[Strawbs appeared on Sky's VH1's Talk Music programme on 23 Aug and 24 Aug (to be repeated on 27 Aug at 23:00). Recorded 20 Aug 1998.]
Having closely followed them from those legendary White Bear days, I must say the Strawbs period that finds its way most frequently onto my turntable (sorry I mean CD player: I'm one of those sad sods still missing vinyl and that RONCO thing for keeping it dust free) is the Cousins / Lambert years.
Dave Cousins (and Dave Lambert) gave a short interview before their performance in which they said there had been something like 20 different line-ups in the Strawbs history and that four of those line-ups (from different periods) would be performing at Chiswick.
I was particularly pleased to see a trim looking Dave Lambert back in the ranks and performing as if he had never been away. Their performance consisted of two songs: a really good version of "Lay Down" and - I'm delighted to report - an even better "New World" with Dave Lambert handling the lead guitar and Brian Willoughby solidly on 2nd guitar. Dave Cousins looked in fine fettle and fit enough for another 10 years at least.
Dave Cousins (gtrs, vcls)
Rod Demick (bs, vcls)
Tony Hooper (gtrs, vcls)
Richard Hudson (dms, vcls)
Blue Weaver (kybds)
Brian Willoughby (gtrs)
A Glimpse Of Heaven
Further Down The Road
Oh How She Changed
Song Of A Sad Little Girl
The Hangman and the Papist
Part Of The Union
I'll Carry On Beside You
Tell Me What You See In Me
The gig at Broxbourne bodes well for the 30th anniversary gig - the band have been rehearsing a new selection of numbers and there were a few surprises. After a competent opener by local band Couriers' Delay, Vin Garbutt turned in an excellent acoustic set, marred only by the antics of a marauding drunk; Vin's typical off the wall humour allowed him to rise above and play off the unscheduled interruptions. Having forgotten his own Merchandise, he announced that he was going to play Strawbs numbers all night as they had lots of CDs to sell. The usual combination of well-crafted words, fine tunes and Vin's expert guitar, mixed with a few whistle tunes and unaccompanied numbers pleased the crowd, and the presence of quite a few new songs probably means that there's a new CD coming soon.
Dave started the show off with a welcome outing for the dulcimer on "Benedictus", switching back to the guitar for "A Glimpse Of Heaven". Announcing a new song (new for the Strawbs that is - Dave and Brian have been featuring it as a duo for a while), Rod Demick played harmonica on a new arrangement of "Further Down The Road" (from The Bridge).
Tony Hooper, back with the band for their anniversary celebrations, started up the introduction to "Oh How She Changed" the Strawbs very first single 30 years ago. The song was always a classic and sounds as fresh today with the rock backing and wash of harmony vocals provided by the current band. Next, Dave told us about passing a bungalow in Penge called "Witchwood" and deciding he had to write a song about it, and the band premiered a new arrangement, focusing primarily on Blue Weaver on organ supplemented with chopping guitar from Brian Willoughby. The only thing missing for me was the unusual mix on vocals for Dave and John Ford - hopefully to be rectified later in the month!
Another surprise - "Song Of A Sad Little Girl" from Antiques And Curios, with Blue reproducing pretty closely the tinkling Wakeman piano backing, but with a searing guitar solo from Brian between the second and third verse. Then back into more familiar ground with the Strawbs classics - Dave's two Northern Ireland epics - "Hangman" and "New World", followed by the "Blue Angel" suite - which just gets better and better.
A trio from Bursting At The Seams - "Stormy Down", "Part Of The Union" and "Lay Down" and the band pretended to leave the stage, but were called back for encores. A surprise encore was yet another Witchwood track (4 tracks from Witchwood in the set, suggesting a rediscovery of that classic period, perhaps prompted by the re-issue of the album on CD). "I'll Carry On Beside You" features another lead vocal from Tony, backed with strong chorus vocals from the entire band. The closing number was the rocked-up version of "Tell Me What You See In Me" from Ringing Down The Years.
Dave and the other members of the band obviously enjoyed themselves, despite some sound difficulties (particularly with on-stage monitors - or the lack thereof!) and it was a real pleasure to see a new offering of songs again, with an inevitable focus on some of the older periods of their history. With the room to expand that they'll have at Chiswick, no doubt there'll be some more surprises - if it's as good as this, the fans who are planning to travel from overseas to see them won't be disappointed.
Dave Cousins (gtrs, vcls)
Rod Demick (bs, vcls)
Richard Hudson (dms, vcls)
Blue Weaver (kybds)
Brian Willoughby (gtrs)
Cut Like A Diamond
Something For Nothing
The Hangman And The Papist
A Glimpse Of Heaven
Ringing Down The Years
We Can Make It Together
The River/Down By The Sea
Part Of The Union
Tell Me What You See In Me
A fresh-faced youngster with a camera bag turns up, asking to take photos for the local newspaper. Denise and Sandy are taking orders at the merchandise stall from a large crowd crammed into the foyer, and I take him upstairs to the second floor dressing room behind the stage where local dignitaries are feting the Strawbs, who've come to help save their theatre.
The gig had been made possible by the generous backing of several local firms and the major sponsor, Great North Eastern Railway - entirely fitting backing given Retford's railway links going back to the 1840s - before even the famous East Coast line was laid. The West Retford Hotel also supported the concert by arranging for the band's overnight stay (and very attractive rates for various fellow travellers including me - very comfortable too!)
Said Majestics' drummer Keith Hudson (one of the organisers) "There were a few problems on the night, but without the backing of local firms and the Clinton Arms pub, the show might not have gone on. It was a first and we hope it will be one of the many top shows in support of the Majestic. This theatre has been there since 1927 and deserves preservation for the enjoyment of future generations."
It certainly hadn't been the best of days all round: horrendous traffic on the A1 meant that everyone was running later than expected and, to cap it all, the PA system, promised on Thursday, only arrived very late in the afternoon, so sound checks too were running late, and Terry Cassidy, the Strawbs' indefatigable master of sound was a man under pressure. Denied a PA to sound check, the entire band plus hangers-on resorted to a pub on the market square where Dave Cousins told a highly off-colour joke about very expensive shoes. At some point during the evening, part of the PA decided to fall over (fortunately not into the orchestra pit at the front of the stage) and there was a tense moment whilst Terry ran across to stabilise the setup - no harm done. The sound overall wasn't the best the Strawbs have ever had, nor really was it what they had expected to be there - it seems that promoter Julien Edson had been let down by the supplier.
Nevertheless, Edson had done a splendid job in publicising the concert: most of the seats in the lower part of the theatre were taken, an estimated house of around 400 plus. The Majestic is, from the outside a brick, featureless mausoleum of a building, converted from a cinema. Inside however, the restored decorations, flock wallpaper and spacious aisles, were an attractive and comfortable setting for an enjoyable evening of music.
With everyone sitting down, it was a different style of gig - the previous evening everyone crowded into the back room of the Turks, mainly standing. The heat in the room was overpowering, and on stage it must have been phenomenal from the look of Dave's coiffure by the end of the evening. The main downside of the Majestic was the lack of a bar - as the sound check ran over, the crowd had to assemble in the crowded foyer - great for the Strawbs merchandise but a little tiresome for the punters, who, being Strawbs fans, could probably have done with a drink!
The support band, The Majestics, a combo assembled specially for this gig, looked and felt like a local version of the Commitments - the lead singer - blond, bushy-eyebrowed and pony-tailed - delivering credible versions of standards including The Doors' "Light My Fire", a good mix of three guitars and promising keyboard player, with a girl bassist/singer, who unfortunately we couldn't hear too clearly. Technically able, though less dynamic, was a guitar interlude in the middle oftheir set - a sole electric guitarist playing Shadows licks over the top of backing tracks delivered from a tape machine perched rather precariously on a Holsten beer crate and a dustbin.
After a longer than anticipated break, while Terry ran round trying to get the best out of the PA which had arrived, the Strawbs were on stage in Retford. Opening explosively with "Cut Like A Diamond", the band had more room to move around than they did the previous night in the Turks Head at Twickenham. Cousins, resplendent in a vividly patterned, loose flowing shirt, seemed more comfortable with the cooler temperatures, and more at ease in his playing and singing. The opener segued into "Something For Nothing", with a slightly ragged start from Dave, which seemed to take the other band members a little by surprise, but that was really the only glitch of the night.
The two Northern Ireland songs followed, Dave prefacing "The Hangman and the Papist" with an introduction about how he had expected the song to last only a few weeks in the Strawbs repertoire, but had now clocked up over 26 years. "New World", always a tour de force, followed before Dave doffed his 12-string Ovation and switched to the open tuned 6 string for "A Glimpse Of Heaven".
Hud had a little trouble in the early part of the set: he split his snare drum's skin and had to leave the stage to get another. Unfortunately, the rest of his kit had been stowed away somewhere safe, and wasn't where he left it, so having gone off stage left, he had to cross the stage to the other side, all the while bearing his drum before him. Dave was left to chat to the audience a little, but did little to dispel the base suspicion that Hud, who might have had a drink or two before the show, had ulterior motives for leaving the stage.
In Twickenham, Dave had taken great delight in renaming the band "The Spice Boys" - Rod Demick rechristened "Old Spice", Blue became "Basil Spice" and a variety of names being suggested for Brian, the most memorable being "Outer Spice". Dave shared this with the Retford audience, and after reminding us that the concert had been generously sponsored by GNER, and a brief tuning up to normal, the band moved on a year or two to "Stormy Down" followed by the epic "Blue Angel" from Dave's solo Two Weeks Last Summer.
First included in the Strawbs set in 1993, the song has been re-recorded for the forthcoming re-release of Dave and Brian's The Bridge" album, now to be re-titled "Blue Angel". Given the powerful guitar solos which feature in the first segment on album, it is surprising that Brian wasn't given his head to a greater extent, and though it remains for me one of Dave's best ever songs, I think I prefer the dynamics of the original version.
"Ringing Down The Years" followed, and then "We Can Make It Together" before the band switched back to the hits period of 1973 for the sequenced "River/Down By The Sea" and the obligatory "Part Of The Union" and "Lay Down". As ever, Brian delivered effortlessly perfect guitar on "Down By The Sea" and "Lay Down" and it is always good to hear Blue's honky-tonk piano solo in the middle of "Part Of The Union".
An encore, "Tell Me What You See In Me". The previous evening had seen Tony Hooper dragged up out of the audience to heartfelt applause to join the vocal line. In Retford, the performance was as strong, with Dave bouncing up and down to this, the oldest of the songs in the set, delivered in its updated 1991 version. More applause, and it looked as though we were going to get another (maybe the "big H" - "Hero And Heroine"), as Hud and Blue returned to the stage to be joined by Rod. However, there seems to have been some misunderstanding as Dave and Brian were nowhere to be found, and after an impromptu drum solo from Hud ("Take Five"), and a fragment of "Benedictus" from Blue on the organ, the crowd adjourned to the foyer, unfortunately, Dave, who it turns out had been feeling ill, unable to join the other band members for signing photographs and the usual friendly chat with the fans for which the Strawbs are well-known.
The Turks Head is a nice but unmemorable pub in an almost un-findable location in Twickenham, requiring almost insider knowledge to locate it tucked away in a residential location just off the A316. Once found however the beer is good and the atmosphere one of a welcoming London pub. It does not have a stage in the main building but instead it has a "Village Hall" building standing beside it and I was here on 18th September, having already sampled the ale, to see the Strawbs.
As I entered sporting my orange ticket (bought from behind the bar) my hand was stamped on the back in indelible red ink to enable me to come and go during the evening. The years rolled away as I remembered passing through such doorways to watch young, hopeful bands eagerly attempting their chance to climb the rickety stairway to fame and (possibly) fortune. There were no chairs provided but there was another bar. The stage was small; only just enough space for 3 musicians to stand side by side with their instruments. Anyone else playing would just have to stand behind. The lighting was simple but effective creating that special murky atmosphere associated with rock performances at all levels but particularly relevant to those on the first or possible the final rung of the ladder.
The equipment on stage was also well in keeping. On the right there stood an old Roland A80 synthesiser which had obviously seen better days. Mounted above it a Korg keyboard (no number) so old that it was built inside a polished wooden case. The drum kit was small and unobtrusive. An Ovation guitar was laid casually to the right.
The audience assembled, drank and talked. The band walked onto the stage. There was Dave Cousins in bright red shirt and black trousers; everyone else in jeans and casuals. Blue Weaver took his place behind the old keyboards. Richard Hudson ("Hud") sat behind the drum kit, Brian Willoughby connected up his black six string electric, Rod Demick wielded the Fender bass with care in the cramped conditions. To the casual onlooker who knew nothing of the band this was probably just another one trying their luck or perhaps even a band for whom luck and time had run out.
And then they played.
Any thoughts that the un-informed might have had regarding this band and this gig were banished. The sound was wonderful. The PA was obviously modest but the balance was faultless. No feedback, every instrument separate and you could hear the words.
The opening track was "Cut Like a Diamond". There was no count in; they just started exactly together. The rhythm was infectious; there was no one with still feet. Dave's vocals cut through the strong sound with an urgency and commitment which has always been unique and is still always fresh.
Next to be played was "Something For Nothing". Again the same infectious energy, tight playing, urgent singing. They do have an excellent rhythm section in Richard Hudson (drums) and Rod Demick (bass). I've always liked Hud's playing for its accuracy and restraint but these days he hits the things hard and that produces a sound quality that has nothing to do with volume. Rod and Hud work well together watching each other for timings, keeping it tight. Dave's 12 string Ovation fills the middle of the sound stage completely creating a full sound which does not overpower or flood the balance. Detail is added by the expert guitar playing of Brian Willoughby and then there is Blue Weaver.
Here at the Turks Head the old Korg and Roland A80 came alive under his command and I found my self again drawn to watching him work as I had been in 1973 when I first saw him. I listened carefully to his work noting the accuracy of the timing, the intricacy of his playing and the sheer quality of the sound he was making. Whatever he played it was always exactly what was needed from the keyboards at the time; no more and definitely no less. This was not bad from a man who had told me just a few minutes before that he did not play much any more and that most of his time was taken up these days making music for CD ROM packages. There are some great wrongs in the world.....
Dave then announced "The Hangman And The Papist". I have never seen a Strawbs gig where this did not feature and hopefully it will be there as long as it is relevant. "I wrote this thinking it would last about 6 weeks", said Dave "and here we are 30 years on." It is sad that the song is so relevant today but it is also interesting how timeless the piece is. Ireland is not the only place of conflict in the world and the statements about intolerance, injustice and the offloading of responsibility to a higher authority will, I fear, always be with us. Everyone loved the performance as usual.
"Blue Angel" was played and this I thought was ambitious. It is a wonderful piece and a true highlight of the excellent Dave Cousins solo album Two Weeks Last Summer. But it is complicated. And it does have some very interesting solos. I was privileged to have a long chat with "Hud" after the show and he said that the Turks Head gig had come about mainly as a rehearsal for the show in Retford. Bands would kill for performances which are as tight and accurate as this "rehearsal" but on this particular number the stitching did show. Anyone who knows the piece will know that it has a number of separate melodies linked by some wonderful solos played on the original recording by some of the best in the business. I think this is a very impressive piece to perform live but if the solos are missing the song loses a great deal.
And so the night moved on through the old favourites such as "Stormy Down", "The River/Down By the Sea", "Part of the Union", "Lay Down" (written with the aid of magic mushrooms we were told; there's something new learnt everyday) and then to the customary encore which was the rousing arrangement of "Tell Me What You See in Me" as featured on Halcyon Days. All wonderful, all memorable. Then an exhausted, sweat soaked Dave Cousins left the stage and it was all over. He had put heart and soul into this performance. Everyone was thrilled by what they had heard. All were grateful.
I have been a Strawbs fan since I was lent a copy of Bursting At The Seams in 1973. I believe Dave is the very best of all songwriters and a unique, powerful singer and I am personally very grateful to him for all the pleasure and inspiration his music has given to me for the last 24 years. My only complaint is that we don't get to hear them enough. It is not easy to find music like this anymore. It is not easy to find bands like this; it is not easy to find individual musicians like this. I wish we could hear more of the Strawbs because they have a lot to give and much to teach.
