Paul Johnson and Darren Beech catch up with PJ Wright in the artists garden at the New Forest Folk Festival. PJ was performing later that day as part of The Sandy Denny Project, which also features IOTA’s Sally Barker, Anna Ryder, Marion Fleetwood and the engine room of Little Johnny England, bassist Mat Davies and drummer Mark Stevens.
PJ has been to the festival every year since it’s conception and gives a fascinating insight into how the festival started eight years ago. It includes a great story about the hiccup with the stage that was originally ordered and how one was built out of a cowshed at the very last minute, just in time for the first festival.
We also talk about Fotheringay 2 and how the idea for the Sandy Denny Project came together and we get technical with Pedal Boards, Stratocaster’s and Telecaster’s.
We close the interview with PJ being tight lipped about whether he will be playing Cropredy in some form or other and TRADarrr’s appearance at the brilliant Wickham Festival, the week before Cropredy, which is run by our old mate Peter Chegwyn.
The interview should start playing automatically, if not click on the play button below to listen.
It’s been far too long since we’ve heard from Navaro. Steve Austin has posted lots of pictures from his narrowboat where the majority of So Long Wichita was recorded but there hasn’t been much music. This is their third album and is rather stripped down from its predecessor, Home Is Where Your Heartlands. The songs are, in the main, short and this time Navaro haven’t printed the lyrics but that isn’t really a problem – the vocals are crisp and clear.
The trio have three distinct voices and styles. The opener, Pete White’s ‘Slipping Through My Fingers’, is up-beat and poppy and laden with harmonies and if it was aimed at radio play, it’s a cracker. His second song in the set, ‘If Only’, is in the same vein as is ‘One Day At A Time’ but I can’t help thinking that there isn’t an established place for bands like Navaro. Fifty years ago they would have given Peter, Paul and Mary a run for their money but they don’t have the resources of a big record company behind them.
So Long Wichita is a fine album that whips by in a flash and that may be its weakness although in these days where digital music prevails and you can select a single track to buy it may be a strength. OK, enough philosophy. The second track is Steve’s romantic ‘In Midnight Sky’ decorated by James McNair’s lead guitar. Steve has a smooth voice that suits this style of material but he allows Beth Navaro to take the lead on the more up-tempo ‘Poetry In Motion’. The title track is inspired by a “close encounter” with Jimmy Webb but whether this was walk-by or something more meaningful we aren’t told. In keeping with its inspiration it quotes from Joni Mitchell, which always worries me, but I guess that it’s only us oldies who would still recognise the sources.
Mark Stevens adds drums to seven of the ten tracks and PJ Wright plays a grumbling rocky lead guitar part on ‘One Day At A Time’ but otherwise it’s down to the multi-instrumental talents of White and Austin. It’s great to welcome Navaro back again.
So Long Wichita is a ten song collection. The title track and even the impetus to record again came from an encounter with a legendary songwriter. Jimmy Webb was speaking and performing for BBC Radio 4. One of Navaro was in the audience and was so forcibly reminded of the importance to him of Jimmy Webb and his contemporaries, that he went home and immediately wrote a song in homage. The next day he sent the song to Jimmy Webb via his wife who handles his correspondence. She graciously replied and said she was listening to it on the plane back to NY and how it brought tears to her eyes. She said she’d play it to Jimmy and with that kind response the energy was found to record “Navaro 3”.
The album finds the trio of Beth Navaro, Pete White and Steve Austin back on the Grand Union Canal where much of their debut album, Under Diamond Skies, was recorded. Recording with a view of the woods and the water lends a certain calm and organic feel to the long hours involved and perhaps the end result. Beth, who is now also a professional candle maker, brought regular gifts to the sessions that only enhanced the experience of being together. Once again the differences between the three vocalists and the blend of these differences in harmony is front and centre. There are fewer guest musicians than on the 2012 Heartlands album but Mark Stevens (LJE/TradArrr) drums on much of it and when PJ Wright blasts in on ‘One Day At A Time’ there’s no mistaking who just walked into the room!
