STRAWBS: A TASTE OF STRAWBS, 2006
One of the Gus Dudgeon mixtapes
The lost "Blue Angel", recorded in 1976 at Sarm
One of the DC demo tapes - Deadlines tracks
First, a few words about quantity before mentioning quality. The first CD is almost an hour and a quarter long, which means it's about as long as Tales From Topographic Oceans, only with twenty tracks rather than just four. That makes it a double album in its own right. If the other CDs are similarly sized, then the four CD box set is equivalent to eight vinyl albums, and if you are lucky enough to get the fifth CD you have a ten disk box set! If you were wavering over forking out the readies for just one box set, maybe thinking of it as ten LPs might help.
Secondly a few words about the selection of tracks on the first CD. These document the transition of the group from a bar-room folk band, to mega prog rock stars. However, this is no DC ego-trip, and nor is it simply a "greatest hits" selection. The history of the Strawbs is not just a single thread telling the story of Dave Cousins, but a complex tapestry of many talents as demonstrated on this CD, particularly in the choice of a track by Fire. A few tracks are new, a few are very different from previous releases, a few are live recordings and a few are quite similar to previously published material. An inspired selection. Sad that there are no recordings here of anything from the brief period when Sonja Kristina was a member of the group. Never mind, that's something to look forward to on the next box set! [I'm outta here! - DG]
A major part of the enjoyment of the music is a bit of knowledge of the background of the tracks, such as knowing that Rick Wakeman is playing clarinet, or that the word "sparklebright" was invented by DC after chatting to Marc Bolan. Hopefully with the box set there will be a booklet brimming with such details [yes indeed, final version wasn't available for the previewers - DG], and I am looking forward to reading that almost as much as listening to the music. I dare say that once I know a little bit more detail about some of these songs, my opinion could well change, and a track that I only think of as marvellous could suddenly be elevated.
OK. Onto the songs.
Dave introduces "The Grey Hawk", by saying "This song is from Devon". Nowadays that would mean that he was about to break into "Lay Down", or "Shine On Silver Sun", but back then I guess he meant it was an old traditional song. It is a typical finger-in-ear folk song, that would not be out of place if performed by Steeleye Span. The grey hawk in the title being a metaphor for a wife that flies to the arms of another man. I don't know much about this type of folk music, having never bought a Dubliners album, but it is amazing how well suited DC's voice is to this type of music.
"The Cruel Wars", later included on Hummingbird as "Higher Germanie", is a Dave Cousins solo, but on first listening to it, you think that there must be some mistake. Surely that is Rick playing keyboards? No it's Dave himself, playing the banjo. Mind blowing.
Not sure as to the history of "You Don't Think About Me." I expect that this is another traditional song adapted by the Strawberry Hill boys, rather than a DC or Tony Hooper original. It is typically "bluegrass", demonstrating Dave's amazing banjo picking technique.
"Not All The Flowers Grow" is, I think, the first track on the CD that was written by Dave. Not released until 2001, when it appeared on Baroque & Roll, it commemorates the Aberfan disaster. Another beautiful solo from Dave. I guess that the reason that it took over thirty years before it was recorded is probably because the subject matter was felt to be too sensitive.
"You Keep Going Your Way" was released on Old School Songs, and on Preserved Uncanned. This Strawberry Hill Boys version is much closer to the Preserves version. Personally, I think the song benefited from being slowed down a bit when played by Brian Willoughby.
It always brings a tear my eye when Sandy sings, "I don't have the words to bid you farewell, so I'll carry them with me a while." I'm afraid that I couldn't honestly say whether this version is any different to that on All Our Own Work. I think that Dave Cousins' voice on the chorus might be a bit louder on Taste. Whilst listening to the chorus on my MP3 player whilst walking the dog this morning, I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck standing up, and that hasn't happened before, so whatever the difference is, the overall effect works.
Once again, there is little difference to my untrained ear between the Taste version of "Nothing Else Will Do" and the original. I'm sure that most everyone else will think it is completely different, and be able to tell that a different plectrum was used, or that Tony was wearing different shoes. Please accept my apologies for not being able to tell.
I'm really torn over "Oh How She Changed", as to whether I prefer it with Dave Lambert's guitar and Chas' foot pedals, or whether I prefer this version with Tony Hooper's vocals and the orchestration. Can I just say though, to Judi, Lisa and to everyone else in America, there are two Kew Gardens. The one in this song, and the one in New York. If ever any of you are over in the UK, give us a shout and we'll take you round the real one, (and Hampton Court as well if you like.)
I love the poetry on "Or Am I Dreaming" and on Taste, this track has even more backing orchestration than on the first album. Close your eyes and drift off. Shame it doesn't last for longer.
I suspect that Pink Floyd stole the technique of mixing their songs with spoken voice, (Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast and Dark Side of the Moon), from the Strawbs. "The Man Who Called Himself Jesus", the first song, on their first album opens with spoken voice, way before Floyd did it. It turns out that "All The Little Ladies" was originally intended to both start and finish like this too [as were all the tracks on the original version of the first A&M album, buyt few now survive, as far as we know - DG]. Nice to hear it as it was first intended.
Tony Hooper's "Ah Me, Ah My" wasn't released until Grave New World, but by its inclusion on this CD, I guess he wrote it way back in the pre-Rick Wakeman days. Wonder why it took so long to see the light of day.
On the first album "The Man Who Called Himself Jesus" starts with a brief recording of a spoken voice. This was a brief edit from a much longer interview, much more of it being included on CD1.
I was never a fan of "The Battle" on their first album. Having heard the Acoustics play it live recently, though, my opinion of this song has changed dramatically. This live version, with Claire Deniz and Rick is good, far better than the studio version. Sadly I don't think it quite matches the latest, although the cello adds an aura of dramatic tension in much the same way as Chas' pedals do.
Strawbsweb described the Fire version of "It's Just Love" as "unreleased". This isn't quite true, as it appears on the Japanese import Underground And Overhead [true, my mistake - DG]. However, I know that halfway through the US tour, Lisa completely sold out of this, so there's probably quite a lot of Strawbs fans out there who haven't yet had the chance to hear it. If Taste is your first chance to hear the Dave Lambert original of this Hero And Heroine number then you are in for a real treat. Although credited as Fire, I think it is a Dave Lambert solo. Just his voice and a guitar. It's a very different song from the later version. Love it.
"Another Day" is supposedly a live recording, although there is no audience noise, or applause [it's a BBC radio live session - DG]. Can't listen to it without thinking of DC's description of Claire's red ribbon attached to her bow.
According to DC, they had very little money left over after recording their first album, so Dragonfly was much more back to basics, and yet this version of "Forever", which didn't even make it to the final cut, seems to be orchestrated. I don't think that the strings in the background are a cello. Excellent production, so it's very surprising that it ended up as an out-take.
[I think it was always intended as a standalone single, but it took a while for them to get happy with the backing, and by the time it was released in July 1970, the old Dragonfly line-up was already history and Rick, John and Hud were in place, about to step onto the stage of the QEH. The released version has lush strings; this earlier attempt has some Wakeman organ backing - DG]
Taste includes a live version of "Where Am I/ I'll Show You Where To Sleep". For some reason, the original on the first album is not a track I have listened to very much, but after listening to this, I know it's one I'll now listen to over and over again.
The version of "Canon Dale" on Taste features much more sitar than the version released originally on From The Witchwood, demonstrating that Hud was far more than just a drummer.
I'd presumed that the title of the instrumental "RMW" is simply Rick's initials. Rick Middle-name Wakeman, but Dick tells me that it's named after Rick's first wife Roz. Like "Temperament of Mind", on Antiques, this is mainly a Rick solo, though he is accompanied towards the end by Hud and John. Tragic to think of a gem like this gathering dust in an attic. Listening to this, I realise what a fool I was not going to see Rick and Jon live recently.
In introducing "New World" Dave often says, "If we can't teach our children the meaning of peace, then what hope is there for the world?" A good question, but who realised that the answer lay in From The Witchwood? In "Sheep", the young boy, after witnessing the farmer's cruelty, vows that when he grows up to be a farmer he will just plant seeds of love. There is hope still for us all. I must confess, though, that my least favourite track on From The Witchwood is "Sheep". Dave's voice is just too manic for my taste. However, that said, my absolute favourite track on CD1 is this version of "Sheep". It is utterly stunning. The money for the box set is worth it for this track alone, a terrific climax to end the first CD. The original track on Witchwood is just over four minutes long; this live version lasts for over eleven, and it is packed with energy. It is as far removed from "The Grey Hawk" as you could get. An amazing journey in such a short few years.
It was interesting to hear that the Strawbs were putting together a box set. Even though we already have most of the music the boys have released into the world, (including multi-copies of things such as import, vinyl versions etc.), of course we were going to add this new addition to our family – even though I am still unsure of the Cat! But then the news leaked that much of the material to be used was going to be previously unreleased, the interest turned into thoughts of WOW, Smashing, Gosh, What.
On first listen, I decided I needed to listen to it lots of times - just as well they invented CDs, if it had been vinyl I would have worn it out by now. I read Pete's draft review before writing mine, and he described the album as not being a collection, but more a potted history of the band – which I cannot disagree with. And a jolly good one too.
Disc one for me has been a cornucopia of feelings, as it appears to cover the earlier part of the band's history, from about their Strawberry Hill Boy days to the inclusion of the "Young Magician" - Rick Wakeman - into the band. My discovery of the band having done anything more than Hero And Heroine and From The Witchwood was a recent revelation for me. So my qualifications to compare some of the tracks to previously released material are limited.
The track that usurped me was Dave Lambert's Fire version of "It's Just Love", one of the ones I keep playing. The guitar is amazing. It has raised so many questions for me such as; is it just one guitar, if it is one guitar is it a bass, an acoustic, an acoustic with electric strings, an electric – sheesh, who knows. My Strawbs and music education continues.
I was not going to mention Rick Wakeman's contribution, as I felt that little boys that seek that too much attention should be ignored – BUT his talent is overwhelming. His most significant donation to this CD is "RMW" & "Sheep". "RMW" starts with a piano solo that would not have been out of place alongside Chopin or any other notable classic composers, then, well then he is possessed by the Keyboard Wizard and with his drumming co-conspirator……you will just have to listen to it to understand, (I am smiling whilst writing this). "Sheep" is one I love, I love DC's slightly frenzied vocals, I love the theme of the song, this version is better'rer! than any others I have heard. RW again with his drumming co-conspirator, throws a musical Sudoku at you, which has you thinking you recognise so many riffs in his keyboard playing, but then you question yourself – Wonderful:o).
Awww Tony Hooper – a heart melting voice. I love the DL version of "Oh How She Changed" and as far as I am concerned it sits in a category of its own. Equally I love the Tony Hooper vocals from the 'Tie Salad' album (Strawbs). The differences between the Taste version and the "Tie Salad" version are subtle, but they are different. My untrained ear thinks the orchestration is more dramatic, with the violins playing a stronger role in the Taste version, but I am sure the more learned of you out there will be able to direct me on the correct road. Whatever the difference I adore the song and will continue to argue with myself as to whether DL or TH's vocals get a stronger reaction from me and if the acoustic version with Chas's contribution and the beautiful "acapella-esque" guitar is more moving – I will just have to keep listening to the different versions until I come to a decision – life is so hard!!!!
Bottom line is, I could go on forever about which version of what is better, pointing out differences, praising all versions of the band etc., the CD is inspired and a great listen. There are so many little nuances for me, that I think will hold your attention, make you want to listen again, and make you smile. It is inspired and demonstrates to me the talents of everyone that makes up the history of the Strawbs, from DC's poetry to Dick, Ali & Neil's continued support of Team Strawbs and everyone not mentioned who lies above, beyond, around and inside. Long may I be privileged enough to continue to see them live and be able to listen to their next contribution to music.
It's a common misapprehension that I prefer the early, folkier Strawbs to the electric band. In fact, I like the electric band just as much – my favourite Strawbs album, with all its faults, is undoubtedly Bursting At The Seams – but I have problems with very loud music, so I tend to favour acoustic music where it's available.
The real problem is I am a Dave Cousins fan. I like Dave's songs and I like his voice and I like his guitar-playing. But I'm not nearly so impressed with his choice of accompanists, who also get to write and perform songs, which mostly I don't like at all. Consequently, my favourite album is Two Weeks Last Summer, which focuses on Dave – I would love another solo album – and when the original eponymous album, Strawbs, came out, we were desperately disappointed because it sounded nothing like what we had been hearing in The White Bear every Thursday. And it had dreadful songs such as "Pieces Of 79 And 15", which, Dave tells me, was written by Tony Hooper.
Time goes on, however, and it is a long time since I played any vinyl for pleasure. Of course, occasional tracks from Strawbs have appeared on various collections, but it had slipped from my mind what a good record Strawbs is as a whole. And those Thursday evenings at the White Bear…
CD1 of A Taste Of Strawbs recapitulates much of this. It begins with Dave singing a delightful folksong "from Devon" called "The Grey Hawk". It is very Cousins-esque in its use of symbolism but also has that risqué element so common in much of folk music that makes the audience sing along with great relish on the refrain. It sounds as if this is the band I first knew as the Strawbs, with Tony Hooper on harmonies and guitar and Ron Chesterman on double-bass. Given Tony's voice is so different from Dave's, it is extraordinary how they blend so well and, likewise, Ron's double-bass playing seems to flow in seamlessly and underpin the music without ever dominating it. I would love to hear the entire live recording this was taken from. This has to be my favourite track on the album, if only because it is the only one I had never heard before.
It is followed by Dave Cousins singing another folk song, "Higher Germanie", this time solo and accompanied only by himself on banjo. From the cheerful lechery of "The Grey Hawk" to the deadly serious business of going to war and leaving your sweetheart behind we receive a clear impression of the breadth of Dave's folk roots. This has appeared before on Hummingbird but, wretchedly, I can't find my copy to compare. It is, however, superb.
Changing the tone back to the light-hearted, the next track is the Strawberry Hill Boys in full bluegrass mode romping through "You Don't Think About Me When I'm Gone", with Tony Hooper on lead vocal and Dave Cousins's astonishing banjo playing once again well to the fore.
