FOLK – PROG WIZARDS The Strawbs

 

As a pair of BBC session sets demonstrates, whether in acoustic or electric mode, Dave Cousins & Co. were – are! – Britain’s
premiere musical gymnasts.

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

One of the
criminally-overlooked British bands of the 1970s, Strawbs successfully welded
folk roots to the era’s sturdy progressive rock framework in the creation of
some of the decade’s most exciting and adventurous music. Originally known as
the Strawberry Hill Boys, the bluegrass-oriented trio rode the England’s
infatuation with American roots music to a modicum of notoriety during the late
1960s. The band shortened its name to just ‘Strawbs’ when they made the
decision to pursue a wider sound with original material (instead of folk
standards), while a brief flirtation with legendary vocalist Sandy Denny
resulted in a single album that would remain unreleased until 1975, Denny later
leaving the band to join Fairport Convention.

 

While
frontman Dave Cousins has been the Strawbs’ primary singer and songwriter
throughout the band’s history, he benefited greatly by being the ringleader of
a revolving-door circus of various musical talents that have contributed
greatly to the band’s sound and legacy. Between the time of Strawbs’ self-titled
1969 debut and 1978’s Deadlines,
after which Cousins effectively retired from the business, the band featured
the efforts of such skilled members as a pre-Yes Rick Wakeman; guitarists Tony
Hooper and Dave Lambert (Fire); keyboardists Blue Weaver (Mott the Hoople) and
John Hawken (Renaissance); bassists John Ford (Hudson-Ford) and Chas Cronk
(Steve Hackett); and drummers Richard Hudson (Hudson-Ford) and Rod Coombes
(Stealer’s Wheel). Together, in various line-ups, Strawbs spun off a handful of
U.K. chart hits and a dozen acclaimed albums.

 

Prompted
by the generous reception garnered by a Strawbs’ 30th anniversary reunion show
in London during the summer of 1998 – an event which gathered almost every
former member of the band for a raucous party – Cousins put the band back together
again when retiring in 2000 after 20 years as a radio executive. In the decade
since, various permutations of Strawbs have toured Europe, the U.S. and Canada,
‘Acoustic Strawbs’ (pictured above) performing, well, acoustic versions of
the band’s old material while ‘Electric Strawbs’ plays amplified arrangements of
this classic material. This 21st century Strawbs is nearly as prolific as the
original outfit, releasing better than a half-dozen live and studio albums this
decade, both revisiting old songs and spinning new tales on albums like 2008’s The Broken Hearted Bride and 2009’s Dancing To The Devil’s Beat.

 

From their
first appearance on the BBC as the Strawberry Hill Boys in 1963, through their
early history as Strawbs, the band frequently graced the British radio giant’s
airwaves. Universal Music, working with Cousins and the BBC, has compiled a
number of the band’s BBC performances onto two albums – Live At The BBC: Volume One, In Session is a single-disc collection
of performances on such BBC programs as Top
Gear
and Sounds of the Seventies circa 1968 to 1973; Live At The BBC:
Volume Two, In Concert
is a two-disc set featuring three complete concerts
broadcast by the BBC in 1971, 1973, and 1974, representing three distinctively
different eras of the bands.

 

Live At The BBC: Volume One, In Session offers up nineteen
studio performances by various permutations of the band, the earliest version
of Strawbs from December 1968, three songs that display the roots of Dave
Cousins’ transformation from folkie to a full-fledged rock songwriter with
folkish tendencies. While the performance of “The Battle” is chilling
in its sparse simplicity, the song is wordy and too dirge-like. With a lively
intro from an anonymous BBC Top Gear announcer, “Poor Jimmy Wilson” is much more entertaining, the song’s
energetic arrangement and odd meter providing a strong showcase for Cousins’
vocal gymnastics. Accompanied by lovely strummed guitar, the story-song shows
early on the songwriter’s charisma and talent. While “That Which Was Once
Mine” is lush and aurally enchanting, the performance itself is too little,
bereft of the spark that fuels the best Strawbs material.

 

A year
later, the line-up of Cousins, guitarist Tony Hooper, and bassist Ron Chesterman
appeared on Peter Sarstedt’s show to knock out performances of “Another
Day” and “We’ll Meet Again Sometime.” The former is a textured
bit of engaging baroque pop with welcome flourishes from Clare Deniz’s cello
and shared vocals, while the latter is one of the best from Cousins’
considerable songbook, a forceful example of psyche-pop with Hooper taking lead
vocals and Cousins providing backing harmonies. An outtake from the band’s
sophomore album Dragonfly, the song’s
bittersweet lyrics and passionate performance have made it a long-time fan
favorite.

 

The
addition of drummer Richard Hudson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman, as well as a
replacement in bassist in John Ford, would forever alter the Strawbs’ sound.
Writing with the potential of the expanded band in mind, Cousins would begin
exploring progressive rock musical themes beneath his fully-realized lyrics.
While the 1970 performance of “Song of a Sad Little Girl” displays
much of the magic of the band’s folk roots, the addition of Wakeman’s rich piano
tones fleshes out the guitar-driven arrangement. A 1971 performance of
“The Hangman And The Papist,” one of the most over-the-top of
Cousins’ lyrics, is from the Sound of the
Seventies
program and clearly foreshadows the prog-daze to come in the U.K.
Cousins’ emotional vocals are used as a valuable instrument in their own right,
while Wakeman’s keyboards provide context and texture. The song is altogether
somber, given its subject matter, and comes close to being overwrought in its
fiery passion.

 

By late
1971, Cousins and Strawbs had reached an artistic peak that would result in
nine albums over the following seven years. This productive and moderately
successful period of the band’s existence is kicked off with dynamic 1971
performances of a pair of songs from the Strawbs’ upcoming 1972 disc Grave New World, their fifth album and
that which would bring them to America’s
attention, cracking the Top 200 albums chart. “Benedictus” is another
dirge-like song, albeit a much more intellectually-challenging one than
“The Battle.” Cousins’ almost-chanted vocals are laid atop guitar,
bass, and dulcimer and complimented by gorgeous piano flourishes by Blue Weaver
(replacing Wakeman, who had departed for Yes). The haunting “New
World” is a Dylanesque bit of social commentary featuring one of Cousins’
most chilling vocal turns and a darkly beautiful and altogether prog
instrumental backdrop that creates a stark atmosphere for Cousins’ apocalyptic
lyrics.

 

From here,
it was off to the races, the band’s progressive sound influenced by a creative
tension made by the interplay between Cousins, Weaver, Ford, and Hudson – all
talented musicians and songwriters mixing folk, rock, and pop in the
development of a totally unique musical style. The gang-written
“Tomorrow” is a tense, chaotic, hard-rocking ditty with raging
guitars, explosive drumbeats, and enough keyboard hyperbole to make Keith
Emerson blush in embarrassment. Ford’s “Heavy Disguise” was a hit for
the band, his radio-ready vocals fronting a lively guitar stroll, his
intelligent lyrics crossing folk with pop and dancing all the way to the cash
register. A 1972 performance of “New World,” the only duplication in
songs on this collection, varies from the previous year’s performance only in
that a slightly sparser arrangement drives home Cousins’ powerful vocals and
lyrics.

 

Strawbs
would upend again by early 1973, founding member Tony Hooper departing over the
band’s increasingly rock-oriented sound. He would be replaced by guitarist Dave
Lambert of Fire, a Pete Townshend disciple who, honestly, would add a
much-needed caustic edge to both Cousins’ folkish tendencies and the
thinly-disguised pop chart aspirations of Ford and Hudson. Live At The BBC: Volume One, In Session offers up a trio of
performances from this 1973 incarnation of the band, including what would
become, perhaps, Strawbs’ biggest hit in “Part Of The Union.” The
John Ford composition from Bursting At
The Seams
was part novelty song and part solidarity with the band’s working
class fans, the sort of old folkie British work song with cheesy pub piano and
chanted sledgehammer lyrics that the punters eat up, Ford providing a bit of
modern pop sheen to the affair.

 

Live At The BBC: Volume Two, In Concert opens with the 1971
incarnation of the band, the first true rock ‘n’ roll line-up featuring
Cousins, Hooper, Wakeman, Ford, and Hudson. The eleven-song performance from
the Paris Theatre in London shows the band’s enormous onstage dynamic and
charisma. The set opens with “The Hangman And The Papist,” the song fleshed
out with gorgeous instrumentation that creates an appropriately dark ambiance
for Cousins’ judgmental lyrics and powerful vocals. One of the most underrated
tunes in the Strawbs’ canon, “Martin Luther King’s Dream” was one of
John Bonham’s favorite songs, which would later lead to an advantageous
relationship between the band and Led Zeppelin. Here, the song is rightfully
delivered as a remnant of the band’s folk roots, with fine vocal harmonies and
a few tasteful keyboard flourishes.

 

Much of
the rest of this 1971 performance finds the band straddling the fence between
lilting melodic folk (“A Glimpse of Heaven,” “The Shepherd’s
Song”) and an awkward, forward-leaning rock sound (“The Flower and
the Young Man,” “Sheep”). The haunting “Witchwood,”
which would become one of the band’s signature songs as well as the name of its
independent record label, offers up plenty of arcane atmosphere with exotic
acoustic fretwork and sparse keyboards behind Cousins’ enchanting vocals. Wakeman’s
classically-oriented piano and keyboards are evident throughout these
performances, adding a bit of shading and energy to the guitar-driven verses.
The bluegrass romp “When You Wore A Tulip” harkens back to the
Strawberry Hill Boys with Cousins’ lively banjo plucking.  