Navaro will be performing this spring and summer. Dates begin at the Stables, Stage Two on Saturday 30th March.
If you’ve ever been to a Cropredy Festival you’ll know exactly what they do on Saturday. They gather together a bunch of former band-mates and old friends and play a mammoth set long into the darkness (subject to health and safety restrictions, of course). These days, Fairport Convention don’t need an excuse to mount a celebration but 2017 marked the band’s fiftieth anniversary and so this was the perfect opportunity to tell the band’s story in music – although not strictly in the right order. Thus we have What We Did On Our Saturday, packaged in an homage to their second album.
The album begins with their first album and (almost) their first line-up. For younger readers that was Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble now with Dave Mattacks on drums. They kick off with ‘Time Will Show The Wiser’ and ‘Reno Nevada’ and I was impressed at the way Richard played the sort of guitar lead appropriate to 1967. He couldn’t help himself, of course, and went off on one but I don’t suppose that anyone complained.
Chris While took over on lead vocals for ‘Suzanne’, a slightly less off-the-wall arrangement than the original. Chris does a very good Sandy Denny particularly on the rockier numbers but she’s her own woman and the grace notes and decorations are all her own. Judy and Iain get time off and the others take it in turns so the current line-up doesn’t actually appear until ‘Crazy Man Michael’ when Gerry Conway briefly wrestles the drum stool away from DM. The remainder of the first disc is taken up with selections from Liege & Lief and Full House and they keep ‘Sloth’ to under ten minutes.
The second disc opens with ‘Now Be Thankful’, a song which Chris Leslie is rapidly making his own, even though Richard elbows him off the mic on this occasion. It’s worth noting that Chris doesn’t get a break after the third track until the Fotheringay homage of ‘Ned Kelly’ and ‘Rising For The Moon’ which feature Sally Barker and PJ Wright and introduce Maartin Allcock to the stage. The latter is a feature of the revamped Fotheringay’s set but sadly, of course, Jerry Donahue isn’t available. I have to say, in passing, that Simon does a wonderful job with ‘Fotheringay’. Maart gets to lead ‘A Surfeit Of Lampreys’ and Ralph McTell takes centre stage for ‘White Dress’ but Simon keeps ‘The Hiring Fair’ for himself.
There is only one song that originates with the current line-up and that’s Chris Leslie’s ‘Our Bus Rolls On’ and now we’re on the downhill run. You know how it ends: ‘Matty Groves’ – with both drummers – and ‘Meet On The Ledge’ with everyone back on stage.
As you might imagine, I own a lot of Cropredy recordings and all have their own attractions. For me the 25th anniversary set stands out while the earlier ones: A.T.2 and The Boot have the particular ramshackle charm that we used to associate with Fairport Convention thirty-odd years ago. What We Did On Our Saturday is tight and slick without much in the way of stage chatter – an appropriately serious set to go with such a milestone in Fairport’s history. Exemplary performances as we’ve come to expect, of course, but sometimes I do miss Simon playing rhythm viola!
Between their first and second albums Mark Jolley left has Tradarrr to be replaced by Tim Harries (more serious folk-rock credentials) and Phil Bond has moved on with his place taken by singer, fiddler and pianist Gemma Shirley. Thus Further Tales Of Love! Death! And Treachery! sees a seven-piece band plundering the English folk tradition even further.
This is straight down-the-line folk-rock – no Ralph Vaughn Williams or Oliver Goldsmith this time and individual members of the band have taken songs and done their own thing with them rather like Steeleye Span in their pomp. Some of the songs are perhaps not very well-known. Greg Cave reworks ‘The Bonny Lass Of Anglesey’ as Martin Carthy did forty years ago. ‘Dream Not Of Love’ was collected by John Clare and adapted by Cave and Guy Stevens as was ‘The Crafty Lover’. Similarly, Cave amalgamates several variants of ‘The Bailiff’s Daughter Of Islington’ and throws in a Stones’ riff for good measure.