Another complete mood change comes with the next track, Dave's solo demo of "Not All The Flowers Grow". It was the fortieth anniversary of the Aberfan disaster just a few days ago and this song is as relevant today as it was then, with Dave's tender singing and tasteful guitar playing bringing out all his empathy. I can see why this was never a commercial release at the time – how could anyone want to make money out of such a tragedy – but it is wonderful to have this apparently contemporary recording of it as a mark of Dave's commitment to his music and his emotions.
From here on in, the album consists largely of the tracks which I expected on that first album and which would have made it a marvellous keepsake of their act in those days. "You Keep Going Your Way", "Sail Away To The Sea", "Nothing Else Will Do", "Oh, How She Changed", "Or Am I Dreaming", "All The Little Ladies", "The Man Who Called Himself Jesus", "The Battle", "Another Day", "Forever" and "I'll Show You Where To Sleep" and they are all wonderful – the meld between Dave and Tony's vocals, their guitar playing and Ron's bass are superb and it is delightful to have these all in one place.
The presence of Sandy Denny slightly mars it, as I have always found her voice too breathy and little-girly for my taste – just like Jacqui McShea of Pentangle. Lovely if you like that sort of thing. I don't. Given someone with a full-bodied voice – June Tabor or Grace Slick – who could match Dave's impassioned delivery, they might have been world-beaters. I often wonder what Sonja Kristina sounded like with the Strawbs – are there any recordings of her in the archives, Dick? [Sadly not to our knowledge - DG]
"Nothing Else Will Do" and "Another Day" are probably my two favourite Dave Cousins songs ever and it is great to hear them here, although I remember "Nothing Else Will Do" arranged in a completely different way.
Both "The Man Who Called Himself Jesus" and "All The Little Ladies" feature spoken introductions. If indeed they are acted, they are superb pieces of writing and acting. Did I hear someone say the entire album was to have been like this? That I would love to hear. It would make a lot more sense than the vestige we have of it on the intro to "Jesus". The only thing remotely similar to this I have ever heard appears on the Paul Simon song Old Friends, Bookends. [And there's the rub - the Bookends album beat Strawbs out onto the market; as a result Strawbs dropped the spoken word material (apart from Richard Wilson to open the album) - none of the other links survive, though there are a couple of lengthy interviews which may have been raw material for one or more. DG]
And after the spoken intro to "Jesus", and the ringing guitar chords, the bass thumps in and I still cringe and wait for the stylus to jump off the record. We went through five copies before we got one that would play.
And the violins towards the end of "Oh, How She Changed" – is anyone else reminded of the violins shrieking over the shower scene in Psycho? This arrangement has always given this otherwise apparently gentle song a sinister overtone to me. They're not there after the first chorus. Only after the second one. Gives me the shivers.
I sometimes wonder if Cousins allows the people around him to sing their own songs to contrast with how much better his songs are. "Ah Me Ah My" fits no better here between "All The Little Ladies" and "The Man Who Called Himself Jesus" than it did on Grave New World. Probably the worst track on the album although, for me, a couple of others run it a close second.
Dave Lambert's demo of "Just Love" is almost bewildering in its bathos. This version is completely different from the Strawbs track we all know and love. The vocal is much better, reminding us of just how good Lampoon could be when he was young – he's still superb, but the wonderful indefinable smoky quality of his voice has, perhaps, been subtly altered from his having smoked so many roll-ups since. In contrast, the guitar playing on here is almost laughable. Imagine Steve Marriott singing and Billy Bragg playing guitar and you won't go far wrong.
Richard Hudson's weird "Canon Dale" is third from the end. I never liked this and I find his sitar playing tedious beyond belief. But if you do like it, it is a remarkable record of how he played this live in the early seventies.
Following this, we have Rick Wakeman's melange of different tunes in a piano solo. I remember the first time I heard this how, while I thought it was very clever, it appeared empty of anything other than finger-waggling. He then steps across to the organ and gives a similar virtuoso display. For those who care about this sort of thing, the entire track is exactly five minutes long and the piano and organ parts take exactly two and a half minutes each, surely a demonstration of another side of his prodigious talent.
To close the album, Dave Cousins comes to the fore again with "Sheep", surely the ugliest track he has ever recorded, although it is an ugly subject, which makes the resolution from the jagged opening to the bucolic idealism at the end all the more effective. Sadly, this segues into eleven minutes and forty seven seconds of Rick Wakeman and John Ford competing to see who can play lead loudest in a parade of meaningless virtuosity. Many of the tracks on this album were recorded live – given the clarity and precision of the performance of "Or Am I Dreaming", I was greatly surprised to hear applause at the end – so it was particularly disappointing to hear the roar of approval which greeted the end of this undisciplined, self-indulgent noise. (A minor comment on the production is that, where there is applause, it goes on too long. Surely, the band deserved it, but it is nothing to listen to while you are waiting for the next track.)
In brief, this album charts the development of Strawbs from their real beginnings as a close-harmony folk group singing Dave Cousins's superb heartfelt songs, with a nod to their origins as a bluegrass combo, through the compromises necessary to win a wider audience, to the breakthrough into the rock scene in the early seventies.
My admiration for Dave Cousins as a singer, guitarist and writer of great songs is unbounded. But this doesn't blind me to the fact that he is also an astute businessman – ask him and he will cheerfully trot out the number of each album sold in round thousands. So what I hear here is a man making business decisions about his art. By opening up Strawbs to more diverse musicians and their songs, he broadened the appeal enough to make the band into the success it became. That this led to major chart success and the near catastrophic split of the band is, I hope, the tale to be told on CD2.
Of enormous interest to many Strawbs fans will be the live recordings from the Grave New World tour which open CD2. For me, these tracks provoke particularly keen interest, for Southend Cliffs Pavilion on that tour gave me my first ever taste of live Strawbs. Paper-round earnings were put to good use by my friend Christine and me, weeks ahead of the gig, to ensure we had "centre of the front row" seats. Despite having first heard two of the band's albums only months earlier, discovering an ad for Strawbs in the local paper felt almost surreal; in those pre-Internet days information about all but a few groups (sorry, bands), particularly for unsophisticated 13 year olds, was hard to come by. Best efforts, which included plucking up the courage to visit A&M's London offices, produced virtually nothing more than could be gleaned from album covers. Excitement generated by the band's visit to our home town was therefore, for us, almost uncontainable; it transpired to be wholly justified also, for witnessing the music which had already made such an impression played live proved unforgettable.
The first two songs featured here are those I recall most vividly from my initial live Strawbs experience. "Tomorrow": the immense power of this song during live performances has here, thankfully, been captured for posterity. A wall of sensational (in the truest sense of the word) sound is produced, as loud, thrashing guitar, combined with Blue Weaver's dramatic organ playing produces a heavily discordant air; the intensity of anger conveyed by Dave Cousins' acerbic vocals cuts right to the core. John Ford's basslines impact like blows to the stomach (Ouch! Mercy!), and are complemented to perfection by Hud's superb drumming.
