julie July & Chris Hutchison, and opens with finely judged interplay between acoustic and very clean electric guitar. One of the slower, folkier tracks on the CD, and very effective.
  11. The CD ends with ‘Shine Together’, again written by Steve Rezillo, a suitably upbeat end to the CD with a strong chorus.

This is an excellent collection of songs, though I’m not sure there is a track that quite matches Sandy’s songwriting at its best, though ‘Raven’ comes close, for me, with its atmospheric lyric and attractive melody. That said, I don’t suppose the band plans to jettison the Sandy Denny songbook any time soon, and any or all of these songs would fit well into a Sandy-oriented set. In fact, it’s a collection that plays to their strengths. Julie’s vocals, always a little more mainstream than Sandy’s Gaelic-influenced ornamentation, are very well suited to this range of material, and the band’s instrumental support is as solid as ever. There are plenty of strong choruses here to encourage an audience, and it seems to me that this release can only widen Julie’s audience.

With such a strong start, I’m hopeful that the band will produce lots more original material, and if it does choose to go that route, I’m confident that there are even better things to come.

There will be an album launch party on the 9th June at the Old Rectifying House, Worcester WR1 3NN – tickets £8 from https://eventbrite.co.uk.

David Harley

Artist’s website: https://juliejuly.co.uk/

‘Lady Of The First Light’ – official video:

JULIE JULY BAND – Who Knows Where The Time Goes (Aurora Folk Records JJB18CD1)

Who Knows Where The Tme GoesThe 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.

  1. ‘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?
  2. ‘Listen Listen’ is more lightly produced and arranged than the version on the 1972 album Sandy, and none the worse for that.
  3. ‘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.
  4. ‘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.
  5. ‘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.
  6. 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.
  7. ‘The Lady’ harks back to the Sandy album, with just piano for backing. Lovely.
  8. ‘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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. ‘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.
  12. ‘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.

David Harley 

Artist’s website: https://juliejuly.co.uk/

‘The North Star Grassman And The Ravens’: