Monday, 12 November 2012

The Songs of Sandy Denny at the Barbican

Under the sign of Sandy - the Bailey backdrop

BBC4 screened highlights on Friday from the Barbican concert The Lady: A Homage to Sandy Denny which took place on 23rd May this year. During the introductory summation of Sandy’s musical life, I was immediately startled to see footage from a TV performance of White Dress from Sandy’s belated stint with Fairport Convention circa their 1975 Rising for the Moon LP. I had assumed that the three songs from her first solo LP The North Star Grassman and the Ravens which she sang on the 1971 TV show One In Ten, included on the Sandy Denny at the BBC box set, was the only extant evidence of Sandy caught professionally on film. This tantalising glimpse proved that this was not the case, and it would have been great to see more of this recording (although only a fragment has appeared on line, suggesting that it no longer exists in complete form), and to find out if any more has been unearthed. A still photo was shown to remind us of Fairport Convention’s 1969 appearance on Top of the Pops singing Si Tu Dois Partir, a whim of the moment translation (both musical and linguistic) into French Cajun of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes ditty If You Gotta Go, Go. This piece of folk dada, which saw the band adopting pantomime French costume and odd instrumentation, has fallen victim to the BBC’s cost-conscious recycling of video tape, as have so many classic performances from the era. The paucity of recorded footage of Sandy makes such a loss all the more regrettable, even if this shows the more lighter, throwaway side of her musical persona (the side which saw her including rock ‘n roll and Ink Spots numbers on her solo albums, which tended to break the overall mood). The riveting intensity of her three Northstar Grassman and the Ravens songs on One in Ten (Northstar itself, Crazy Lady and Late November) shows us just what we missed.

The opportunity to hear her songs in concert was a welcome one, even though, as Jerry Donahue, the guitarist who worked with her in Fotheringay, Fairport Convention and on her solo LPs, pointed out, it was not about recreating trying to recreate the sound of her music. Such an attempt would be a self-evidently futile undertaking, an imitation of the inimitable. Rather, this tribute was an attempt to give the songs renewed life through the individual voices of their interpreters. The strength of good songs, their ability to endure, comes through in the manner in which they can be adapted by wildly diverse singers, whilst still retaining their essential character. Nothing can match Sandy’s singing of her own songs, which she evidently invests with a great deal of personal feeling through the unique power of her voice (with its deep English folk soul). But her songwriting also has both a universal quality and an individual sense of melody and harmony, which makes it ripe material for adventurous singers to explore, its mysterious lyrical depths also offering rich seams to be mined.

There was a certain dynastic cast to this show. Jerry Donahue and Dave Swarbrick, who played with Sandy in her Fairport, Fotheringay and solo phases, were present, as was her contemporary in the 60s and 70s folk rock world, Maddy Prior, who knew her but never sang with her (her chosen partner for musical duets being June Tabor). Providing solid support in the band was Benji Kirkpatrick on guitar and bouzouki, a member of contemporary folk ‘supergroup’ Bellowhead as well as a solo artist in his own right. He’s also the son of John Kirkpatrick, who squeezed his boxes on many a folk album in the 70s, Albion Bands and Steeleye Span included. Blair Dunlop was one of the singers, the spitting image of his father Ashley Hutchings in the early Fairport days, when he first discovered his native folk traditions alongside Sandy. Blair is now the head of the ever-evolving Albion Band which Hutchings initiated after leaving Fairport and, good-looking young chap that he is, also has a parallel career as an actor (playing the youthful flashback version of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s film of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). The broad appeal of the 60s and 70s British folk revival, and its ability to transcend artificial generational divides, is reflected in these continuities. The fruitful co-existence and collaboration between youth and maturity is one of the appealing aspects of the folk world, one of the aspects which distinguishes it from the rock world, with its increasingly embarrassing obsession with being ‘forever young’ (no matter how much hair dye it takes). There was a wide range in the ages sharing the stage, which was also a testament to the continuing influence of Sandy’s music. The charming participation of Thea Gilmore’s five year old son during one of her songs, clutching his half-size fiddle with solemn intent, pointed to a furtherance of the line into new folk futures.

Lavinia Blackwell - The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood
The concert started with Lavinia Blackwell, singer with Trembling Bells, one of the best of the new generation of bands drawing on the 60s and 70s folk rock legacy, singing Late November from the North Star Grassman and the Ravens LP (quite possibly my favourite record depending, as with all best ofs, on which week you happen to ask me). She talked about the pleasure and challenge of singing songs which move through such offbeat, non-standardised harmonies. Late November is one of Sandy’s dark, penumbral songs, suffused with a sense of oppressively portentous mystery and shot through with intimations of mortality. There’s a pleasurable atmosphere of autumnal melancholia about much of Sandy’s music – it’s definitely her favourite season. Lines showing an awareness of mortality and the brevity of life (‘our lives they are not long’ from Nothing More, ‘death comes too soon for all’ from John the Gun and ‘you will be taken, everyone, you ladies and you gentlemen’ from The Sea) become all the more poignantly prominent in the light of her own tragically early death at the age of 31. Lavinia’s version of Late November was fine, but her pure, classically soaring voice was ideally suited to a largely a cappella rendition of the Richard and Mimi Farina song The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood, with Thea Gilmore and Maddy Prior providing supporting harmonies, replicating Sandy’s own double-tracked self-harmonisation on record. This is a song which has bewitched me ever since I first heard it as a teenager on my battered copy of Sandy, her second solo LP, released in 1972. Not even the scratch which rudely edited Dave Swarbrick’s echoing solo violin coda could break the spell. Indeed, I became so used to it that when I finally heard it on CD with pristine digital sheen, the very lack of a jump cut was initially jolting. Lavinia did the song, and Sandy’s singing of it, full justice, unerringly hitting those keening high notes, and this moment captured the spirit of Sandy above all others for me. As a purely incidental detail, she also sported some incredible earrings. Dave Swarbrick was on hand once more to provide an instrumental coda, as well as a subtle underlying drone which hummed beneath the final verse. Diminished in mobility by serious bouts of ill-health, which means he now plays seated, but not in impish energy and humour, his solo was full of restless, flickering motion, a joyful singing of a sad song. He transformed the exquisite lament of his solo on the LP into a dancing celebration of life, a perfect invocation of the mood of the evening. Swarb also lent his elfin fiddly accompaniment to Sam Curtis’ singing of It Suits Me Well, Sandy’s paean to the traditional traveller’s life. Carter’s percussive, Martin Carthyesque guitar blended with Swarb’s darting fiddle in a way which brought to mind the long-lasting Swarbrick and Carthy partnership. His original duets with Carthy predate his induction into the world of Fairport and his collaborations with Sandy, as do the accompaniments he provided for A.L.Lloyd, one of the key figures in the folk revival, on his 60s Topic Records LPs. His presence here tonight thus provided a connection with the very fount of the music.

Watching the maestro - Maddy Prior, Lavinia Blackwell and Dave Swarbrick's fretting hand
Maddy Prior offered another direct link with the past, lending a regal air of noble folk lineage. She sang Sandy’s anti-war song John the Gun with a rock-edged rawness, a ragged roughness burring her usual folk clarity. For Fotheringay, the early Fairport song about the last days of Mary Queen of Scots which presaged Sandy’s naming of her short-lived post-Fairport band, she was accompanied by some lovely acoustic guitar picking from Blair Dunlop and Benji Kirkpatrick, and wafted through a few courtly dance steps and bows. Her warm voice was well suited to a sympathetic reading of Solo, Sandy’s declaration of female independence and self-sufficiency (more imaginary ideal than self-portraiture), sorrowful and affirmative at the same time. She blended beautifully with Lavinia Blackwell’s high harmonies on the chorus, conveying the song’s complex, clouded emotions.