"New World" follows and is equally potent, both musically and narratively. The emotional despair projected vocally by Dave Cousins, and instrumentally by the entire band, for me transcends the norm of musical experience in a way in which very few bands succeed (without a little help of some sort). You'll need to listen for yourself to see whether you agree with what I'm saying (obscurely!).
The third of the live recordings from 1972, by way of complete contrast, does very little for me. I have never much liked "Here it Comes" and any recollection if it being played during my first live Strawbs experience has either been erased from my memory, or else it wasn't played. I do, however, remember practically jumping out of my skin when I first heard it on the radio (Noel Edmonds' breakfast show, I believe). Dave Cousins' unmistakable voice came wafting unexpectedly through the airwaves; while elated at hearing the band's new single given exposure, my initial feelings were that this song sounded too commercial for my liking. Giving a fresh listen for the purpose of this review those feelings have mellowed slightly; I am still not keen on Dave Cousins' vocals on this song, particularly the choruses, though the harmonies (which sound like Hud to me) are reasonably catchy. Neither am I very keen on the keyboard sound, but the percussion is ok.
Maybe I should mention that the irony of being an armchair critic attempting to review a Strawbs CD is not lost on me, for I wouldn't know where to start in trying to write a song, I cannot sing, and I have never played an instrument. Added to that, I'm sure I now qualify as a grumpy old woman. Despite any personal dislike or, more commonly, ambivalence directed towards the occasional song, I am bursting with admiration for Dave Cousins and every one of his fellow Strawbs. Between them they have written and contributed to a vast collection of musical treasures (which is why they have been my favourite band since I first heard them).
"See How They Run" is a home demo by Cousins and Lambert, also stemming from 1972, the year in which Dave Lambert joined Strawbs and Tony Hooper departed. Quite a pleasant recording, this track has some attractive acoustic guitar playing involving several interesting changes in tempo, characteristic of many Strawbs' songs. Keyboards can also be heard, though fairly quietly in the mix. Both Daves' vocals sound good, and here they achieve a harmonious blend.
An alternative version of "Going Home" follows, with Dave Lambert replacing Dave Cousins on vocals. As far as I can tell, the change of vocalist, and omission of heavy backing vocals are the only differences on this track from that which appeared on Two Weeks Last Summer. To me, this version is preferable however. The two Daves' vocal approaches to the song are strikingly different; Dave Lambert here sings predominantly in a controlled, melodic manner, whereas Dave Cousins' interpretation sounds harsher. Dave Lambert's vocals sound good, though he is capable of so much more these days, in my opinion. I feel sure that if this song was re-recorded it could really be brought to life by Strawbs, or possibly by others.
"The Actor" also appeared on Dave Cousins' solo album, Two Weeks Last Summer, and an "alternative" mix follows. I love listening to this song for a diversity of reasons including lyrically; for me this really is an excellent track all round. While, to me, this version does not appear substantially different from the original, the bass playing is far more prominent, the lead guitar is still excellent but differs in places, and the echo effect on Dave Cousins' voice is no more. Having already heard the Deep Cuts recording of "Blue Angel" (well OBVIOUSLY I reviewed disc 3 before 2!), I can't help wondering how a fresh recording of this excellent song by that line-up would sound…
Next up is "Part of the Union"; a very clever pop song in my opinion, which, in addition to being a "bloody good sing-a-long"*, retains its "folk roots" credibility both via its rhythmic simplicity and proletarian message. Power to The People! Or not! Originally intended for release by Hud and John (heavily disguised under the name of "The Brothers"), and with a record deal already arranged, Dave Cousins recognised the song's potential and the rest is history. Although sometimes labelled divisive amongst "old and new" Strawbs fans in the UK, I personally consider it not to have been the song itself which earlier fans objected to so much as the image of the band during the period of the song's success; the dreaded "Glam Rock" era. Eeeek. In my opinion if this had been a crowd pleaser a couple of years before, when band members were kitted out in regulation jeans and t-shirts, there would have been no mutterings. In this version, as on the UK hit single, John Ford sings lead vocals, Hud provides backing vocals, Blue gives the piano a tuneful bashing and so on....... instrumentally I am unable to determine any great variance. However, certain lyrics vary slightly. "Superman" is supersized, and one entire verse was omitted in the recording by Strawbs. A shame in my opinion; it's quite a good verse, but presumably the song needed to be shortened to achieve more airplay. May the verse be with you.
* (data evidenced by the smiles on 99.9% of the faces of Strawbs fans, Bilston, March 2006).
A home demo of "The Winter And The Summer" follows. I adore the version on Bursting At The Seams; however, this "one man and his guitar" format allows closer scrutiny of Dave Lambert's voice, which is here as smooth as velvet and provides light and shade in all the right places. Sensitive acoustic guitar melds beautifully with the vocals for some Strawbs tres romantique.
I find this version of "Whichever Way The Wind Blows" quite intriguing to listen to; however it definitely doesn't blow me away. I admit I am not overly keen on the version sung by Tony Hooper and originally released on the Strawberry Sampler either. To me, this recording sounds overcrowded instrumentally, and although there is some pleasant orchestration, the underlying Latino rhythm combined with various keyboards and a host of other "pretty" sounds seems incongruous. A few lyrical gems are buried in there however, again of the romantic ilk: "I can't believe that I've been chasing rainbows, but I'll think of you and follow, whichever way the wind blows". With a simpler arrangement and less flowery vocals I would, I am certain, enjoy this song a great deal more. Where's the acoustic demo?
Next follows "Shine On Silver Sun", but not as we know it, for this is an extended version with "Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert and members of Ten Years After" according to sketchy notes. This track will undoubtedly be of enormous interest to Strawbs fans of all persuasions; it certainly is to me. A previously unheard section of the song entitled "Betrayed" opens, later segueing into a version of "Shine On" with which fans will be familiar, though several lyrics differ. I found it necessary (and enjoyable) to listen repeatedly to appreciate the evolution of the song into the version released as a single shortly after the reformed Strawbs began recording in 1973. An instrumental piece eventually leads into an alternative "Words of Wisdom" (which subsequently appeared on the Deadlines album), this in turn seamlessly reverts to "Shine On Silver Sun" to conclude. Dave Cousins' voice is superb on this recording in my opinion, and some very attractive keyboards and bass augment the sound throughout. I could listen to this over and over, and I already have.
Acoustic demos of "Out In The Cold" and "Round And Round" follow; Dave Cousins classics both as far as I am concerned. Once again, the lyrics receive full attention as the songs are here embellished only by way of simple acoustic guitar, devoid of the usual additional layers of sound. Listening to these tracks gives a taste of the seminal ideas which culminated in the songs so many of us know and love; it is also fascinating to note lyrical nuances and obtain a little insight into experimentation with vocal styles along the way.
Another acoustic demo, this time of a previously unreleased song entitled "The Writing On The Wall" is next. A pity this track isn't longer; I adore Dave Cousins' soulful vocals, the lyrics are intriguing and emotive, and tasteful acoustic guitar accompanies. I cannot help wondering why this song has not previously been recorded.
"The Four Queens", aka "Why And Wherefore"; not sure how this recording differs from the original (my singles are in the loft); it sounds pretty much as I remember it. Revisiting this track has instantly reminded me of the versatility of John Hawken's keyboard skills however, which here include fast, driving boogie woogie piano par excellence. Great bass and electric guitar can be heard throughout too, and I adore both the sudden dramatic change of tempo and abrupt harmonica finish, which lead into…..
……twittering birdsong, to be joined by distant church bells, in this "field" recording. Evoking a sense of Olde England's nostalgia and antiquity, the bells spookily ring out the intro to "Sweet Dreams", part one of the "Ghosts" suite…..eeek!
"Lemon Pie" provides the next course, an acoustic demo here sounding sweet as ever. The song contains some interesting phrasing with extremely tasty acoustic guitar accompaniment. Having always loved the buoyancy of this song as it appears on Ghosts, I find this version hugely appealing also. I absolutely adore the way Dave Cousins sings this; I love everything about it in fact.
'Allo, 'allo… c'est "Grace Darling" a la francais. Learning of the existence of this version long ago, I'm delighted to have the opportunity to hear it at last. The music accompanying Dave's vocals varies slightly from the Ghosts original (and single). I consider Chas' bass contribution to this song to be absolutely first rate, while the repleteness of sound provided by the choral accompaniment is glorious. A beautiful song, here endowed with Gallic charm.
"So Shall Our Love Die?", a gorgeous song in my opinion, the version released on Nomadness is a firm favourite of mine. Again, this acoustic demo of the song is pure delight. The guitar accompaniment is superb and Dave's unique vocals sublime, reflecting the lyrics to perfection. I adore this recording.
Another gem in a similarly understated vein follows: "Still Small Voice". Teasingly philosophical lyrics and gentle, soothing acoustic guitar with a mediaeval/renaissance (I'm no expert – historic sounding) feel, combine with Dave Cousins' unique voice….. just the way I like it. So comforting and relaxing, this song has a soporific effect on me, definitely making me want to close my eyes in sleepy pleasure.
The entire band's performance of "Absent Friend (How I Need You)" on this Old Grey Whistle Test live tv recording showcases the amazing versatility of these musicians (and I still haven't got over missing it!). The version of this song which appears on Nomadness is one of my favourite Strawbs'songs of all time, so incredibly moody; I would LOVE to hear Strawbs play and record more blues. Dave Cousins' smokey vocals and unconventional, fluid singing style suit the unrestrained emotion of blues perfectly in my opinion. Here, he is loosely kept in check by the consummate and supremely tasteful bass and drums of Chas Cronk and Rod Coombes respectively; John Mealing jazzes things up with some excellent keyboards, while Dave Lambert lets rip with some aurally spectacular (?) guitar playing. For me this song is highly satisfying; not a lot more can be added than "hmmmmm", as I imagine Bob Harris may have exclaimed passionately at the time of recording.
Very much looking forward to hearing the full set. Many thanks to Dick and Witchwood Media for asking me to review Disc 2, it was a pleasure.
I have attempted to preview disc 3 from the long-awaited boxed set, A Taste Of Strawbs, not from a technical viewpoint in any way as I wouldn't know how, but simply as a listener for whom the task has been most enjoyable. Many of the demo recordings included here give a fascinating insight into the inception of musical ideas, which enable the listener to appreciate the simple origins of many classic Strawbs songs. Also included are live versions of songs previously released, again illustrating both the evolution and diversity of interpretations of many Strawbs compositions. Information to hand about many of the recordings was sketchy at the time of writing this preview; please accept advance apologies for any errors in that respect.
"The Merchant Adventurer" is a previously unreleased Cousins song, which to me represents Dave in solo, acoustic mode at his finest. This demo contains some very attractive, buoyant guitarwork which reflects storyline lyrics, beautifully sung, concerning a merchant adventurer whose days of freedom to indulge his wanderlust on the seven seas are sadly curtailed. Needless to say, a woman is the cause of this poor, innocent man's misery….
"Blue Angel" follows – what a stunner. Repeated listening is essential to garner full appreciation of the woven tapestry of instrumentation and vocals in this musical masterpiece. Selection of any particular facet of the song is virtually impossible, though Rod Coombes' powerhouse drums and Chas Cronk's creative bass playing complement each other (and everything else that is occurring musically) to perfection, while John Hawken's keyboards……. and Dave Lambert's guitar.….Wow! You'll have to listen for yourself to appreciate what I cannot put adequately into words; my attempts to describe this recording of "Blue Angel" feel akin to describing a beautiful sunset as a big orange blob. Apparently left over from Deep Cuts sessions, the highly developed musical empathy between those involved in the recording is palpable; this is phenomenal and the thought that it may never have surfaced horrifies me, as I'm sure it will many Strawbs fans.
There follows an alternate version of "Goodbye" from the Burning For You recording sessions, which took place at a studio in Holland situated in the depths of the forest glade, peaceful and inspirational. A lovely song, John Mealing's beautiful piano playing is more dominant on this recording than on the album version. Various differences in arrangement also exist; most, to my non-technical ears, appear fairly subtle.
Next is an acoustic demo recovered from the Deadlines recording sessions; Dave Cousins' vocals are accompanied only by acoustic guitar in this delicate rendition of the haunting "Deadly Nightshade". Travelling back in time thus to experience the simple spawning of this song allows the listener to focus intently on the lyrical content of the song, a focus which inevitably shifts somewhat with the added powerful artillery of electrification as on the album recording. This version lyrically conveys its drama, and should appeal greatly to fans at the "gentler" end of the Strawbs spectrum who may less appreciate the "blow you away" power of heavy electrification. Personally, I adore the electric version; I love this version too. Not a case of either/or, but both please.
I was intrigued to hear the previously unreleased "Midnight", having read it had been rescued from the Deadlines sessions, and had somehow got it into my head that this would be a "delicate" Strawbs track. It isn't. This is predominantly a rocker, and I have to admit that for me, Dave Cousins would not be my preferred choice of singer on this track; the song screams "Dave Lambert" at me. Just my personal taste, of course, but for me Dave Cousins sings convincingly in an enormous diversity of genres (very definitely including "the blues", having seen him perform such with the Blue Angel Orchestra in Deal earlier in the year), but while his voice lends itself like no other to impassioned screaming and wailing as emotive lyrics so demand within many highly-charged Strawbs creations, his singing of rock songs per se just doesn't do it for me. This is a good song though, with some great guitar and very solid rhythm – I could imagine it being covered very successfully by several bands genuinely of the rock ilk.
"Sweet Voices" appears next, also emanating from the early Deadlines recording sessions. To fans this song will already be known in its previously released form as "New Beginnings", which appeared both on the album and as a single, gaining both radio and television exposure in the UK in 1978. However, the lyrics vary fairly substantially between the two versions; in my opinion "New Beginnings" deserved to win out. A pleasant song, though never one of my favourites, Dave Lambert sings this version with his customary depth of feeling and expression.
"Bring Out Your Dead", aka "The Young Pretender", as released on the 2002 Dave Cousins/Rick Wakeman Hummingbird collaboration, follows. The simplicity of this demo highlights the complexity of the Hummingbird version; here Dave Cousins renders his vocals gently, yet with crystal clarity, accompanied only by understated piano. The decipherability of interesting and thought-provoking lyrics has always been a major draw of Strawbs for many fans, including myself, and this "deforested" version of the song clearly exposes the lyrical content. I find this recording very pleasant indeed.
Delicate piano introduces the version of "Another Day Without You" which follows; this has always been a great favourite of mine, from Heartbreak Hill. Once again, in this demo, simple piano accompaniment provides the perfect backdrop for Dave Cousins' vocals to be heard without battling for position. I am not overly keen on the lilting vocal style of this recording, however. In several instances the lyrics vary from the versions with which Strawbs fans will already be familiar, and it appears that two verses from this recording were rejected prior to recording of the previously released versions.
Dave Lambert and Chas Cronk collaborate to provide the next track; "Touch The Earth". I was eager to hear this song, having learned many moons ago of recordings they made together in the early 1980s. I'm delighted to say it did not disappoint; this is a great "pop/rock" song with an extremely memorable chorus and a lyrical message the connotations of which are ever more relevant, decrying greed and materialism at the expense of nature, as awareness of what is truly beautiful is lost. Dave Lambert's guitar sounds superb as his vocals soar, backed by Chas's harmonies which blend to perfection, and augmented by some great keyboards and punchy rhythm. With so many members of Strawbs, past and present, able to write excellent songs, not to mention the stunningly good range of voices which has existed within the band, inevitably there has not always been sufficient opportunity for them to showcase their individual talents within Strawbs. I, for one, always enjoy hearing such accomplished musicians' autonomous or collaborative efforts away from the band, and fervently hope the promised album of Cronk/Lambert compositions soon materialises.
A 1981 studio recording of Strawbs accompanied by Juan Martin, the guitar virtuoso whom I had the pleasure of watching play at Strawbs' Christmas party in 2005, is next on the agenda. Electric keyboard (no idea what type!) introduces "Armada", soon to be superseded by seductive flamenco guitar, to which an eclectic variety of sounds including drums and electronic keyboards are eventually added. Intricate guitar playing continues to predominate until eventually the tempo shifts to a wilder, more jazzed up melange of synthesizer and percussive sounds, suggesting something of the Moorish feel which influenced the beautiful sounds of flamenco.
A timeless favourite of many Strawbs' fans follows; "A Glimpse of Heaven", here performed by Dave Cousins and Brian Willoughby, and recorded live at a Sidmouth Folk Festival appearance. Brian's highly attractive guitar playing provides yet another stunning backdrop to Dave Cousins' vocals. The sound of Dave humming to himself during this performance conveys the less restrained feel of a live festival performance, as opposed to recordings made in more technical studio surroundings.
"The Hangman And The Papist" has invariably been performed live by Strawbs with the emotion and angst demanded by the song's lyrics, and this recording, taken from Strawbs' live appearance on Channel 4's "Gastank" television series, is no exception. Invited to perform by one of Gastank's presenters, Mr. Rick Wakeman, the line-up responsible for the chilling version which appeared on From the Witchwood quickly reformed to play. Here, Dave Cousins' impassioned lead vocals are dramatically enhanced by some amazingly powerful yet sensitive bass and drums from John Ford and Hud respectively. Tony Hooper and Rick Wakeman complete the line-up of earlier days for this recording.
Following the band's successful appearance on Gastank came an invitation to headline the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1983. Strawbs topped the bill not once, but twice; on both the Saturday evening and the Sunday afternoon, when warm summer rain intoxicated the high-spirited crowds. I know; I was there and I was drenched. Both sets were immensely well received by the large gathered throngs, and this recording of "I'll Carry on Beside You" showcases Tony Hooper's pure, untainted vocals, complemented by Dave Cousins' huskier harmonies . The solid rhythm section provided by Hud and John underpins the song, while Brian's guitar and Blue's keyboards provide the more decorative elements.
"Heavy Disguise", though not written by Dave Cousins, is very definitely considered by many of the band's fans to be a Strawbs classic. In this recording, from a rehearsal in 1984, John and Hud share vocals as they have done frequently during live performances. Unlike the version previously released on Grave New World which included Robert Kirby's silver band as accompaniment, here the song is stripped back to basics with only acoustic guitar accompaniment, resulting in a simpler kind of charm.
A live version of "When The Crying Starts", also recorded in 1984 follows; though this song has never had great appeal for me personally, Dave Cousins sings the lead vocal with expression while Tony Hooper harmonises (I've always considered the enormous contrast between their voices to produce an interesting combination). Hud and John Ford provide sensitive drums and bass, overlaid with some inspired guitar from Brian and tasteful keyboards from Blue. The sound of this recording is very definitely "live" rather than "studio", and final applause confirms a highly appreciative audience.
A Dave Cousins home demo of "Evergreen" is the penultimate track on this disc. Soulful piano playing introduces the song, blending perfectly with Dave's wistful lyrical delivery of the song's nostalgic sentiments. I have always adored hearing Tony Hooper sing "Evergreen" too, with his customary clarity and purity, and find it interesting to listen to such diverse interpretations. The lyrical content of the song was slightly altered somewhere between the time of this recording and later versions.
The exquisite and unmistakable keyboard talents of Rick Wakeman introduce the final track, "Song of a Sad Little Girl", which was recorded as a collaboration between Wakeman and Cousins in 1988. Dave's vocals here range widely to connote the fragility and vulnerability of his young daughter while she is unwell, parental angst at powerlessness to help, and eventual relief as the child's sickness passes. During this recording Dave reaches notes higher than I believe I've ever heard him sing previously. Acoustic guitar can be heard in the mix, however it is Rick Wakeman's flowery embellishments which dominate instrumentally throughout.
It's a privilege to be asked do this pre-release review of this particular chapter of the boxed set. This disc covers the period of the 90's and beyond and having reached this far, thankfully, there is still lots to enjoy yet.
So it's time I dropped into the mysteries of disc 4 to see what I could find. I discovered it opened with the wonderfully "live" Ringing Down The Years with some tasty Willoughby electric, reproducing that luscious sound, which as some may have said, feels like, "silky smooth chocolate" that a number of other recordings, made at that time seem to possess. For many long term followers, the news of the tragedy of loss of Sandy Denny was shared across many homes. This particular anthem will have teased many a tear from the eye over the years and its inclusion here; will ensure it remains close to hearts for many years to come.
And yes, "Further Down The Road", perhaps rather naturally, by title, follows. I am presuming Dave Cousins provides the piano accompaniment to his own vocals reproducing the raw feel of an acoustic demo, when compared to previously released versions. I refer here to particularly, to the one of the same era with a full band backing, at Chiswick. It is easy of course and I have done it already, to fall into the trap, of trying to compare the offerings in this boxed set with those released before. That is not my intended objective, as this collection stands on its own and records the progress development of the band and the songs over the years. So for the rest of this account, I will try to desist from that particular temptation.
For those that have been on, or are on, their own personal "Heartbreak Hill", you have an opportunity to seek a little sanctuary in the heavy Airey keyboard overlay and crashing angry guitar chords at the opening. You will then be energised at the junction where Willoughby takes over and adds some more highly energetic playing, the whole tempo picks up interspersed with some simple piano runs until the closing words, preceded by a little guitar magic, will leave you ready to face your world.
