In the late 1960s something magical was occurring in the Strawberry Hill section of West London. A loosely organized group of talented musicians were laying the groundwork to transform their traditional Anglo-Celtic folk-influenced songs into epics backed by the grandeur of full blown rock instrumentation. The acoustic Strawberry Hill Boys became the Strawbs and released their pastoral first LP with a lineup including the late Sandy Denny. As the years went by, the group became more and more electric - while at the same time remaining totally eclectic. They established a sound like no other. Their combination of fascinating tales with such daringly appropriate instrumental backdrops was astoundingly singular. On top of everything else, the band possessed "the Voice". The magnificent vocals of David Cousins. In all my listening to music over the last 40 years, I have never found a voice more perfectly matched to the songs presented. It was almost a combination of listening to a poetic recital of a literary masterpiece with incredibly sophisticated backing arrangements. The splendor of the material was like the old days of Cinemascope for movies - it was an aural spectacular. Rick Wakeman (of later "Yes" fame) passed through the ranks, to be replaced by Blue Weaver and later by John Hawken. The initial acoustic guitar-keyboard/Mellotron driven sound was supplemented by the electric guitar of Dave Lambert as the group evolved over the years. But ever-present was "the Voice" - no other band had a chance of sounding like anything remotely approaching the Strawbs as long as David Cousins held sway there.
They released a series of marvelous albums to critical acclaim throughout Britain and Europe : From The Witchwood, Grave New World, Bursting At The Seams, Hero And Heroine and Ghosts. There were others as well, but these five LPs represented them at their peak. It was only Elton John's Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Piano Player that kept Bursting At The Seams from becoming the #1 chart album in England in 1974. Ironically, the sales were fueled by a catchy, but lesser tune entitled "Part Of The Union". This song supported and celebrated labor unions during a period of labor strife in England and could be heard everywhere. But much more revelatory was the immense quality of the other nine selections - they were stupendous. A grand achievement of staggering proportions. The Strawbs' early to mid-1970s output revealed some of the highest quality rock ever imagined. A perfect marriage of voice, arrangements, sound, lyrics and presentation. The manner in which they interpreted the nature of the material they presented was blessed. And that is an apropos adjective, since their sound has always seemed to carry a medievally religious component. Mr. Cousins himself calls it "gothic folk". I guess that's as accurate as any description can be, as long as one remembers that it is driven and supplemented by expert use of the electronic tools available to the master musicians of the time. It was so splendid! (By the way, A&M has reissued excellently remastered versions of all the discs).
But this review involves a 2003 acoustic concert by a threesome known as the "Acoustic Strawbs". David Cousins, Dave Lambert and Brian Willoughby. Some classic material is presented here with guitar, banjo, Ebow and rich vocal harmony. Actually, this is a tremendous delivery method as it shows the strength of the writing, melodies, and lyrics. By stripping the electric layers away, what emerges is the inner beauty of the song structures. I've heard these numbers in all their glory so many times over the years that I profoundly appreciate this opportunity to hear them in a different way. By the same token, it powerfully reinforces my belief about just how intelligently glorious they always were. The bare stage, with minimal lighting and a candelabra is very nice. Mr Cousins handles the majority of the vocals, but Mr. Lambert shines during his opportunies and they harmonize magnificently. All the selections include precise guitar/string interaction with incisive alternating leads and rhythm support. They perform 13 songs drawn from an assortment of releases. The show takes place in a small, sold out Toronto club where they gave a series of performances. Actually, I would term it to be more of a recital - a masterful event presented by three titans of the genre. A celebration of the music form only the Strawbs could give life to.
All the tunes possess rare beauty and significance, from the yearning memories throughout, to the harrowing tale of Protestant/Catholic violence where a village Protestant youth is forced to act as a hangman - only to agonizingly learn that the victim standing proud is his younger brother "who has failed to show allegiance to the king".
In addition to the concert, there is a segment called "In The Beginning", during which Cousins and the others show some old West London hangouts and reminisce about their formative times. The names of some of the artists who frequented the places they played in the early years are astounding (Jimmy Page, Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, John Mayall, David Bowie and so many others). They're filmed sitting in the pub where the photo gracing the jacket of their album Just A Collection Of Antiques And Curios was taken. The nostalgia is endearing and comprises the first segment of the DVD. This is precisely the right way to begin the disc as it introduces David Cousins as the superb, gentle storyteller he always was. He might be more rotund now, but he maintains the ability - like a grandfather or favorite uncle - to weave a tale leaving his young listener enthralled on his lap. This analogy basically describes the massive body of work by the Strawbs. They spun epic tales supported by an epic ability to present them in the manner which did them justice. Do yourself a tremendous favor. Pick up this inspired DVD and get some of their CDs. If you've never encountered their music, you're in for one of your biggest treats. Once you've done this, you'll never forgive yourself for missing out on the ability to appreciate the Strawbs during the last 30 years.
