Digital camera photographs by Yngve NedrebÝ
This weekend, I was lucky enough to be able to travel with the Strawbs when they played a sell-out first gig for this line-up at the Bergen Blues and Roots Festival. Dave Cousins' opinion, voiced at the end of a triumphant gig, that this was the best incarnation of the Strawbs he's ever put together, is certainly a view I'd share: the presence of BOTH the Strawbs celebrated lead guitarists promised a real treat. Dave was in fine voice, and the band, despite a hiccup or two here and there, made it clear that the upcoming UK tour is going to be one of their most powerful performances for some time.
Flying out of London Stansted late on Friday afternoon, we got to Bergen to be met at the airport by the Strawbs' "minder" for the Festival, Tom Osberg. A surprise: driving us from the airport to the hotel was long-time fan Aksel Steen (who I've been corresponding with over the internet for ages now). Predictably enough, first port of call after checking in was a basement bar not far from the venue where we proceeded to sample some of Bergen's fine beer.
Saturday gave us time for sight-seeing - what we hadn't realised however was that that Norway would be closed when we got there! May 1 is a much bigger festival in Europe than in England, and though it was a Saturday, all the shops were closed, except for the souvenir shops at the tourist attractions. So we wandered around, in various groups, in the gradually increasing rain, through the fish market, and the old wooden buildings in Bryggen (the Wharves). Later on in the afternoon, the day brightened and we headed up the funicular railway to take in the spectacular view across Bergen.
Soundcheck time, and the band took the opportunity to run through a few of the numbers which are fairly new to the set. Reckoning that when the venue was full (and, boy, was it full!) there wouldn't be much opportunity for photography, as the band ran through "Sheep", "Josephine", "Witchwood" and "Tears And Pavan" we took full advantage of excellent access to the stage front to get some good shots - examples of these to be posted in due course.
The Hangman And The Papist
A Glimpse of Heaven
Josephine, For Better And For Worse
Tears And Pavan
The River/Down By The Sea
I Only Want My Love To Grow In You
Part Of The Union
Hero And Heroine
Will You Go
Tell Me What You See In Me
The Garage is one of those low-ceilinged club venues, with corrugated iron cladding on the walls and industrial air-extraction equipment tubing hugging the ceiling, and in the crowd it's difficult to see much more than the top of the band's heads. Nonetheless, the band received a warm reception from the capacity crowd as they took to the stage, striking up with the classic "New World", followed by "Stormy Down", now featuring a much bouncier piano arrangement from Blue Weaver. "The Hangman And The Papist", with Dave Lambert providing the harmony vocals (just as he did in the latter days of his tenure in Strawbs in the late 70s), drew quite a few cheers. A change of guitar for Dave to the open tuned 6-string for "A Glimpse Of Heaven", Dave Lambert providing the second acoustic guitar in both instances. Next, "Josephine For Better Or For Worse", starting out quiet and reflective, but bursting into action after the first verse and featuring a blistering Brian Willoughby solo.
Putting down his guitar, Dave Cousins told the crowd that travelling up the funicular railway to the top of Mount Floien had been a magical experience for him - the next song "Witchwood" had however been fuelled by magical experiences of a different kind. Brian Willoughby picked out the instrumental line on an electric guitar which sounded remarkably like a dulcimer, whilst Dave Lambert provided the acoustic chords. This song showcased the powerful and unusual mix of this Strawbs' vocal line - John Ford and Dave Lambert adding strength and colour to the harmonies on this number.
Next another old favourite returning to the set - "Tears and Pavan": a lot of audience reaction to this number, and the fans started fast-clapping along with the intro to Pavan, prompting Dave Cousins to dance a little fandango of pleasure on stage. Back to the Witchwood album for "Sheep" - Dave announced this song as a song written about "the burning of the draft card ... a song of violence, a song of war, a song of hatred, a song of intolerance - a song about old people leading young people into wear when the young people don't want to do it." Hitherto, I have to confess that this was one of my less favourite songs, but hearing it live for the first time, driven by the power of this two lead guitar line-up, has converted me. A few hiccups on this occasion, but, when this one beds down on the tour, it'll be one of the high points of the set.
Cousins took up the 12-string again for the discordant minor opening to "The River/Down By The Sea" - the middle section of the latter a showcase for Lambert's powerful chording, who also handles the vocals as he did on the album. Better than ever with two electric guitars!
Lightening the mood, the band ran through the hit (and should have been hit) singles - a new arrangement (quite different from the near-note perfect version played by the 74/75 band at Chiswick) of "I Only Want My Love To Grow In You" wasn't quite as tight or as powerful as it could be, (I think that was one of the two occasions where the sound mix wasn't quite right - which given that the engineer was a local lad who didn't know the songs was pretty a amazing achievement). The opening chords of "Lay Down" drew a huge cheer - the current version - missing the acapella choruses of previous years but with the Dave Lambert solo re-instated - on this occasion the solo was left way too far down in the mix.
Then Dave handed over to John Ford for "Part Of The Union", which had everyone singing along. The finale of the set, "Hero And Heroine", and what Dave described to the crowd as "the best Strawbs band there'd ever been" left the stage, before being howled back by the crowd for two encores.
Dave Lambert thanked the crowd for his first visit to Norway and Dave Cousins went through the band introductions. "Will You Go" (recorded at the same time as Bursting At The Seams, but relegated to the back of the "Part Of The Union" single) has always been a particular favourite of mine, and the Norwegian crowd seemed as pleased as I was with its revival as the first encore (it used to be a popular encore number back in '73), and joined in with gusto. Finishing off with "Tell Me What You See In Me", which Dave Cousins described as a song from the days his father started the band and taught him the guitar parts from those early albums. "He couldn't tune his guitar either", quipped Dave after a couple of bars. The arrangement did seem a tiny bit ragged in places, the Strawbs left the stage in the certain knowledge that they hadn't in any way diminished their strong following in Norway. "The best night I've had in many a year - see you in another 10 years" promised Dave as he departed - after a gig as well supported and well-received as this one, hopefully a return visit won't be quite so far away.
Sunday morning saw the Strawbs heading off for a photo session a few blocks up the road - Paul took some band photos first and then he and Dave Cousins were closeted together for a session with Dave on his own. Hopefully we'll be able to include some of the resulting photographs on the site.
A quick stop at the Bergen Festival Office, and then onwards to the airport to catch the afternoon flight back to Stansted - even more of a Musician's Express with over 100 musos on board, including Roger McGuinn (of the legendary Byrds), who I was surprised to find myself standing next to as the baggage reclaim spewed out guitars and boxes marked "fragile equipment" with a ferocity that had musicians gritting their teeth. Many climbed over the conveyor to stop their precious equipment crashing down onto other pieces of luggage - well done Stansted (I don't think!)
Thanks to Tom Osberg and all at the Garage and at the Festival office for looking after us so well. Thanks particularly to Aksel for driving us back and forth.
photos by Yngve NedrebÝ
Strawbs played in Bergen, Norway in 1986, 1987 and 1989, and had chosen Bergen for the start of their 1999 UK-tour. This time they played at Garage for a sell-out as a part of the Ole Blues rock and blues festival. A festival that this time took many old heroes such as Roger McGuinn and Nick Cave to Bergen.
Ten years is a long time in a band's life, and only three of the members of the 1989 band returned to Bergen. This time the band brought the line-up many will regard as the best Strawbs squad ever, John Ford, Dave Lambert and Blue Weaver being included, to reproduce the band from Bursting At The Seams, strengthened with eminent Brian Willoughby on guitar.
The band came on stage and I was a bit worried. Dave Cousins looked tired and older than on his last visit, but from the start of the show the sound was the good old one, and Dave Cousins voice was as intense and powerful as ever.
Dave Cousins pointed out that this band line-up had not played together for more than 25 years (except for the 30th Anniversary Concert), and he most likely could hear that on one or two occasions. The audience hardly noticed. This was the good old sound in a show built around hit-albums Witchwood, Grave New World and Bursting At The Seams, and most of the audience knew all the words and tunes, and sang along from the first verse of the first song.
Strawbs have always profited from strong lyrics, and most unfortunately songs like "New World", "The Hangman And The Papist" and "Sheep" never seem to lose their relevance. The situation in Northern Ireland may have changed for the better, but in Europe terror and war still exists, and perhaps on a higher level now than when those songs were written 30 years ago.
It was great to see the two Daves playing together again, and Dave Lambert seemed to enjoy himself a lot. They sang "I Only Want My Love To Grow In You" just like they did back in 1976.
When Dave Cousins brought the band back for the encores, he was smiling, telling jokes and being relaxed. Now he looked like the good old one. He knew the concert had been a success, and that the band was working well together. They ended the show in style with the tremendous rock version of the old song "Tell Me What You See In Me".
The show lasted 84 minutes, and 16 classic songs were presented. Dave Cousins did the job of an athlete! I walked home through a crisp night, to rest my ears and clean my lungs. The temperatures were just above freezing point, and a full moon sailed across the sky, through a belt of tiny clouds, reflected in the snow on the top of the mountains. Not much to indicate May and Spring! But I felt warm, carrying with me some of the energy produced by Dave Cousins and the band. Along with the rest of the audience I was impressed by the strength and commitment. This was real stuff. After more than thirty years, Strawbs are still blooming!
Thanks to the band for a night to remember! If you ever return to Bergen, we will be there!
photos by Yngve NedrebÝ
If you closed your eyes during the show at Garage Saturday, it was like moving 25 years back in time. British band the Strawbs sounded exactly as I remember them from the first part of the seventies. If you opened your eyes, you would see that time has left its marks on the six half-tired musicians on stage. But only on the exterior.
Ten years has passed since the band last visited Bergen and played a sell-out at Exodus. The major part of the audience now was most likely present last time as well, as it is a long time since Strawbs did much to attract new fans. The Strawbs so definitely belongs to the Seventies with its mix of folk and prog-rock. It is a pretty extinct form of music in today's world, but Strawbs never tried to play a role other than that of the dinosaurs. No new seed here.
We got all the old songs. The combination of Dave Cousins' distinctive voice, good tunes and fine musicians, ensured that it did not sound out-dated at all, as is the case with so many other old heroes. The audience was perhaps a bit reserved at first, but with old hits like Lay Down, and in particular Part of the Union, everyone in the audience sang along.
In ten years we will be back, Dave Cousins bursts out before the encores. No danger. Most of the audience will no doubt be there in 2009 as well.