Further in to the themes of Airey we delve and with its title of "Extravaganza On A Theme Of Strawbs", the opening unmistakable chords of "Hero And Heroine" are dangled in front of your ears, before drifting away in a moment and you are drawn to the world devoid of words, surrounded by the serious sound of keyboard before this gives way to some more light hearted keystroke wizardry including strains of "Roll Out The Barrel", Without doubt, the "Promenaders" would by the end waving their Union flags and hats and singing heartedly along with the chorus. Get yer flags out and you will be ready for the finale!
Next up, a much simpler "File Of Facts" with no less effective tinkling, on the keys by Mr Airey who here sounds very like a Mr Wakemanesque "tribute" and accompanied by an acoustic guitar for this further instrumental. A very short piece that seems to go round and round but always comes back neatly, time and again, to the start.
"Hero And Heroine" appears to be the high energy, (isn't this song always) lift from Chiswick House and representing that particularly glorious day for all those lucky enough to be there. Ric Sanders, from Fairport Convention takes a lead on violin and then leads the charge to the dramatic finale. The song is well appreciated and has transcended, in live format, to the acoustic shows where it always energises audiences and would always (if they could) have them dancing in the aisles.
For those lucky enough to see the 2001 electric "Bursting" band tour will remember the opening solo spots which included this gem from Dave Lambert who reaches your conscience with this feisty bluesy number which showcases his great vocal and guitar style. Yes, "Ten Commandments" is a great song, backed up here by Brian Willoughby and with their talents melding superbly. Was it really 5 years ago? it almost seems like yesterday !!
Next into some gentle piano intro from Wakeman including tinkling runs on the theme of the song, as "The King" returns in a gentle format accompanied with just acoustic guitar and just a little other additional embellishment to help it along its way and has a strong Wakeman flourish to finish in a grande style.
So 'tis true, the bird do hum too, as do the heavy keyboards with plenty of trickery, whizzy effects and whooshes as you are led into an instrumental version of the title of Cousins and Wakeman's recent collaboration with the title track "Hummingbird". Background features of what sounds like a gently pinging glockenspiel adds to the overall effect. Listen to this with feet up lights down, glass in hand and you will be eased down that gently flowing stream. Another nice calming piece and shorn of all vocal attachments. What a coincidence I should be reviewing this piece, for the first time, the very day after, returning from seeing Rick play live.
The well known "Alice's Song", Craig/Willoughby's composition gets the Cousins vocal treatment, seen often as a live performance during the latter years of the Cousins/Lambert/Willoughby acoustic shows and as a single released in charitable support of the year of Autism.
The haunting opening of dual e-bows (an "e-bow symphony" - as described by Mr Les Cotton) of Mclean Street was an all too short treasure of the previous trio's live show. Leading into another emotional Denny memory with her composition "Who Knows Where The Time Goes". Delivered with tenderness and not a little emotion this song has so much to offer. The e-bow's pick up again in the middle section before reaches its conclusion with some great guitar work. Seven and a half minutes of magic and a real chance for those that that may not heard this version live, to enjoy this spine tingling work.
E-bows are very much to the fore again on "We'll Meet Again Sometime", as well as some great Cousins/Lambert harmonies. This live version extracts the maximum form the song with some great slide guitar accentuating the bluesy feel. This is definitely a special toe tapping moment and, as it almost teases you to sing along final chorus, an ideal opportunity for those that enjoy that particular experience.
Lazily, then slipping into "Sunday Morning" where, the mood changes quickly to one of a peaceful untroubled days. The haunting and strong violin orchestrated accompaniment emphasises the atmosphere surrounding some age old, British rituals. A picture painted in words and some nice harmonies at the end.
But then, "On A Night Like This" jolts you into a deceptive change of pace with its Spanish type lively routine. Should anyone want to strut their stuff you could do it to this.
"Dragonfly" is a relic of many years back, but resurrected in its present day form thanks to the e-bow, taking the original lead. Now a stalwart of recent Acoustic, Cousins/Cronk/Lambert shows, it has sprung to life and blossomed like a nymph from its previous life cycle and is recorded here for all posterity, in its fully formed and glorious mature state.
"Canada" is a brand new song on me and is precisely that. A story of that great land where the band has spent time and are also so well regarded. In harmony with Canada's bi-lingual population the lyrics interweave in both French and English. I had this weird feeling on a second listen that if bagpipes were inserted in strategic points it would almost become a second "Mull of Kintyre" mega single hit, until I realised the running time is an all too wonderful 7 minutes. There is a very interesting choral effect in the middle of the song and is very much has the traditional Cousins style and delivery. I think everyone will definitely be eagerly anticipating their first listen of this one.
"Here Today Gone Tomorrow" closes this disc, as it did many shows on the most recent electric tour. Whether this was chosen in a moment of gentle irony I'm not sure, but everyone will hope it is not a point of fact as we look forward to next year and beyond. It does provide a soft and gentle reflective culmination to, (except of course, for the lucky 1000 or so, who will move onto bonus disc 5) this collection, providing an epic anthemology of the history of Strawbs. Here, the live version of this song opens with some lovely playing by John Hawken, before building with the addition of Dave Lambert's guitar and finally the rhythm section of Chas and Rod add the final exquisite flourish and more memories of the brilliant 2006 electric shows.
So disc 4 has taken us through the vast majority of the 90's and brings us up to date. There will be tracks that will turn into favourites and many, remembered from live shows that are already tucked away in the memories. Ah yes, it is those memories which will be so much of what you will be rekindling with this set of discs. You will remember shows you were at, your first listen to a particular track or as now a song refreshed and be amazed with its different treatment. This "boxed set" trip into the archives, will undoubtedly give an insight into some short, some long and some even faded memories, but it will in essence bring back the memories you have of every member of Strawbs and the pleasure they all have given, over each and every moment of each of the decades.
C'est une collection merveilleuse.
In the darkness of today's musical world there burns a flame. In a world that praises mediocrity as a height to attain, The Strawbs are a torch on a mountaintop. Remarkable itself is the fact that over the years the Strawbs have had many different members, some who have joined once or twice again, yet each is a superb musician, a master at their instruments.
So with the recent different incarnations of the band came, naturally, not only a release of new material, but of some older material that had lain in the vaults for many years. The culmination of this is the soon to be released boxed set, A Taste of Strawbs. Often the release of a boxed set is enough to interest only the most die-hard of fans, because the material is often of less than stellar performances and out-takes.
This is not the case with the Strawbs. Having been given a chance to preview some of the material, I can honestly state that this is superb music! Each song is a new colour to the flag of Strawbs music; a new flame to the already brightly burning torch.
Of them all, one of the brightest is a new song by Dave Cousins called "Canada". This will be welcome to all the dedicated Strawbs fans in that country, especially yours truly. Any song would be welcome, of course, but this is nothing short of a masterpiece! The song is beautiful and moving, with a lovely melody and delicate, sensitive keyboard work as gentle as a snowflake.
Also included are a few live renditions of songs from the Acoustic Strawbs repertoire. Those familiar with the Live From Toronto DVD will recognize them as the magnificent new versions of "We'll Meet Again Some Time" and "McLean Street/Who Knows Where The Time Goes" , both done beautifully.