I have been blessed this holiday season with an early Christmas gift. It is none other than the Acoustic Strawbs, Live in Toronto at Hugh's Room. Boys and girls, from the bottom of my Strawbs lovin' heart, I'll tell you right now:.run, don't walk, to your nearest available source (Witchwood Records?) and buy this DVD as fast as you can!
I laughed, I cried, I crawled on my belly like a reptile.-.OK, I only laughed and cried - but I felt just like I was there. It was my first time seeing Brian Willoughby with the band - and his guitar work was absolutely consummate. What an astoundingly sensitive touch he has for the instrument! The synchronicity of all three guitars playing their various parts amazed and astonished me. The harmony was beautiful and perfect. Dave Cousins voice, a little rough in places, was still as hauntingly beautiful as it has ever been. There were quite a few songs that were new to me acoustically, and a couple that were new to me completely, but never a dull moment. One thing I'll advise, is keep your remote volume control handy because the sound sometimes fluctuates, but it was no distraction for me. I loved every minute of the DVD.
The history of the band was interesting as well as the collage effect on some shots. I enjoyed watching the band interact with the audience as well. Mainly, though, I enjoyed the music. The bonus track is indeed a bonus and brought very serious tears to my eyes. You'll have to see it for yourself to know what I mean.
Any real Strawbs fan is going to want this for their collection. I expected to be just a little impressed, but I am utterly overjoyed to have it, and can't wait to share it with all my buddies and pals. This is the perfect holiday gift for your fellow fans, or as a special treat for yourself. I recommend it without reservation to any truly serious Strawbs fan! As far as I'm concerned, it's an international treasure.
Well, now! A long-expected DVD from the boys, and well worth the wait! In the beginning, we have "In the Beginning", a short piece about the band's roots, where they came from, etc, including a look inside a very familiar pub, the one of the back of Antiques and Curios! Wonderful footage of all the great places they came from, as well. The DVD was worth it for that alone.
However, the meat of the show is in the performance at Hugh's Room. Altogether a strong performance, which showed the boys at their best. A few of the songs are intercut with other images. My favourite of these are during "You and I (When We Were Young)". As they are singing, a clip is substituted from the 'Live In Tokyo' DVD, showing both Daves in a much younger state. Very well done, beautifully timed!
During "Autumn", they show scenes of Toronto in the autumn, again, very well done. Also, the opening is scenes shot from around Toronto, specifically outside Hugh's Room. I stamped my feet with glee, oh, boy, we've made the big time!!!!
Again, a tremendous display of video work done by the producers, showing a great performance by the Acoustic Strawbs.
However, I am not without my criticism. I feel that the cuts between the songs were made too quickly, and didn't really capture the enthusiasm of the cheering crowd. They never captured just how powerful the bond is between the performing band and the audience. There are very, very few shots of the rapture of the faces of the crowd, of the silence of them during the soft passages, as we watched breathlessly as the band performed. There are interviews with fans after the show (including a few Witchwood members who shall go unnamed - and no, I'm not in it!), and here they did succeed in showing the dedication of some of us. Still, I feel the DVD is missing an important element of an Acoustic Strawbs concert. I was there, I know. Or, it might just be me. You must see it for yourselves, and decide accordingly.
I just viewed the Toronto DVD. Just got it in the mail Monday and couldn't wait to sit down with my girlfriend Pam and watch it, she was eager as I to see it since this brings back memories of when we first saw them back in May 2003.
I remember I hadn't been paying attention to the Strawbs website and wasn't aware they were touring at the time - I picked up this little free newspaper and was looking through it at Pam's apartmentt and saw "Strawbs at Jack Quinn's Kentucky" - I almost fell out of the chair...:-) We got tickets right away and when we arrived I didn't even know it was Acoustic, I was saying to Pam "where are the drums going to go? keyboards ?" I hadn't a clue, it was just 3 stools on the stage. But it was a night we soon wouldn't forget: Pam had never heard of them, but left saying "I wish you would play them more often Tom" :-)
Back to the video.....I love the way it starts off with Dave telling about the beginning of the band and about Sandy Denny. It was so cool the fade in and outs, Dave Lambert and Brian Willoughy appearing at the table, then Dave going to Eel Pie Island and the White Bear.....incredible. That in itself made the DVD...
Then the show was incredible....very nicely filmed, and with the lights behind Dave it seems almost Christmas although it was shot back in July. It's the Christmas season now and it all fits in with the spirit as we watched it. And there were songs that the guys didn't perform when I saw them like "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" which was excellent. On "Autumn" the seagull noise that Dave Lambert made didn't seem as loud as when I saw them in concert; when I saw them it was pretty high pitched and almost made my ears ring. Nonetheless a great perfomance and well worth the wait for this gem.
And seeing Brian again, what a great guitarist he is. He may not move around like Lambert does but he sure is every bit as good. It was great seeing them electric back in June even though Brian wasn't aboard, but in my opinion, I find them to sound better acoustic then electric - their harmonizing, their subtle,intricate ways they do each song - never mind the electric....let's just let them run on gas...