Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Review of the year 2008

(Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 1 December 2008. Photo: Chris Bates)

About eighteen months ago I published a post here on the topic ‘Cults and anniversaries’. My question then was whether the upcoming thirtieth anniversary of Sandy Denny’s death might be the trigger for a serious reappraisal of her work and a breakthrough to wider acceptance. Looking back over the past year, I have my answer. The tectonic plates of musical taste are definitely shifting, and to her advantage. Think how much has happened in the last nine months:

- April: tribute concert at the Troubadour Club, London, and one-hour documentary on BBC Radio 2.
- May: she makes a ghostly appearance on Jools Holland’s influential TV show in the middle of an interview with Robert Plant.
- August: tribute slot during Cropredy Festival, including a rare occurrence of Julie Fowlis singing in English.
- September: release of Fotheringay 2 after thirty-eight years in the freezer.
- November: ten-minute feature on Woman’s Hour, BBC Radio 4.
- December: tribute concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.

Add to that Robert Plant’s revival of ‘The Battle of Evermore’ on tour with Alison Krauss (introduced from the stage with due obeisance to an absent friend) and several newspaper and magazine articles, and you can’t help feeling something is astir. For me, this translates into the paradox that, whilst I personally have had a pretty bad year, culminating in bereavement in October, this long-deceased lady has had a remarkably good year, almost certainly her ‘best’ year since she passed over. All that’s required now is to keep up the momentum. Some of you may have heard rumours of a forthcoming TV series on British women musicians. Kate Bush, Dusty Springfield, Marianne Faithfull, Amy Winehouse and (so we thought) Sandy Denny. My mole on the inside tells me that Sandy has now been dropped from the series, on the grounds that she’s "not famous enough" and viewers of BBC1 (where the series will air) have “never heard of her”. It’s a shame, whichever way you look at it, as filming had already begun on the Sandy programme and this would have been a unique opportunity to place her in rightful company whilst bringing her to the widest audience.

(l-r: Lisa Knapp, Jerry Donahue, Mary Epworth, Johnny Flynn, Sam Carter, PP Arnold, Kristina Donahue, Jim Moray. Photo: Chris Bates)

Anyway, it's gratifying that both the tribute concerts this year happened in venues associated with her. While the QEH isn’t so redolent with associations as the Troubadour in Earl’s Court, it still has its place in her story. She performed there a number of times, notably twice in 1971 – at the Fotheringay ‘farewell’ concert in January, and again in September at her London ‘solo’ relaunch, an event recalled by those who were there as fairly disastrous, under-rehearsed, but redeemed at the last minute by a glorious a cappella ‘Lowlands of Holland’. Perhaps the next commemoration of this kind (and here’s hoping there will be more) should take place outside the capital, or even outside the UK? The LA Troubadour, perhaps? – another venue she knew very well. Closer to home, I notice that the the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in Belfast is holding a ‘Sandy Denny night’ on 21 January 2009. The featured artist is Linde Nijland. It must be an ‘open mic’ night as well, as the advertisement says: ‘If you would like to perform a Sandy Denny song at this event contact [the Festival director] Sean@cqaf.com.’

As I write, the January/February issue of Rock’n’Reel plops through the letterbox. It contains, I’m pleased to see, not just my own retrospective piece on Fotheringay but also a poignant end-of-year message from Sean McGhee recalling that moment, so sacred to all of us, of first encounter with Denny’s work:

‘We rarely know what lies ahead for us. Little did I suspect back then, as I listened to her wonderful voice, that one day I’d be writing an editorial such as this, Sandy having long since sung her final song. Yet we’re still listening…’

Here’s to a wonderful 2009 filled with the very best sounds! Onwards and upwards!

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

South Bank Centre tribute

The Lady : A Tribute to Sandy Denny

Monday 1 December 2008, 7.30pm, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

In the 30 years since her death, Sandy Denny has emerged as one of the UK’s greatest singer-songwriters. A unique line up of artists including former colleagues and young admirers re-interpret her songs in this very special tribute showcasing her work with Fairport Convention, Fotheringay and her solo career.

A great line up is promised (to be announced over the next few weeks) but early birds can get tickets here.

The above is from the Sandy page on MySpace, announcing the final event of anniversary year. I'm only peripherally involved in this one, but I heartily recommend it and hope to see some blog readers there. More details will appear here as I have them. Joe Boyd was complaining that tributes to Denny should be happening in the largest venues, not in little clubs like the Troubadour with a capacity of 120. I'm quite sure all 950 seats at the QEH will be sold out on 1 December, so don't delay.

Update, 11.11.08. Now confirmed to appear: Marc Almond, PP Arnold, Martin Carthy, Baby Dee, Lisa Knapp, Jim Moray, Dave Swarbrick, Jerry Donahue, Johnny Flynn, Mary Epworth, Sam Carter, Kristina Donahue and members of Bellowhead.