There are also quite a few different versions of Strawbs classics, all more than worth the money to hear. There is also a wonderful solo piece from former member Don Airey - a delightful solo called "Extravaganza On A Theme of Strawbs" -utterly delightful! A Wakemanesque solo that Rick himself would have been proud of!
A personal favourite is a breathtaking version of the song "The King" by Dave and Rick Wakeman. The song is different from the version on Ringing Down The Years, but it takes on a new life here. Again, one can only experience the incredible talent of Rick Wakeman, and that endless font of musical power, Dave Cousins. Both versions of the song are wonderful, and both in completely different ways.
As well, one needs to experience the instrumental version of "Hummingbird" - I don't have the words to describe how beautiful it is. Get it, listen to it, hear it in your soul. Let it touch your inner child, and live as a child again.
You'd think that with the passing years the Strawbs would get old, that we would tire of hearing them. Yet the flame that was started so many years ago still burns as brightly today as it did then. The fuel of Love and Human Passion does not die; does not grow old. And, of course, neither do the artists who use that Love and Human Passion for inspiration. The torch burns as a brilliant flame, and it is burning for you, for me, for everyone. Forever.
Firstly, what a privilege to be asked to preview/review CD5 of the new boxed set which I know many of us Strawbs fans have dreamt of.
The first track, "The Happiest Boy In Town" is very much classic Strawberry Hill Boys - with definite vibes of "Poor Jimmy Wilson" - shows off Dave Cousins' sense of humour. Quite a transitional piece I would think - a move from bluegrass towards the more idiosyncratic style you'd expect from Dave.
"Draught Raga" is clearly a jump to the Antiques And Curios era, steeped in the 60s and reeking of incense and Hud's beads!! Hud's sitar is pretty nifty (I'm only guessing its him on sitar, as someone else is clearly playing tabla on the track?) and the improvisation matches any of the other sitar experiments of the era - of course what separates this is terrible pun title which certainly amused me. Certainly captures an important step in the band's career and development.
"Ways And Means" is a fabulous song, with some lovely acoustic guitar from Dave Cousins, and superb wah-wah work from Miller Anderson. The lyrics for this song are particularly poetic/prophetic. This version is clearly quite a different mix, with some nice guitar touches from Miller which didn't make the final version. The piano is much more understated than the final version on Two Weeks Last Summer. I love the guitar solo in this track, it just brings a smile to my face, especially the last few notes, which are so melodic and enjoyably different from the majority of guitar solos from the early 70s.
"Rip It Off Blues" sounds to me like a Dave Cousins "spur of the moment" song if that makes any sense. I can imagine Dave sitting down with a guitar and pretty much coming out with this song in one go (rather like I imagine him writing "Song For Me"), but I guess there's much more craft than that. I think the impassioned delivery in both "Rip It Off Blues" and "Song For Me" give you that feeling that Dave is singing directly at you. I reckon many Strawbs fans will be over the moon to hear so much music on this set which is simply Dave and a guitar.
"Stay While With Me" is a nice different version of an older Strawbs song, which I guess Dave re-recorded a while after the original. It's an interesting arrangement - rather syrupy for me, but certainly a refreshing change from the usual style.
"Oh So Sleepy" is very strong - nice prog sounding keyboards from Kirby/Mealing (I'm guessing it was Kirby). I do prefer this to the version on Blue Angel - more of a band feel and I like the production better. The rhythm section are especially tight on this and add a great deal to what is a lighter song in the Strawbs' extensive repertoire.
"Barcarole" is a revelatory instrumental; in that I'd never realised what a beautiful keyboard part it had. Lovely guitar playing - I have to say I'd like to hear a Dave Cousins solo performance of this song if one exists.
"Time And Life" is absolutely stunning. Dave Cousins at his absolute best. This song is buried deep in my head now in a way it never was after hearing it on Deadlines - the arrangement on that album just buried the passion of the song, and the treatment of Dave's vocals didn't do them justice. This is a song which no other songwriter could have written. The lyrics are exquisitely unique, particularly in the metaphor of Time and Life duelling with swords at dawn. There could be no possible improvement to this track and performance in my mind. This song is worth the price of the box set alone. Dave's guitar playing and vocals are the usual top notch; he is clearly performing at his peak. What a tragedy that Deadlines didn't make the most of this song by leaving it as it is!!
"Heartbreaker" is obviously something quite different from anything else on this box set, being a solo Dave Cousins contribution to an all star concept album from the late 70s. Very slick and expensive sounding production, and a nice song. Perhaps this even could have been a hit? Dave certainly sings the song extremely well and adds a definite Strawberry hue to the song. I don't know much about the album, but I do wonder if this song was written for Dave to sing as it seems quite Strawbs inspired. I must investigate the rest of the album...
"Andalucian Express" was a little disappointing to me, as I think I wasn't expecting an instrumental. Juan Martin is an outstanding guitarist and the backing is very sympathetic; I just don't get enough Strawb influence in the track. Am interested in how it came about - and certainly interested to check out some more of Juan's virtuoso flamenco.
"Lay Down" live from 1984 is a mixed bag, I'm afraid to say. It's certainly a nice bit of history, but what is clearly a strong performance is let down by patchy mixing on the sound desk, and also some moments of very poor backing singing. Dave Cousins belts out the song, and musically it's fiery and strong, but definitely suffers from the group backing singing. It's nice to hear the song performed with such pace though, and showing the Strawbs were still performing vibrantly in the early 80s.
"Over The Hill" is a Blue Weaver solo track and showcases his impressive keyboard skill. Some lovely mellotron sounds here; possibly the real thing rather than samples I think. The drum sounds are a little thin for me, and I would love to hear a full band take on it. Interesting that Blue has taken some inspiration from Heartbreak Hill for some of this track - surely must be flattering for Andy Richards to hear this.
"You Never Needed Water" is a very strong acoustic track with my favourite bit of playing from Brian Willoughby - totally fluent and fast and expressive.
"If" is a lovely song - and this is a warm and enveloping performance.
"Cold Steel" is a song which I always enjoy the intro to, and of course the great performances from the Acoustic Strawbs; however I can't help feeling that the song could do with a middle eight or bridge as it does become a little bit samey; I know lots of people love this song though, so I'm perhaps in a minority being slightly less appreciative.
"The River/Down By The Sea" are two extremely powerful songs, and this is a sterling performance of course from the H&H lineup. Well recorded and tightly played, the band really knitting together extremely well. My only slightly negative comment would be that Dave Cousins almost goes into self parody with "If you were me, what would you do"; but of course us Strawb fans love him, and these moments for his sheer passion and enthusiasm. Dave's voice and songwriting ARE the Strawbs at its very essence, and this is a prime example of his staggering contribution to music.
Overall this CD is totally rewarding listening, and certainly extremely eclectic, covering the band from its early days to more recent times; with some delights and curios along the way. Like the finest strawberry, this compilation promises great delights from its appearance, the rewards upon sampling it are even more exquisite.
Big thank you to Dick for doing all the groundwork, and of course to Dave and fellow Strawbs, past and present, for pretty much laying their souls bare for us.
See "Instant reactions".