The material that is more familiar can come as bit of a surprise. ‘Rap Her To Bank’ is now almost pretty – just don’t let the Wilson Family hear it – and if I didn’t know better I’d say that Pete Scrowther and PJ Wright didn’t really understand what the song was about but the final verse is a protest at the closure of the mines so I know that’s wrong. Instead of a song of anger at a tragedy it is here presented as something like a lament but with Mark Stevens’ cornet and Wright’s electric guitar giving it an edge. It took me a couple of plays to get into it but I think I understand what they’re doing now. Marion Fleetwood’s interpretation of ‘The Cuckoo’s Nest’ is quite sensuous – we all know that it’s about sex but it’s not always presented quite so blatantly.
‘Lowlands Of Holland’ and ‘Spencer The Rover’ are pretty faithful adaptations but the instrumental set ‘Madame Bonaparte/The Golden Eagle’ gives the rock part of the band free rein. PJ describes Further Tales Of Love! Death! And Treachery! as “still with the silly name but a serious bid, musically” – he knows that I really don’t like the band’s name – and I can’t argue with any of that.
The title track is a new recording of the song she wrote for 2015 Poozies album, Into The Well, featuring real rather than electric piano, given a softer feel and with Tom Bull on double bass, Sally Barker’s follow-up to Maid In England, the 2014 album on the back of her appearances on The Voice, is woven around a theme of abandonment and putting your heart back together.
One of the first reactions to being dumped is want retribution, and smoke-wisped jazzy blues opening track ‘Emperor Of Cool’ taps into the narrator’s embittered feelings towards the ex who cruelly tells her, “the harmony to all of your songs” he only dated her for a bet, sharing his less attractive attributes with whoever she meets.
Realisation of being broken arrives with the early Dylan influences of ‘I’m Not Whole’, the acoustic guitar riff behind the piano written and played by her son, its lyrics built around imagery of the sea and being washed up on the shore. Delivered against a steady acoustic guitar pulse and streaked by pedal steel, ‘Like Sugar’ offers a different spin, a woman lonely while her soldier husband is away at war being courted by a local chancer bringing food and stockings and offering to help with a little DIY.
Picking up the ‘Ghost Girl’ imagery and running with it, ‘Vampire of Love’, featuring Sally on piano and guitar, is a slow dance romancer with a 30s styled waltzing chorus that, set in Victorian England, draws on the dangerous sexuality embodied in the Dracula-inspired seducer.
The mood shifts again for the 60s R&B sultry groove of ‘Hand of Fate’, apparently written for Tom Jones and inspired by the offer of major label deal following The Voice, one which, perhaps wisely, she declined. Bolstering the instrumentation with keys, slide and electric guitar (Knopfleresque solo provided by PJ Wright), the country tinged ‘Mr Bang’ apparently has its inspiration in a difficult and troubled chap who also happened to be very loud drummer.
If it’s been about loss, betrayal and loneliness so far, the even more country slow waltz ‘Two Hearts’, again featuring pedal steel and with Ian Crabtree on Spanish guitar, addresses the possibility of finding new love, hope tinted with hesitancy.
Underpinned by double bass, the earlier jazz vibe resurfaces for the smoky, finger clicking ‘Queen of Reckless Feelings’, a lyrical throwback to Barker’s earlier and less complicated singleton days. She reminds me here slightly of Janis Ian, as indeed she does on the spare acoustic ‘Tell It Like It Is’, a brittle break up of an affair number, even if the publicity blurb evokes Dory Previn, another 70s singer-songwriter doyenne of songs about spurned and discarded lovers.
The album ends with Glenn Hughes on piano for the brief instrumental ‘Theme to ‘Ghost Girl’’. But, before that pedal steel, Spanish guitar and the theme of new but difficult starts are reprised with the folk and country tones of ‘Canada’, a strummed first person narrative of hardships suffered by settlers encouraged by the British Government to emigrate there in the early 1800s on the back of the fur trade boom and build new lives for their families. Some went under, but many more survived and emerged stronger for the experience, which, in a nutshell, is the message at the core of this fine album.