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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‘Gypsy Davey’ – the Beat Club recording: