Lindsay just had to get her own page with this one - DG ;-)
Having been fortunate enough to catch "electric" Strawbs eight times on their recent UK tour I'm afraid catching up with real life has left little time for reviews, so I'm a bit late with this. The latest UK tour involved some of the most most enjoyable weeks of my life though, so I have the urge to write a review. Following the band involved lots of great camaraderie with other Strawbophile friends old and new, wonderful scenery along the way, and some of the most powerful and memorable performances I've ever seen from this line-up.
I've already written a few words about the first two gigs I attended, Glasgow and Morecambe, so I'll continue with Bilston, present day site of pilgrimage for Strawbs fans of all persuasions quite topical given the global religious issues referred to by Dave Cousins during his introductions to "The Call to Action" at the concerts. It was wonderful to catch up with vast numbers of Witchwooders (and growing!) at Bilston and ponder the meaning of life, the Strawbs, and everything else. Taxis were ordered from our hotel (thanks Nige!) and hordes of us descended on the Roy Wood bar adjacent to the Robin 2, eventually to witness one of the best concerts of the tour in my opinion. How on earth I'm going to write something different about six more gigs at which the band played their hearts out so brilliantly I really don't know!
I generally prefer stand-up concerts for the electric band, and the Robin 2 is a true rock venue of the standing ilk. Everyone was in high spirits in anticipation of the long-awaited occasion, and great fun was had at the bar thanks to the fluorescent lighting (Mr. "B+" himself (Claridge!) dazzled everyone within 20 yards with his display of whiteness. The gig was almost as dazzling well actually it was totally amazing and definitely deserved an A*. It was all we had hoped for and more (including an unexpected sway to "The Winter Long" with my own personal sway-coach, Andy Slack). Plenty of socialising followed the gig, then it was back to the Quality Hotel for an "early hours" session with the eager members of the Strawberry Mousse. Thank you for my birthday cake Nigel, yum yum!!
Next day, my "year-long" birthday celebrations continued (if Strawbs can do it, why can't I?) with champers courtesy of Dick you guys spoil me (and I love it!!). The day had arrived for the second much-awaited Witchwood strumathon and Pete Rand had done a great job in organising a room large enough for everyone to spread out for this year's event. Unfortunately, it happened to be the furthest possible room from Dick's room where the mountains of gear were being stored, but many hands made light work of humping all that equipment. (Or so I believe - unfortunately there was nothing left for me to do by the time I surfaced :) Apart from wimpishly tapping a tambourine now and again (to withering looks) all I had to do was sit back and enjoy listening to the combined talents of the Strawberry Mousse Boys and Girl. Tell a lie, I did organise some lagers and coffees. Unfortunately Heather had to leave quite early on, but Ali represented the female Witchwood contingent thanks to her multi-instrumentalism, adding recorder to "Dragonfly" and putting her recent drum lessons to good use on several songs. The Mousse were on great form with an abundance of good guitarists, some great vocals, and Pete "keys" Rand tinkling away to numerous Strawbs creations. (I spotted another tribute band's van (Talon an Eagles tribute) in the car park next morning and wonder whether they were lucky enough to get an earful of proceedings or spot the stars of the Witchwood photo-shoot in the car park.)
That evening, drummed/recordered and tambourined out, Ali and I headed over to Sleaford to see the real thing (not "The Real Thing", but Strawbs of course). The Playhouse, where Acoustic Strawbs also played earlier in the year, is an extremely quaint, old-fashioned theatre, very easy to miss as you drive past looking for a theatre. Ali had snapped up front row tickets for this show and you could say the seats were rather close to the stage. This was a terrific gig (number four on my personal itinerary). I met a long-term fan called Neil, seated next to me in the front row - Neil told me he enjoyed the gig immensely, but had difficulty making out several of the lyrics to "The Broken Hearted Bride". I had observed at the first two gigs I attended on the tour that without any explanation of the song's theme it was undoubtedly difficult for those hearing it for the first time to work out what it was about.(Although an alternative version of the song, with similar lyrics, had been available as a bonus download to those who bought Dave Cousins' "Secret Paths" album from Witchwood Records a short while earlier, it was unlikely that the majority of those attending would have had the benefit of that download.)
However, it did seem that the lyrics sounded clearer at several of the later gigs I attended I'm not really sure why. Much of the song is sung by Dave Cousins in a very low, monotonous (I don't mean "boring"!) way, but maybe his voice was a bit higher in the mix or something for the later gigs. His various descriptive gesticulations (which I hadn't noticed so much at the earlier gigs) in tandem with the lyrics also helped members of the audience grasp the sentiments of the song, and enhanced the force of this extremely powerful new number. Dave Lambert's choruses on the song are sooo catchy too. Really looking forward to the release of "The Broken Hearted Bride" album in September.
It was also good to see Julie again at Sleaford, and meet Dave Musson for the first time. One quaint touch was the lovely lady who introduced the band and read out various notices about the theatre-fund and so on, after clambering up the set of wooden steps which had been placed at the front of the stage. She attempted to get onto the stage but gave up as there was too much equipment in the way (one of the amps or whatever they're called was situated behind Dave Lambert on a very nice looking barley-twist legged table) Strawbs played another astonishingly power-packed performance and blew half of Sleaford away, after which the lady again returned to perch awkardly at the top of the steps, thank the band, and politely ask everyone to be quiet so she could read out yet more notices about tea and coffee now being served etc. Rock and roll meets the Vicar of Dibley.
After a little soiree (during which I brazenly pinched half of John Hawken's moreish crisps sorry!) Ali drove us back to Bilston a drive which took considerably longer than anticipated thanks to some strange experiences, one of which involved a guy dreamily wandering across the road directly in front of us. He certainly wasn't rushing it was all a bit spooky and I still swear he was wearing ladies' high-heeled shoes. Ok, I had had a few drinks, but I know what I saw!
Eventually "Girl-Racer" Ali screeched us back into the Quality car park - no furry dice, but the strawberry on her ariel was bouncing around like the clappers we were ready to PARTY!!!! Unfortunately the Mousse boys were all tucked up in their beds!!! The story was that they had awaited our return but as we were so late they had all eventually decided instead to climb the stairs to Bedfordshire and count sheep. Maybe they finished their strumalong session with a drowsy "Close Your Eyes". Aaaah!
Next morning I'll skip that as I didn't see any of it - next afternoon, Dick, Ali and I made our way over to Norwich for the next date on the itinerary. Unfortunately I was fractionally too late to say goodbye to most of my Witchwood friends :( Really sorry about that, it was great meeting up with everyone again and I hope we'll do it again soon. At Norwich we checked into our hotel then took a cab to The Maddermarket another lovely old theatre. We could hear the strains of a Strawb sound-check in progress when we arrived, and decided to find somewhere to eat, settling on an amazing Belgian restaurant a few yards away. It had its own extensive mussel menu and countless Belgian beers - Dick is a connoisseur of the latter, and I am rather partial to the former (possibly due in some strange way to countless childhood hours spent catching crabs on the end of pieces of string, with mussels attached. If the RSPCA read this: I always let the crabs go, after giving them names of course). Anyway, we shared three dishes of mussels in various sauces and for lovers of seafood this restaurant really takes some beating. Ali declared this to be my "birthday" treat from her - thanks Ali!
Once again, Ali, Dick and I found ourselves seated in the front row at The Maddermarket, which was so close to the stage it made it difficult to put drinks on the floor. The stage doubled as our personal drinks table therefore. Although seated (minus un point) and a bit too close to the stage for comfort (minus deux points) this show definitely ranked extremely highly on my scorecard. After the gig it was great to meet Stewart (whose band "Hollow Earth" cover some Strawbs songs check them out at www.myspace.com/hollowearthsite - and also Steve Young. The general consensus was that everyone was piling over to some late-night pub. We did, and a good time was had by all.
Next day Dick and I drove back to London while Ali disappeared in a northerly direction, another round of "au revoirs, but not goodbyes" as we were all to meet up again a few days later at Putney Half Moon. For me the easiest way to get to Putney is by train and I travelled up with a couple of local friends who have become very partial to Strawbs over the last few years, Gill and Lesley. I really haven't a clue how many Witchwooders and other familiar faces there were at the hot and heaving Half Moon this time, but it was an awful lot. Great to meet fellow Witchwooder Joachim from Sweden. Unfortunately, this was the one concert of all those I attended where the sound was not of its usual extremely high quality. Having had to wait for what seemed an interminably long time at the bar I eventually made my way towards the stage shortly after the first acappella strains of "Lay Down" rang out. I knew the usual suspects were all somewhere near the front, but hadn't realised they were all to the left-hand side of the stage and unfortunately I picked my way to the right-hand side. The place was far too closely packed to try and make my way across (plus I had a really good view where I was) so I ended up staying where I was. I was surprised in the interval when I spoke to variious friends who had been standing in different parts of the Half Moon - my friends Gill and Lesley had been watching from the rear of the hall, to the right, while others had been towards the centre of the hall near the back the general consensus was that the sound had been quite poor. It wasn't great where I had been standing, but it certainly wasn't poor and I hadn't thought it worthy of a mention. Although there wasn't the level of clarity we had become accustomed to I could hear all the instruments and vocals reasonably well. In the circumstances I decided to head back to where I had been for the first set, which proved a task easier said than done. Never mind, I got there eventually with only a few casualties on the way, thanks to tripping over the step which runs along the side.
After the gig the Essex contingent made a quick departure none of us wanted to risk spending the night in an all-night cafι as has been known on previous occasions. One of our Witchwood friends (who shall remain nameless) decided that he would stay for just one little night-cap instead of his previously planned sober dash for the tube accompanying we fair maidens. Glad you got back safely to East London anyway.
Next morning - on tour it can be so hard to remember what day it is, what city you're in - I was at home and it was Thursday - kindly Carole arrived to pick me up for the drive to Southampton. Once there we again gathered together with the faithful. We hungrily descended on a Chinese chippy which seemed like a good idea, except we didn't know they'd be popping over to Beijing to peel the spuds. Nigel's ravenous appetite forced him to go to a nearby shop and buy a "family" cake (was it syrup cake??) which he proceeded to down in one. Gasp! We all then wandered over to The Brook; I LOVE this venue with its high stage (a la Robin 2) and I suppose given all the variables of a gig this would probably be my equal No. 1 of the tour, having that added "stand up" factor.
Next day the band were driving to Falmouth a long drive from Southampton Ali had decided to make the journey but the rest of us wimped out for a bit of a rest-day. Rest?? Nigel decided it would be best spent yomping for miles along Hurst Point beach, by sandstorm desert stretching far,in searing desert heat. Well it was quite long and fairly sunny most of the time anyway. Fortunately a distant mirage turned out to be an ice-cream van so to stave off dehydration I forced myself to eat a twin cone (ginger and rum'n'raisin) while Nigel made rude comments and Carole had a fag (British variety).
Duly refreshed after our "rest" day we eagerly awaited the band's very last concert of the UK tour at Hailsham Pavilion. That morning we drove to our Travelodge near the gig and met up with Ali who had returned from her travels with whispered tales of shadowy Cornish goings-on. Carole drove us into Hailsham (thanks again Carole!) and we found the theatre, yet another bastion of British architecture from a bygone era. It was a very attractive place, but had no bar. That was not a great problem, the arrangement seems to be that everyone uses the genial surroundings of the pub opposite which has a large outdoor seated area. We did just that and were frequently hailed (we were in Hailsham) with loud messages about Deeply Purple (a tribute outfit to some band can't remember their name) playing there after Strawbs' set would be finished.
Back to the Pavilion we darted (the traffic zooms along that road!) in anticipation of this final electric Strawbs offering for those of us in the UK, for who knows how long. I'd been a bit concerned that the guys must be feeling weary after a rigorous tour (with long days spent recording the forthcoming album shortly prior to that), and their itinerary had been topped off with the late addition of the trek down to Falmouth and back. I needn't have worried about their levels of stamina though I really have to place the Hailsham concert as the No. 1 of the tour overall. Possibly. Or possibly not. It really is impossible to choose one! It was seated, but it really was as close to perfection as I can imagine. Full-blast electrifying Strawbs, with every member of the band firing on all cylinders, terrific sound, great lighting this was a glorious finale. The band were so hot that one fan spent the entire second set on stage just inches away from Dave Lambert. (Ok, it was an oscillating fan put into position by theatre staff with the intention of keeping the temperature down, and was accompanied with quips from DC about DL drying his hair). Most nights were equally outstanding (does that make sense?) to be perfectly honest, so maybe it was the sense of occasion, this being the last gig of the tour, which made it feel super special. Dave Lambert declared that the concert had a real "send-off" feel for him, with the band due to leave for the States very shortly after, and it felt very much that way to me.
By way of coming back down to earth as gently as possible after the final bow of the UK tour, several of us risked life and limb crossing the road to the pub again for a bit of head-banging and air-guitaring to DP. Their set involved lots of microphone twirling, laying on the floor playing guitar (them not me), and the interval was announced with "IT'S TIME FOR A P**S BREAK" rather than genteel chatter about plugging in pacemakers or dialysis machines. Lovely! They were pretty good actually.
I said in my previous review how Chas's bass has consistently sounded the best I have ever heard it on a tour. That really struck me early on because so often bass seems to be mixed too low for my own personal taste with many bands including Strawbs. This tour really was perfection for me in the bass department. I know it will probably sound revoltingly cheesy saying this too, but I honestly don't think I have ever heard John Hawken's keyboards sound more captivating either, with countless beautiful little touches here there and everywhere. Rod Coombes: Ali and I had a discussion about drumming and how incredibly difficult it can be to keep to a beat without being distracted that's without having to decide which drum or cymbal to hit next, involving your feet, or managing to smile! Rod was, as ever, on top form throughout, and I think it becomes easy to take consistently brilliant performances such as Rod gives for granted. Dave Lambert sounded superb vocally and his guitar-playing also has to be right up there with the best I've ever heard him play. "Down by the Sea" was totally mesmeric - whatever it is he's done with that works beautifully. He has an incredibly strong stage presence in my opinion. And Dave Cousins .the new songs seem to me to have given him a new lease of life; he was so full of energy and delivered his musical messages with such force that at times it was almost scary, reminding me of a terrifying headmaster who frequently turned purple with rage during shouting fits that I endured at junior school! It was absolutely amazing stuff!! I adore the Eastern-sounds of "The Call to Action" by the way, as did audiences everywhere judging by the prolonged applause and whoops of delighted approval. I'm delighted that the band is unafraid to tackle either contemporary (and controversial) issues, or a diversity of musical approaches, and in my opinion the instrumentation on this terrific song perfectly complements the subject matter.
Some great reviews are now in from the US and I can only assume the standard of the concerts is on a stratospheric par with the majority of those we witnessed here in Britain. In my opinion the band members deserve massive pats on the back for giving so much pleasure to so many over the years, and continuing to do so. Just how lucky are we still to have "our band" enriching our lives to this level after all these years? (I include past and present members of Strawbs who are still making great music in that, by the way.)
So, thanks to everyone, band and fans alike, for so many wonderful times. Until the next tour then!