THE SANDY DENNY PROJECT – SDP Volume 2 (SKU 364215376135191) 

SDP Volume 2A tad behind the curve for this one, all apologies sought, given the significance and content of both the recording and, more importantly, the individual inspiration behind it. A somewhat low key release, a fortnight or so ago, at Cromer’s Folk on the Pier, means many may have been as equivalently late to the party as I, unaware the existence of this release. The SDP? Well, as P.J. Wright, guitarist at the helm, says, this is not a tribute band, offering slavish reproductions, this is all about revival and reinterpretation, relishing the material and adding individual character to the ineffable songbook of the rightly much lauded Ms. Denny. 

Was there a Volume 1, you ask? The answer is yes and, sort of, no, with only live limited editions from an earlier Sandyfest, their irregular bash at Byfield Village Hall. This has a touch more official about it, and all the better, but, if you can, look out for an earlier single, ‘Matty Groves’, which may still be available, certainly on streaming. Who else is involved beyond P.J., veteran axeman from Steve Gibbons’ The Dylan Project, Little Johnny England, TradARR and Fotheringay II, let alone his historical manoevres in the vintage Steve Gibbons Band? Well, Sally Barker helms much the lead vocal, herself also a member of the latterday Fotheringay redux, Marion Fleetwood on fiddle and vocals, bassist Mat Davies and trumpeting drummer, Mark Stevens, with Gemma Shirley replacing annA rydeR on keyboards and vocals. A pretty classy crew, across the board, then. 

With a brief to tap beyond the obvious and unexpected, the team have dug deep into Denny’s songwriting and performance, from across her time with Fairport Convention, twice, with the original Fotheringay and across her four studio albums, with a mosey also into the vast legacy of posthumous unearthings, following her untimely death at the age of 31. This is exemplified by the choice of opener, ‘Banks Of The Nile’, plucked from the first Fotheringay album, where it was the jaw-dropping final track. With a largely acoustic guitar picked backing to introduce Barker’s rich vocal, trumpet and muted synth and piano gradually build the foreboding atmosphere. It is a stunning way to start, all gooses a’bumping. When P.J. power chords in with a searing slide solo, I dare you not to shiver in awe, once more as the drums surge in. Wow and, again, wow. 

Some may know ‘It Suits Me Well’ better from Dave Swarbrick’s version, but this hangs closer to Denny’s own rendition, piano to the front. P.J. adds some glorious pedal steel and Stevens some pastoral brass, and it is a delight. The song also contains one of my favourite ever couplets, where ‘yours is’ gets a rhyme with ‘horses’. Marion’s voice is just a tad deeper than Denny ever was, the backing of Fleetwood and Shirley then filling out the bandwidth. 

‘For Nobody’ gets a bluesey rinse of some appeal, imagining this will be a live highpoint, all organ choogling and slide guitar. Fairport’s ‘Farewell, Farewell’ sees P.J. take a turn at the mike, his slightly straining voice the perfect centre to the subsequent choral harmonies. Fleetwood saws some gentle and melancholic fiddle that aptly captures the moment of not just parting, but the subsequent loss. (Is that something in my eye?) 

A brief snippet of caught conversation, Marion Fleetwood interpreting Denny’s words, opens up ‘Autopsy’, which is delivered magnificently and moodily. With Barker taking the lead, the synthesized scaffolding, that embeds her voice, makes this an almost electropop interpretation, that oozes 80’s maudlin charm. I’m almost thinking Alison Moyet, as the second half limbers up a bit and the drums drop in with a hop, skip and dance. ‘London’ is just then prime folk-pop, fiddle and guitar at that place where disco meets ceilidh; very Steeleye class of 1975. (For those unfamiliar with the song, this is one from Thea Gilmore’s Don’t Stop Singing album of 2011, wherein the singer was gifted a set of unsung Denny lyrics, much as Carla Fuchs’s Songbird, last year.) 

‘No End’ gives bleak as bleak does, a strummed guitar and voice all that is needed to convey the wintry feel, before the gradual seep in of the band. Without the overly lush orchestration of the original, the mood is similar to the solo piano version, even if the piano, when it comes in, is electric, adding then a counterpoint of reflection. A tremendous iteration. Already I’m itching to get to New Forest Folk Festival next month, where the Project are playing. 

To close come the double whammy of ‘One More Time’ and ‘White Dress’, the hell, yeah, I’m back salvos from Denny’s second sojourn with Fairport. The arrangement of the former is grand enough, if just a little too polite. I hate to seem critical, but this is the one song where the singing errs a little too close to reverence. Fleetwood’s fiddle is gorgeous, mind, and P.J. is clearly more than ready to take on the electrifying coda, which, as he starts to blaze, seems almost too soon to drop away. No such restraints live, I’m hoping! Thankfully, the awe and reserve is pegged back for ‘White Dress’, it being decked in a lovely Edwardian waltz arrangement, heavy on the brass. Utterly beguiling, all the yearning majesty is brought forward and amplified. With steel guitar hovering behind the vocal, it is vital and swoonsome in equal doses. 

What a wonderful record. And I need say no more, the lily already gilded sufficient. 

Seuras Og 

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