Green Gartside - the working singer
Sandy tends to be categorised as a folk singer, but her music drew on influences from beyond the world of traditional folk, and there were artists on the bill who reflected its broad range and appeal. Green Gartside, lead singer and songwriter of Scritti Politti (if such hierarchical distinctions are appropriate for a group with anarchist communal origins). A tenuous connection can be drawn through the caustic citation of Scritti Politti in A Bone Through Her Nose, one of ex-Fairport singer-songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson’s bitter ‘rant songs’, recorded after the breakdown of his musical and personal relationship with his wife Linda. But Gartside related his own surprising early folkie tendencies. He rather touchingly reminisced about the first LP he bought with his carefully accumulated pot of pocket money – the Island Records compilation Nice Enough To Eat, the first track on which was Fairport’s Cajun Woman, which afforded him his introduction to Sandy’s singing (albeit in a supportive context on this number). He later heard Liege and Lief, on which Sandy and Swarb’s knowledge of English traditional music came to the fore, and says it changed his life, setting him on an early musical path singing in folk clubs. It was only some years later that he came across punk and became an integral part of its musically adventurous afterlife. In a sign that the leftward leaning political affiliations of the early Scritti days may have found their derivation in his folk apprenticeship, he dressed in Dylan as Woody denim, the uniform of the musician as working artisan. His vocals still have an airy, slightly feminine delicacy, which lent a lightness to his version of North Star Grassman and the Ravens, and later Nothing More (which turned up on the second Island Records sampler, El Pea, which he may or may not also have purchased). Both show Sandy at her most darkly sibylline and poetically allusive, and perhaps needed a more forcefully demonstrative delivery than Gartside’s mellifluously soulful voice brought to them.

Lost in music - Sandy at the piano
Joan Wasser, aka Joan as Policwoman, the Maine-born singer-songwriter, violinist and arranger, sat down at the piano to sing the ballad The Lady from Sandy, the second solo LP. The recorded version was one of the songs slathered in strings, arrangements which have proved divisive, many seeing (or hearing) them as a dilution of Sandy’s writing. It’s as if the producer’s didn’t feel that the songs were strong enough to stand on their own merits, and requiring further decorative enhancement. Personally, I quite like some of them, particularly the orchestration for All Our Days, which turns it into a miniature tone poem. Later songs such as Like An Old Fashioned Waltz and I’m A Dreamer seem, in their unabashed romanticism, to be positively written to be illuminated by shimmering strings. Fortunately, we now have numerous demo and live recordings so that songs like The Lady, No End and The Music Weaver can be heard in more unadorned settings, their baroque fixtures stripped out. Wasser sang The Lady with minimal accompaniment, and followed it with a completely solo version of No More Sad Refrains, just one woman alone at the piano. This was much more in the spirit of Sandy’s live performances, as seen on the One In Ten show. In these, she seems wholly absorbed, transported by the song she is living, eyes closed and brow furrowed in rapt concentration. Perhaps it was this very intensity, the naked isolation of the singer alone with her song, which led to her preference for surrounding herself with a band of fellow musicians, and for including song by them, or cover versions of lighter songs on her LPs and in her concerts.

