I first encountered Brooks Williams five or six years ago at a festival. He was sitting outside a pub playing in the sunshine because the venue was locked and nobody could find the key. It was a splendid session and that’s the sort of man Brooks is.
The blues and the delights of resonator guitars are at the heart of Brooks’ music but there’s more to him than that. Take ‘Rosalyn’, one of his own songs, the tale of a doomed love affair. It is deceptively simple with drums by co-producer Chris Pepper and bass by Richard Gates with Brooks playing National and slide guitars. But listen again to that bass line and then pick up on the subtleties of the melody.
My Turn Now is a mixture of styles and there is a sort of narrative thread running through the record. The first two tracks, ‘Crazy Dance’ and ‘My Turn Now’ are brash, up-tempo numbers and it feels as though a few rough edges have been deliberately left in place. Track three, ‘Nine Days’ Wonder’, featuring the first contribution from Sally Barker, is an upbeat, slightly cynical take on modern-day celebrity culture, followed by one of my favourite tracks here, ‘Darkness’.
The covers include a rocking version of Mose Allison’s ‘You’re Mind Is On Vacation’ and a snappy take on ‘Hesitation Blues’. Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Nobody Wins’ is another departure, featuring sharded lead vocals with Barker. I have to say that it’s a bit naughty to label ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’ as traditional. Its authorship is, I believe, beyond question but putting that caveat aside this is a fine album.
Sally Barker’s appearance on The Voice brought her to the attention of a new audience and her joining Fotheringay reminded the rest of us that she is still here. Those of us fortunate enough to hear the rejuvenated band on stage also got to learn first hand what a fabulous voice she has.
This six-track EP is the next step in her career relaunch, which sounds a bit cynical of me but it’s the way the business is. It closes with ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ which should guarantee some extra sales but the record isn’t a one-trick pony. The opener is an acoustic rocker, ‘Jealous Bones’, written by Sally and Carol Leeming with Glenn Hughes keyboards laying down the foundation and that’s followed by Debbie Cassell’s jazzy ‘Kissing A Stranger’ with a deceptively simple backing of acoustic guitar and piano.
Next comes a classic, ‘Walk On By’, recorded live with just piano – Glenn Hughes earns his corn yet again – in a stripped-down, slowed-down arrangement. The title track is written by Barker, Cassell, Ian Crabtree (Sally’s producer/bassist/guitarist) and Martin Ansell and returns to the funky acoustic rock that opened the show. In a change of style ‘Heat & The Shell’, another of Sally’s own songs, features Keith Buck’s pedal steel guitar and Crabtree’s bass before building to a big finish with Adam Ellis’s accordion.
Finally, a live ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ is gorgeous and brittle with Sally’s voice about to crack at the end of the bridge – a brilliant example of vocal control before Hughes’ piano gives her a break before the final choruses in a feat of understated drama. There’s a huge list of projects I’d love to see Sally involved in – and I don’t think I’m alone – but this will do nicely for a while.
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.
The Poozies isn’t so much a band as an academy for female musicians. Stars who have passed through its ranks include Patsy Seddon, Kate Rusby, Karen Tweed and Sally Barker, who has how returned to the fold. A constant presence has been harpist Mary Macmaster and the electro-harp is the band’s defining sound. Into The Well is their seventh studio album in a career stretching back over twenty years with the current members recording five times that number of records as soloists or in other partnerships.
The album opens with ‘Percy’s’, a sprightly set of four tunes: one traditional, one Poozie original and two borrowed as is the fashion these days. That’s followed by ‘Southern Cross’, a song by Andrew Peter Griffiths who doesn’t seem to have recorded or written anything else. It’s a song about modern piracy in the southern oceans and I’d venture to suggest that The Poozies did well to find it before Fairport Convention did – I can imagine them giving it the full folk-rock treatment.