 

An eleven-song
1973 Strawbs performance, also from the Paris Theatre in London, is by necessity split between the two
discs on Live At The BBC: Volume Two, In Concert,
but it doesn’t really detract from your listening enjoyment. The five songs on
the first CD include such heavy-hitting live faves as “New World” and
“Benedictus,” so the time spent changing the CDs (for those of us
without a carousel-styled player) provides a welcome respite from the band’s
high-energy performances. This version of Strawbs includes guitarist Lambert
and keyboardist Weaver in addition to Cousins, Ford, and Hudson, and they rock
like crazy on these live tracks.

 

Lambert’s
shimmering guitar provides a fine backdrop for Cousins’ aching vocals on
“New World,” a song partially inspired by unrest and violence in
Northern Ireland while “Story Down” offers a bit of drowsy,
twang-guitar and a countryish sound not unlike Brinsley Schwarz if not for
Cousins’ strident, rough-hewn vocals. The stately, extravagant “Benedictus”
was tailor-made for Blue Weaver’s elegant keyboard accompaniment, Cousins’
droning vocals creating a simply mesmerizing ambiance that is supported by a
veritable wall of menacing sound.

 

Jumping
into disc two of Live At The BBC: Volume Two,
In Concert
, and the continuation of the 1973 show, Ford’s “Heavy
Disguise” opens with its spry guitar-strum and hook-laden arrangement.
Ford’s vocals are distinctly different than Cousins’, warmer and more
radio-friendly, which probably led to the song’s chart success. Lambert’s “Bovver
Blues” is a rare novelty tune from the Strawbs’ catalog, with an affected,
exaggerated accent and working class hooligan lyrics. Another Lambert composition,
“The Winter and the Summer,” fares better, the song’s psych-pop roots
made substantial by baroque keyboard washes, jagged shots of guitar, and
Lambert’s wan vocals. The crowd favorite “Part of the Union” is
played for all it’s worth here, with a gang-chanted chorus, big martial
instrumentation, and audience-pleasing lyrics. Another of Strawbs’ best songs,
“Lay Down” closes the set with Cousins’ infectious vocals, clashing
guitarplay, forceful drumming, and a chorus that easily reels in the listener.

 

Live At The BBC: Volume Two, In Concert closes with a nine-song
performance from 1974, the newly revamped band line-up featuring Cousins and
Lambert along with newcomers John Hawken, Chas Cronk, and Rod Coombes –
considered by many to be the “classic Strawbs” roster, and that which
recorded Hero and Heroine, the band’s
highest-charting U.S. effort. There are a few duplications with the previous
shows, most notably high-octane versions of “New World,” “Lay
Down,” and “The River/Down By The Sea,” but there are also a
number of unique and striking performances here as well, many from Hero and Heroine. The Cousins/Hawken
co-write “Autumn” is a primo slice of prog-rock pedagoguery with Cousins’
filigree acoustic guitar playing at cross purposes with Lambert’s chiming
electric fretwork, Hawken’s imaginative keys supported by a subtle rhythmic
framework, and Cousins’ whimsical vocals sitting comfortably between the
instrumentation.

 

Lambert’s
reckless “Just Love” evinces a rockabilly heart within its proggish
soundtrack, Coombes hitting the cymbals particularly hard with a jazzlike
flair, assisted by his snare brushwork, Lambert’s rollicking vocals matched by
his nuanced guitarplay. Two side-by-side tracks from Hero and Heroine are mashed together here into a single inspired
performance; “Out In The Cold” is provided sharp, country-tinged
guitar and a bare-bones arrangement on top of which Cousins’ lays down his
emotional vocals. “Round and Round,” another Strawbs hit, reminds of
the cyclical nature of life with another contagious chorus and daunting
orchestral instrumentation that nevertheless manages to fuse pop and prog-rock
into a friendly performance. “Hero and Heroine,” the song, is a
larger-than-life epic full of fast-paced vocals, cascades of innovative
fretwork, swells of keyboards and drums, and oddly-phrased, albeit intriguing
fantastical lyrics.   

 

These two
volumes of Strawbs material from the BBC are more than a mere collector’s dream
come true, the albums also providing a valuable look into the band’s music from
another angle, resulting in great insight into the performance ethic and
artistry of Cousins and crew. There are surprisingly few duplicated songs,
considering that there are 50 tracks spread across the three CDs, a testimony
to the deep and satisfying well of Strawbs’ material. Bottom line: if you’re
already a long-time Strawbs fan, you’re gonna want to track these two albums
down and add them to your collection.  As
for the newcomer, while somewhat daunting, either of these two volumes would
make for a great introduction to this too-often overlooked band. Don’t let the
“prog rock” label put you off, because this is honest, creative, and
imaginative rock music made by one of the best bands of the 1970s.

 

        

Additional Strawbs reading at BLURT:

 

Sandy Denny & The Strawbs – All Our Own Work

 

The Broken Hearted Bride

 

Dancing to the Devil’s Beat

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