Lost in music - Joan at the piano
Joan Wasser brought something of an old-fashioned New York nightclub mood to her interpretation of The Lady and No More Refrains. She too was utterly lost in the songs, her face wracked with emotion, feeling every word as she enunciated it. She made them her own, getting right inside them to translate them into her own vernacular, and her performances were a real standout. She highlighted the torch song element of Sandy’s music, which was also brought out by Marc Almond in his renditions of The North Star Grassman and the Ravens and All Our Days in a previous Sandy tribute concert which took place in 2008 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Almond evidently has a more than passing interest in British folk from the 60s and 70s, having also covered Richard and Linda Thompson’s The Great Valerio and Bill Fay’s Cosmic Boxer in concert, a taste perhaps picked from time spent in the company of David Tibet and his musical cohorts. He’s also covered Dusty Springfield’s I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten (in duet with Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell), and a connection can certainly be made between Dusty and Sandy (dry particulate Christian names apart). Sandy’s later records veered increasingly towards lushly orchestrated balladry, with a Dustyish sense of emotional drama. Indeed, she covered Silver Threads and Golden Needles, a 1962 hit for Dusty in The Springfields, on her 1977 LP Rendezvous. Dusty herself started off with the pop-folk of The Springfields, alongside brother Tom, and reconnected with her Irish roots on a lovely rendition of My Lagan Love on her TV show (a song also recorded by Kate Bush and released as a b-side to the Cloudbusting 12”). Summer Is Over, written by brother Tom Springfield and Clive Westlake and released as b-side to Losing You in 1964, is very Sandy in its celebration of autumnal atmospheres, its shifting and modulating harmonic and melodic complexity and its sweeping orchestration. I always play it in conjunction with Sandy’s Carnival (from the Like An Old Fashioned Waltz LP) when the first smoky hints of autumn tint the air – it makes for a perfect seasonal segue.

PP Arnold is an American born singer who lived and worked extensively in the UK in the 60s and 70s, having initially travelled over in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. She turned up on a diverse range of records by the likes of The Small Faces, Nick Drake (she provides ‘ooohing’ backing vocals on Poor Boy) and, later on, Steel Pulse, as well as recording under her own name. She emphasised the soulful gospel yearning at the heart of the late songs I’m A Dreamer and Take Me Away, the latter providing a suitable opportunity for communal testifying on the lengthy fade out chorus, which brought the concert to a rousing and uplifting close.

Thea Gilmore released an excellent album, Don’t Stop Singing, earlier this year, on which she took some of Sandy’s lyrics which had never been developed into fully fledged songs and set them to her own music. Her songs on the album are imbued with Sandy’s spirit, whilst recognisably remaining the product of her own musical imagination, effortlessly encompassing her pastoral moods, introspective self-analyses and moments of rock-extroversion. It’s a perfect collaborative meeting of minds, with Thea’s phrasing and melodic sense conjuring the spectre of Sandy’s voice without resorting to mere imitation. This is particularly so on the wordless vocalising which introduces Sailor (another expression of Sandy’s recurrent lyrical obsession with the sea and the maritime life). It uncannily echoes the wordless crooning in the chorus of Sandy’s song Listen Listen from the second solo LP. Thea sang beneath the backdrop of a glamorous shot of Sandy from the David Bailey photo session for the cover of that LP (as did everyone else), which emphasised their physical similarities. In this context, Thea really did seem to be Sandy reborn. She sang London and Don’t Stop Singing, both vivacious songs which served to celebrate Sandy’s love of life. As Swarb reminded us, she was no delicate, waif-like folk fairy, but an earthy woman with a bawdy sense of humour, quite capable of drinking the Fairport boys under the table and enjoying a night out on the town with Pete Townshend or Robert Plant. She always made him laugh, he chuckled, but he couldn’t repeat most of what she said. The fact that she left such a stash of unrecorded lyrics (bringing to mind Woody Guthrie’s lyrical archive, later brought to musical life by Billy Bragg and Wilco) suggests that music and songwriting was a compulsive process for her, a natural means of self-expression. Thea’s Don’t Stop Singing (till you drop), with its irresistible singalong chorus, stood as an anthem for the whole evening, a joyous affirmation of brimming creativity.