Next is a puirt-à-beul called ‘Churinn’ paired with another tune by Mairearad Green. I’m having trouble with this because it sounds like Eildih Shaw and/or Mairearad and Mary are singing “fucking yeah” repeatedly. There are two sets of lyrics associated with this title and, although I’m no Gaelic speaker, I can’t match what they’re singing to either of them. Still, we need something to make us laugh today.
There is one slightly jarring note and that is Sally Barker’s ‘Ghost Girl’. It’s a pop song – a superior one, no doubt and with rather more words than the average top 10 hit – but a pop song nonetheless. It contains a superb instrumental break but one which sounds as though it belongs somewhere else. The song itself is beginning to grow on me but it still feels out of place. The other pop song is ‘Three Chords And The Truth’ but that seems to fit better. Finally I should mention ‘Small Things In The Cupboards’, a poem by Julia Darling with music by Tim Dalling. Some might find it amusing but I think it’s very clever and insightful.
With one ever-decreasing reservation, I declare Into The Well a very fine album and commend The Poozies on more than holding their own in the crowded world of innovative music from Scotland. You might even say that Mary and Patsy helped to start it all off with Delighted With Harps.
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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I’m not sure that, after a career spanning some 28 years, during which time she’s released six solo albums, two with The Poozies and been part of the Joni Mitchell Project, not to mention opening for Dylan and Robert Plant, being a contestant on The Voice wasn’t beneath her dignity. However, it has brought her exposure far beyond the folk circuit and, thank God, she didn’t win, so still has a healthy music career ahead of her. It has also served to prompt the re-issue of this, her sixth album. Originally released back in 2003, it was tragically overshadowed by her husband’s death and saw Barker largely retire from the scene for four years as she raised her children and took a Music Technology degree at de Montfort University. Although, after rejoining the band, she did appear on last The Poozies album, Yellow Like Sunshine, five years back, she’s not released anything under her own name for over a decade.
As well as boosting back catalogue sales, The Voice has also prompted this welcome reissue in the hope it will have wider exposure, especially with Barker now freer to promote it. Working with a line-up that includes Keith Buck, Paul Whyman, Phil Beer, Patsy Seddon and Sarah Alle, it balances the traditional influences of ‘Haul Away’ (a deportation ballad inspired by a book about female convicts sent to Australia), ‘The Ballad of Mary Rose’ (sung in the voice of one of Henry VIII’s sailors), and ‘The Farm’ (Debbie Cassell’s hauntingly desolate song of countryside plight on which Barker delivers a stunning unaccompanied intro) with the folk-rock sensibilities of ‘Fall From Grace’ (woman kills her deceitful lover), ‘Sirens’ (while acknowledging his courage, a firefighter’s wife has to leave because she’s unable to cope with the stress) and the rousing, celebratory title track in which Boudicea, Elizabeth I and Amy Johnson link verses.
Elsewhere, Steve Knightley’s ‘Captains’ (one of several songs referencing the sea) opens the album, the flute-laced ‘Comrades In Arms’ marries medieval notes and progressive folk in a part a capella lament of an Elizabeth wife whose husband returns from an Irish campaign a changed man, ‘Old Horses’ is a quietly reflective song of ageing and exhaustion given an added ache by Keith Buck’s pedal steel while, inspired by a couple who’d lost a child, ‘Bird’, with its madrigal lute, is a tender maternal fable about nurturing and letting go thematically complemented by ‘Sleep’s Descending’ gentle devotional lullaby to her two children.
In addition to making the original album available again, the reissue also, naturally, adds her two showpieces from the TV programme, both featuring her Joni Mitchell Project partner Glenn Hughes on keyboards, a folksy pop take on Olly Murs’ ‘Dear Darlin’’ and an impassioned version of the Bee Gees’ ‘To Love Somebody’ that rightly reduced Tom Jones to tears and will now doubtless prove the centrepiece of her live set for some time. Quite how far or how long the ripples from The Voice will spread remains to be seen, but even if, as with other contestants, it’s only a brief moment in the spotlight, Barker has nothing to prove, she’s been a star with a loyal following since she first stepped on a stage.