If there is anyone out there who has not heard the Strawbs or maybe does not know who they are or what I have been talking about, do yourselves a big favour and find them next time they play. I'm sure this Homepage will tell us when. Incidentally it is interesting to note that although the audience was made up of a number of people like me who were young when the Lord was a boy, the ones with the group photographs searching for signatures could not have been born when "Lay Down" was out.
They came, they played and they conquered, albeit with a few problems on the night.
The Strawbs, supported by home grown band The Majestics, helped give a massive cash boost to Retford's oldest remaining theatre The Majestic Theatre with more than two hours of top class rock and folk/rock music on Friday night. Fans turned up from all over the country and even from South Africa and America to enjoy the music and songs of arguably one of the finest folk/rock bands ever spawned - and still on the road after nearly 30 years. (There could be an anniversary tour next year.)
The show was kicked off after a delay caused by technical problems by the Majestics (members of the well-known Steve Richards Band and former Debonair member Chris Edson) playing a medley of songs ranging from "Whisky In The Jar" to "Johnny Cool" and "Light My Fire".
Chris went on to play solo his own rendition of the hit "Theme For Young Lovers" and then a moving version of "One Moment In Time", which he introduced as a tribute to his friend and talented Retford drummer Pete Jones who died tragically. "It was something I had to do, but it was very hard deciding on which number to play," he told a near-packed house.
The backing band and Chris alone were well worth seeing on a night which helped set the beautiful theatre aglow. But the biggest draw, for the near-capacity crowd, was the Strawbs, playing possibly their only full-scale gig this year. Dave Cousins, Richard Hudson, Blue Weaver, Brian Willoughby and Rod Demick were the perfect professionals. Over the year they have seen many changes to the band, in fact the list of former members reads like a roll call of who's who in folk/rock music.
The band played many of their old hits, such as the tongue in cheek "Part Of The Union" which created questions in the House of Commons, and led to an award from the TUC, and another number ten hit, "Lay Down" as well as including some of the lesser-known songs such as "Blue Angel" - one of Dave Cousins' best!). There was also well-earned applause for Dave's anti-Irish-terrorism songs, "The Hangman And The Papist" and "New World" along with the single that never was "Stormy Down".
All in all, both bands, and Chris Edson as a soloist, did the Majestic proud. It was a first for the theatre and hopefully one of many in aid of a much loved building. Added Dave, before leaving the stage: "Theatres like the Majestic need everyone's support - otherwise they will wither and die and never be replaced. Think about it."
You know what the 'end of season' produce is like - soft, tasteless, lacking character and definition - well that just about sums up the Strawbs performance at Retford on 19 September. "If that was the first time you'd seen the Strawbs, you wouldn't go and see them again" said my wife and she was right.
How do you sum up a performance where:
The strange thing was that each band member on their own gave it their all but as a combination it was a shambles. Worst of all, this was in front of about 450 people. Perhaps the whole thing sounded better at the back of the hall but I doubt it.
These are all symptoms of a rusty old machine that is given an airing twice a year and is neglected in between. Is it worth describing the running order - probably not, look at the set list that they've played over the last 5-10 years and that's what they played last night "Cut Like A Diamond", "Something For Nothing", "Hangman", "New World", "Stormy Down" ..... Let's be honest, given the number of appearances they make it's unlikely they are going to convert many new fans so why keep delivering the same old songs in the same order to the same fans? Let's have a bit of variety - why not an 3-song acoustic set in the middle, and a 3-song Turkey Leg Johnson ? set. Or how about the in vogue unplugged set?
If it wasn't that I thought the band might still have a bit of life in them I'd recommend retirement, but you wouldn't want to bow out with the set they played last night.Oh well, the last time they came anywhere near the North Midlands we had a two hour trek to York, three years ago; one hour to Retford last night was a bit better. Perhaps we'll be celebrating somebody's 60th the next time they're around !!