The male singers didn’t have the same impact as the women, for me. Perhaps Sandy’s music just wasn’t an idiom which suited them, but Sam Carter’s flatly demonstrative singing of the more traditionally folkie It Suits Me Well and Bushes and Briars failed to capture their wistful romanticism, rendering them as narrative reportage rather than poetry. Blair Dunlop’s version of The Sea, from the Fotheringay LP, similarly didn’t quite manage to evoke the song’s hypnotic oceanic swell. Jerry Donahue’s delicately filigreed Fender Telecaster decorations were lovely however, recreating the sound which was such an important component of Sandy’s records, as he did throughout the evening. Who Knows Where the Time Goes is perhaps the song for which Sandy is best known – her signature song. It was included on and formed the title of a 1968 Judy Collins LP, at a time when Collins was a major folk luminary, interpreter at the court of Sir Bob and early champion of Leonard Cohen. Sandy’s song holds its head up in the company of Bob Dylan’s I Pity the Poor Immigrant and Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire and Story of Isaac. The inclusion of Robin Williamson’s Incredible String Band song First Girl (or here Boy) I Loved showed that Collins had her eye on what was going on over the Atlantic, possible through the auspices of Joe Boyd, who provided a link between Elektra (for whom Collins recorded) and Island Records (home of Fairport, Sandy and ISB, all of whom he produced). Swarbrick points out that Who Knows Where the Time Goes was written very early on for such a defining song. It’s outlook, with its perspective on the passing of time, is very mature for someone barely out of their teens (shades of Kate Bush and The Man With the Child in his Eyes). It was first recorded before she joined Fairport on the record she made with the Strawbs in 1967, although it first saw light in a more definitive form on Unhalfbricking, her second LP with Fairport. Here, it was given a valedictory group rendition, everyone crowding together on stage, taking a couple of lines each and all joining in for a rousing chorus. Whilst it will always be Sandy’s song, it has attained the status of a standard, with the attendant sense of communal ownership. It offers new opportunities for collective folk singing, the gathering around a song which everyone knows, and which has a personal meaning and listening history for every participant.

Communal singing - Who Knows Where the Time Goes
It’s bound to be the case with an evening like this that a few choice songs are left out. The selection was fine and wide-ranging, touching on most aspects of Sandy’s manifold musical character, and included all one could hope for. There were a few more obscure favourites which were absent: The Optimist, Crazy Lady Blues and Wretched Wilbur from the brighter side of North Star Grassman and the Ravens; the sunny pop of Listen, Listen; the swirling nostalgic romance of Like an Old Fashioned Waltz; the end of Summer song Carnival; and the gorgeous seasons of life litany All Our Days. The guitar and electric piano driven Dark the Night would have been perfect for Thea Gilmore had she not been singing her own collaborative songs. It’s intriguing to think who else might lend their voices to Sandy’s songs, too. Norma Winstone, whose own writing shows a great sensitivity to seasonal mood, tending like Sandy towards the wintry and autumnal, would bring her own unique blend of jazz and folk voicings. Diamanda Galas would amplify the doomy gothic drama of some of the darker songs. Marianne Faithfull should surely sing Who Knows Where the Time Goes at some point in her musical career. And Polly Harvey could certainly transfer some of the spirit of Let England Shake to Sandy’s songs, John the Gun or Wretched Wilbur seeming particularly good choices. Low could lend their hushed and heavenly harmonies to the Quiet Joys of Brotherhood or Like An Old Fashioned Waltz. There’s certainly scope for Sandy’s songwriting to find further stylistic expression, testing the material by casting it into new forms. Meanwhile, the artists performing at this tribute evening ensured that the songs remain vital, alive and in good voice.

1 comment:

Philip Ward said...

Jez, to pick up couple of points from the beginning and end of your very comprehensive review:

You say that only a fragment of the ‘White Dress’ video has appeared on line, “suggesting that it no longer exists in complete form”. Actually, it does exist in its entirety. The story is told in my book Sandy Denny: Reflections on Her Music (2011). I should stress that I’m not the person who uploaded the clip to YouTube.

I guess you’re reviewing the TV broadcast rather than the original concert? ‘Like An Old Fashioned Waltz’ was performed by PP Arnold on the night but was one of the casualties of TV editing. For a full setlist from the night, see the review of the concert on my own blog, which you so kindly link to from yours.