Updated: 9 Jan 2007
[DG - Apologies to Lindsay for late posting of this review - she sent it in on 4th Dec and it got overlooked in the pre-Christmas rush/post Christmas lurgy.]
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.
Once upon a time, in the London Borough of Hounslow, the peace was often shattered by giant white birds flying overhead. Three handsome young apprentices bravely vowed to drown out the noisy birds with much sweeter sounds of their own; they picked up musical instruments, became known throughout the land as Fire, and eventually recorded an album called "The Magic Shoemaker". As those familiar with the album will know, the title of this review is the same as that of the album's penultimate track. It also seems prophetically accurate, in view of the way Dave Lambert and the other Fire-men clearly felt after performing two spell-binding reunion concerts at The Windlesham Club and Theatre.
Little could the Strawbs' fan who brought to Dave's notice a full page spread and photograph of Fire in a recent book about British bands in the 1960s ("Then Now and Rare: British Beat 1960 – 1969", written by Terry Rawlings) have known that his casual gesture would lead to almost a year's preparation and rehearsals by the three original band members - Dave Lambert (lead vocals, guitars, keyboard, harmonica, percussion, etc. etc.), Dick Dufall (bass, backing vocals) and Bob Voice (drums, backing vocals) and their first manager, Ray Hammond (narrator) and the rekindling of Fire. All the hard work culminated in two amazing performances of Dave's innovative rock fairytale opera, originally released in 1970, entitled "The Magic Shoemaker". At last, a burning ambition has been fulfilled.
With some trepidation I had made my way to The Windlesham Club and Theatre, tucked away somewhere in Surrey's lanes, for the first of the shows. I had offered to arrive early in case I could help in any way and having been greeted by friendly Club staff at around 3.30pm was delighted to be met by the impressive sounds of a rehearsal in progress. Dave's vocals sounded amazing and the full-on power of the bass and drums thundered through me as I hung around in the corridor outside the hall for a few minutes – I didn't want to interrupt anything by walking in while Fire were playing. When the music subsided I entered the large theatre area (reminiscent of my senior school hall, with a high stage), and spotted the familiar faces of Neil and Paul by the sound desk. A couple of other guys, who I soon discovered were in charge of lighting and security, were also intent on the proceedings. Dave later explained that one – Steve I believe - was Fire's original roadie. I sat and watched the soundcheck/rehearsal (afraid I can't really pretend to have done much in the way of helping!) and relished every second, particularly having been involved with co-ordinating publicity for the concerts for many months and at last seeing everything come to fruition. I took several photos during the rehearsal, a few of which I shall upload for interest's sake.
The band members all looked remarkably relaxed. Ray Hammond arrived and ran through the narration which cleverly weaved the songs together, and eventually the rehearsal came to an end. From the stage Dave Lambert introduced everyone in the theatre, so all knew each other's name and role in the shows, a touch which was both extremely thoughtful and helpful. Introductions to Bob Voice, Dick Dufall and Ray Hammond were therefore facilitated; having written plenty about each of them over the past few months for publicity purposes it was lovely to meet the subjects of those slightly surreal black-and-white 1960's Fire photos at last. Unsurprisingly I suppose, given the company they keep, they were all extremely friendly guys who thanked me repeatedly for my attempts to assist – I assured them it had been a pleasure to do so. I explained a little about how kind and considerate several members of Strawbs had been towards a schoolfriend and me when I first fell in love with the band's music as a young and slightly confused teenager. The kindnesses shown in those formative years meant a lot, and it now feels great to have opportunities to give back a little in return.
Rehearsal photos by Lindsay Sorrell.
So, rehearsal over, next stop was the bar which adjoined the theatre. Gradually the faithful gathered together – can't remember in which order everyone arrived but there were Les and Nigel (who had just dined on sandwiches in Nigel's car), Dick (who was fretting over poor Tee, stuck at Bagshot station), Pete, Calli and Ali (who had had an horrendous drive down from Middlesbrough), Roy le Marechal (bicycle clips left at home for this special night), and Dave's fellow Strawb Chas, who had braved the evening's dreadful wet and windy darkness which undoubtedly kept less hardy concert-goers away. Apologies if I've forgotten anyone, particularly if you bought me a drink.
At around 7.15 p.m. the Witchwood film crew, previously assembled with Dave's blessing and gratitude, made their way onto location to set up cameras on tripods so as not to affect anyone's view from within the audience. Doors opened at 7.30 p.m. and we were off! The usual suspects mercilessly stormed the doorman to position themselves at the front tables; eventually the lights dimmed and the recorded Intro began – a very clever, distinctly theatrical musical piece which Dave had written to incorporate the major themes of "The Magic Shoemaker" album. The stage was theatrically set too, with masked black mannequins, a colourful projected backdrop of a fairytale castle, and psychedelic and strobe lighting which recreated the era of the album's inception. A smoke machine (cloud machine?) was used to produce cloud effects periodically throughout the production - hundreds of photos will no doubt tell the tale.
The show itself was truly magical, with atmospheric lighting, terrific sound, and the songs from "The Magic Shoemaker" brought to life through live performance. I have been lucky enough to own an original copy of this (collectors' item) album since I found it in an old-style Virgin record store in Liverpool. It was February 1978, I was in Liverpool to see Strawbs at the University that evening, and lo and behold there I spotted it lurking in the second-hand record racks! Gasp! It still bears a sticker saying "Comments: Good. 99p." I remember (unfortunately!) showing Dave Cousins that the record had been labelled as "Good" whilst at the gig later that day – he pointed out that "Good" was actually referring to the record's condition. Doh! Ok, it was a brunette moment induced by Strawbs-gig euphoria, and I now concede that the label may just possibly have referred to the record's condition, but without doubt this is a fascinating collection of extremely good songs, embracing many different styles and bursting with innovative creativity and energy. Thankfully for those who have not yet discovered an original in a second-hand shop (highly unlikely these days as the album is worth several hundred pounds) it is now widely available on CD.
Back to the shows….the running order of the actual sets each night can be seen in the programme (eagerly sold by some of the children present, as were the commemorative "Magic Shoemaker" mugs). Following the Intro, the scene of each evening's performance was set by Ray, an enthralling narrator who delivered the script beautifully throughout, and Fire played with so much vigour and enthusiasm it was incredible to believe they were not a band who constantly perform together. Though Dick still plays on a regular basis, such is not the case for Bob, yet the sound the Fire trio produced was stunning. If any of the guys ever read this, once again, massive thanks are due for the terrific performances given, not to mention the considerable time and travelling which must have been involved in rehearsals for many months leading up to the concerts.
The songs came and went and I was only too grateful to know I would be attending on the Saturday too – as Dave Lambert had rightly pre-empted, it all seemed to be over in a flash and without a second show the intense preparation and anticipation involved would have made a solitary performance so much more difficult to bear. The Outro arrived and Fire returned to encore with a second rendition of "Father's Name" much to the crowd's delight.
Post-concert – much fraternising, everyone was in upbeat mood and delighted with the evening's events. As this is turning into a never-ending story I shall skip all the pleasant happenings between finishing off at the Windlesham Club on the Friday, and returning there the following evening. Les and Nigel can fill in any gaps…. if they dare!
Moving on to Saturday evening then, after a little detour we arrived again at The Windlesham Club, post-chips (and fish, for some). More drinks in the bar – Sue and Mike Holton arrived to report on Dave Cousins' "Unplugged" twosome with Vince Martyn the prior evening, and I congratulated myself on managing to introduce various Kentish Strawbs' fans to each other - it turned out some live very close to others, yet had not previously met – how many more happy endings could there possibly be? Upon taking my seat in the front row I began chatting with Ferenc, who hails from Hungary but had been in Athens on business the previous night. He had then wended his way to Windlesham specifically for the show – definitely not a fair-weather fan! I told Dick Greener of Ferenc's presence and he instantaneously deserted his video and tripod in order to greet him. Ferenc told me he had spoken briefly to Dave after one of the band's recent Half Moon gigs – during that conversation he had mentioned how much he liked "The Magic Shoemaker" and Dave had told him of the planned Fire reunion concerts, which had led to Ferenc's presence in Windlesham. Unfortunately, Ferenc had to rush off straight after the show as his taxi awaited – I promised to get Fire's (and Ray's) autographs and send them on to him. Ferenc, if you read this - please let me know if the magic of our enchanting postal service fails!
Once again, the entire performance had an air of purest fantasy – hard to pick highlights when it was all such an amazing novelty to see the songs played live, but I adored "Only A Dream" which is definitely one of my favourite songs from the album. It was played bathed in a beautifully warm, pinkish glow. I also thought "Shoemaker" was outstanding each night. Of course, "Father's Name is Dad" and "Treacle Toffee World", being Fire's best-known songs back in the day, both received great applause which was rightly deserved. So much to say…..so little time to say it in…..Dave showed awe-inspiring versatility as he not only dazzled with vocals and guitars, but also showed his harmonica talents and played beautiful keyboard accompaniment to extremely soleful (sorry) renditions of "Shoemaker" and "When Will I Understand The Things That Grown-Ups Do". Absolutely spellbinding. Apart from the onstage musicianship, Dave also designed the stage sets and his careful attention to aesthetic detail made the shows into the wonderful theatrical performances they were. I must just mention that Gill Harris, who co-ordinated production, must have had countless different things to organise and clearly did a brilliant job as everything ran so smoothly.
It was therefore no surprise when Fire received standing ovations from a capacity crowd (which included many of the latest generation of fans of psychedelia); the exhilaration felt by everyone involved was palpable. Dave was clearly emotional as he described how being able to perform the album after so many intervening years had truly been a dream come true, and just as on the Friday he graciously thanked everyone for their part in making it happen. Just as Ray had finished narrating with the words….."but that's another story"…..(or something very similar) I think we shall all have to wait and see how the next chapter in Fire's fairytale will unfold.
We set the dashboard to 1970 and hit 55mph just as the bolt of lightning hit the clock tower to travel back to the future not just once but twice this weekend.
Yes this was history. History because this was the first time that Fire had played together in 37 years. History because The Magic Shoemaker had never been performed live before. History because it was, well, historical.
But this was no dusty museum exhibit. This was the Future we were witnessing. These two concerts by these stunningly talented musicians cannot possibly be the last that they will ever play. Dave said that there was all sorts of media interest from around the world, including Japan. so there could well be many more concerts to come.
The number of concept albums produced, particularly in the 60s and 70s, is legion, and if you count Sgt Pepper whose sole concept seemed to be to make the Beatles lots of money, the number of concept albums is legion and one. There are also thousands of albums of musicals and film scores, but there are very few rock operas. Tommy, Quadrophenia, and The Wall are the only ones that spring to mind, and possibly The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, though I've never had a clue what that ones about. Oh, and of course, The Magic Shoemaker.
A rock opera, as well as telling a story has to be theatrical, and when on record, the theatre all takes place in your head, so when you see it live, there is a risk that the reality will disappoint. Dave Lambert had been very careful to ensure that this wasn't the case. He had choreographed the lighting to give a sixties feel, and even included stroboscopic lights, which nowadays in this era of health and safety is a rarity, and the whole performance, including his costumes enhanced the music rather than detracted. The lighting was a little dim, which made photography harder, but, along with the dry ice, it all added to the atmosphere. But the theatre didn't stop there. The programmes and even the tickets were works of art, even priced in pounds, shillings and pence.
The stage was set with two harelquined mannequins, (try saying that when you've had a few), on stage right, with an image of a castle on a hill projected at the rear.
The narrator, Ray Hammond, Fire's original manager, stood on stage left, in the only well lit part of the stage, with Bob Voice on drums at the rear, Dick Dufall on bass and backing vocals to the left, and Dave Lambert on the right.
To emphasise that this was a performance, and not just a rock concert, they started in very dim light with a prerecorded tape of the band playing through themes from the show, during which the musicians took their place on the stage.
The lights came up on Ray, who introduced the show by saying that this wasn't just one fairy story, but two. There was the story of The Magic Shoemaker and also the story of Fire.
Dave had adapted the story line, to involve a Romeo and Juliet like romance as the reason behind the war that the Shoemaker prevents. This allowed him to weave other Fire material in to the show, including not only "Treacle Toffee World" and "Father's Name is Dad", but also the stunning original version of "Just Love", as recently released on Taste.
We all know how good a guitarist Dave is. Had been really excited at the prospect of seeing Dave playing keyboards, and he didn't disappoint. Watch out John Hawken. Not only that, but Dave demonstrated that he is a pretty mean harmonica player as well.
Paul Brett, although not an original member of Friday's Chyld had played on the Magic Shoemaker, and had intended to play on these two concerts. He had had to drop out at the last minute for family reasons, and the rest of the band had only had two rehearsals without him. You could not tell. Both performances were immaculate, and you would have thought that they had been playing together for years. The only the obvious change was that as Paul had been going to play DC's banjo part in "Children Of Imagination", they finished with a reprise of "Father's Name is Dad".
Neil Byford, as well, put in an amazing performance in the background, swapping and tuning Dave's guitars between songs.
There was less of an audience on Friday, so there was space for tables and chairs, but Saturday night was sold out, and the auditorium was filled with rows and rows of a very appreciative audience. In fact the Saturday night audience were fabulous. There were many young faces which was lovely, as it meant it wasn't just us old hippies there. The audience oohad and aahed at the narration, which made Dave chuckle, particularly at the gasp of shock that met the news that the Princess was pregnant. Good audience participation in Happy Man Am I, and a spontaneous standing ovation at the end.
My favourite track? Difficult as everything was so good, but I think I'd have to plump for "I'd Like to Help You If I Can". Dick laid down a stunning Blues bass riff, and Dave topped it off with some virtuoso guitar. Loved it.
Photo by Pete Bradley - more pix from Pete.
Still buzzing after a fantastic weekend...I had always said from when these shows were first announced "I will be there !", and as it turned out, Sue was booked on a training course in Cornwall, so we agreed I would drive her down there in our TourBus, then drive back to Nigel's place in Wiltshire, parking on his driveway and sleeping both nights overnight there, whilst he chauffeured us to both shows and back in the famed BadgeMobile......he also made us a grand breakfast, and Dunc let me prise his guitar away for a quick blast too, thanks both again for all that.
The Fire shows were just something else, fabulous....unique performances, and a reminder what marvellous songs these are, beautifully played by a super-tight band that very clearly still loves playing. Its wonderful as a musician to see the band flashing those grins to each other that simply say ..."how good is THIS!" Such a variety of different moods in the tunes too, "Fathers Name.." is becoming a real favourite of mine...what a riff, up there with the best, a superb pop song..the encore version brought the house down, with a full standing ovation, alongside wonderful softer tunes like "Only a Dream" and "A Reason for Everything". Also good to hear Dave's unreleased songs from the ShoeMaker project, with him playing very good keyboards. The song that summed it all up was "Happy Man Am I", Dave clearly in his element and encouraging the very loud singalong from the capacity crowd on Saturday, with Ray Hammond responding with a grin to the jovial gasps from the crowd at various points in his commentary like the true Pro he is. This has been THE Rock event of the year for me.
...and this weekend I make nearly the same roundtrip (about 750 miles) again for the NPL show...am i mad or what....don't answer that ;)
Photos by Alison Brown - more pix from Ali.
Friday brought torrential rains but even this did not dampen my enthusiasm, for watching the first ever stage production of Magic Shoemaker, which had hit the shops in vinyl format some 37 years previously and developed into a much sought after and valuable item both for collectors and fans.
There was the usual pre show gathering of friends in the bar of the Windlesham Club. Everyone received the same warm and accommodating welcome from the staff.
By all accounts Dave had received similar help, support and warmth during the planning stage of the show. – a big thank you to those involved in the hospitality and local organisation.
7.30 doors opened on the hall and those filming had already set up their gear, cursed one or two of their own technical difficulties with their cameras but by the time the show started they were well placed with multiple videos, ready to capture the performance for the Nation and beyond the boundaries of this "shoreline".
Clutching, what is sure to become yet another collector's item - the programme, enthusiastically and effectively distributed by Josh and Rachel Harris, I made my way quickly to sit just behind the camera crews.
The dimming of lights brought an intro of mood music accompanied by with a smoke effect setting the scene for the fairy tale that lay ahead. The backdrop was a projected mysterious and mythical castle from some children's fable.
Ray Hammond took his position and introduced the evening as two tales in one. The first a fairy tale, the second was of a band, reforming and playing together on stage for the first time in 37 years.
On walked the band and straight in to their first number met with warm and appreciative and without doubt enthusiastic applause.
I am sure there were some "first night" nerves there after all this had been almost 12 months in planning. Nerves or not, it didn't show. It all went like clockwork up front and backstage. The sound was excellent as well.
At the end Dave clearly filled with emotion at the triumphal return of the band gave out his thanks to all who had contributed in making a huge success of the production.
There were too many to name individually here, but clearly, the pre show planning and creativity had engineered a superb production and as someone "screamed" joyously from the back, those gathered tonight rose as one to deliver their standing ovation.
Thankfully the rains had subsided (a little) as this time we had to walk from the rear car park.
Saturday brought an even greater gathering of the "clan" and a really packed hall. Dare I say bursting to its permitted capacity and everyone enjoying yet another performance of gusto, energy and enthusiasm from Fire for the historic piece of work that they were playing and had created.
The large very enthusiastic audience was with them too, swept away on their own magical trip of nostalgia, but brought right up to date, in the Windlesham theatre tonight. The cheers resounded around the hall as soon as they hit the stage.
Having seen the show the night before this would be a slightly different occasion………….some say you need to read a book at least twice to appreciate its content………. A chance of a second helping of Shoemaker was a chance to put that notion to the test.
After all, there had been so much to take in the night before, the playing, the atmosphere, the story, the light show and effects, the running order and of course seeing the band clearly enjoying them selves on stage.
That really seemed to the fore tonight as I noticed loads of smiling exchanged glances on stage to each other. This was a joyful time and the mood spread very quickly to the audience.
It is almost impossible to identify one aspect of the show as a particular favourite moment – there were so many.
Dave's stunning playing, the solid drumming and the bass, all melded together to make the show what it was and of course Ray Hammond as narrator who had the spotlight on him totally and with absolutely no place to hide.
He carried the narration off with a great sense of timing and seemed to be feeding off the audience and adjusting his delivery style to suit the feedback he was getting ………adding to the sense of drama in the storyline and occasion.
All too soon it was time to be leaving, but not before another standing ovation throughout the Hall and encore of "Fathers name is Dad" once again filled the hall with its lyric.
For those who unfortunately missed the show hopefully all the recording work that was done will bring a chance of an instant replay. It will be great to see and hear all of that again.
Photos by Alison Brown - more pix from Ali.