As I understand it, the concert is all about looking beyond the ‘Fotheringport’ family (though, of course, they will have their rightful place on the night) to find the much wider fan base she deserves. For instance, the Independent recently quoted Jamie Reynolds of Klaxons (NME Best New Band 2007, etc.) saying that Sandy would be the vocalist in his ‘fantasy’ band. Hence the welcome presence of a number of newer, younger artists who will bring in their own audiences, present her work in novel ways and take her legacy into the next generation.

Update, 28.11.2008. Jude Rogers, in her column in today's Guardian, much of it about Sandy Denny, cites this gig as evidence that 'her dark star is rising everywhere'.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Fotheringay 2

I don't usually go in for advertising on this site but I'll make an exception to draw attention to an important new release from Fledg'ling:

'Fans of Fotheringay rejoice - the nine classic performances on their debut album are soon to be joined by eleven more studio recordings. Jerry Donahue has been working for many, many months reviewing all the recordings to finally bring this remarkable project to conclusion.

After several years of careful research in dusty tape archives, the surviving members of Fotheringay have been able to complete their second album begun back in 1970. It is very, very rare that musicians get the chance to complete a project begun 38 years previously. Fotheringay 2 will be released on Fledg’ling Records on 29th September 2008.

Fotheringay remain one of the great might-have-beens of British music. They lasted less than a year, and released just one album, but their disappearance robbed the early-’70s scene of a group of musicians capable of taking folk-rock to new heights of subtlety and musicianship. Now, the nine songs on that debut album, assumed for almost four decades to be their sole testament, are joined by the eleven that would have constituted a follow-up. Sadly they broke up during the recording sessions for that second album. Incredibly all the tapes survived in various record company archives. Guest musicians include Rabbit Bundrick on keyboards and Sam Donahue (Jerry’s father) on saxophone.

Track list: John the Gun * Eppie Moray * Wild Mountain Thyme * Knights of the Road * Late November * Restless * Gypsy Davey * I Don’t Believe You * Silver Threads and Golden Needles * Bold Jack Donahue * Two Weeks Last Summer - Fledg’ling FLED 3066'

Fotheringay were: Sandy Denny, Pat Donaldson, Trevor Lucas, Gerry Conway and Jerry Donahue.

There's a sample track from the album, a wonderful vocal take on 'Wild Mountain Thyme', up at MySpace and a telephone interview with Jerry Donahue about the project at Folk Alley.

Colin Randall over at the Salut! Live website is running a competition for ‘your best or most vivid memory of Sandy, Fotheringay, Fairport with Sandy, Sandy solo, Sandy on record.’ He has three copies of Fotheringay 2 to give away for the best entries.

My review appears in the November/December issue of Rock'n'Reel. Five stars - it deserves no less.

The surviving members of the band gathered at a launch party in Huddersfield. (Below l-r) Jerry Donahue, Pat Donaldson, Gerry Conway. Photo by Martin Hair (used with permission).

In preparation for an article I was writing on the background to the new album, Gerry Conway kindly agreed to answer my questions by email. Here are some of his replies (reproduced with his permission):

PW: Fotheringay 2 - how did you feel listening to and working on this material 37/38 years on?

GC: Because of the friendships that were formed all those years ago it felt perfectly natural to carry on working on the tracks. Our rapport with each other was just as good if not better for the passing of time.

PW: How much of what we hear on the second album was recorded anew?

GC: I replaced the drums on ‘Two Weeks Last Summer’ and added some percussion. I didn’t feel that I could live with the original. I thought it would be nice to add the harmony vocals that appear on different lines. For reasons unknown there wasn’t a drum track on ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ so that was added. We tried some harmony vocals but I thought Pat sounded best duetting with Sandy. I love what he did. ‘Bold Jack Donahue’ was extended at the end so I added some tom toms to match the ones at the front of the track.

PW: What was your impression of Sandy the first time you met her? Was that in your Eclection days?

GC: Yes I was with Eclection then. I thought Sandy was very shy and very humble when we first met. She and I got on very well and I enjoyed her company very much.

PW: Did songs like ‘Nothing More’ and ‘The Sea’ already come as demos from Sandy with fixed ideas of how they should be done, or were the ideas ‘worked up’ in the studio?

GC: Sandy’s songs were usually complete when she played them to us for the first time. Arrangements and parts were arrived at in an organic way. That is to say, songs were played over and over until they sounded good. Sandy never told us what to play but you knew instinctively when she was happy with what you were doing. We mostly rehearsed at Sandy and Trevor’s place in Fulham.

PW: Who was the bandleader? From the first album you’d guess it was Sandy, as she dominates the vocals and songwriting. But the second album, with Trevor’s contribution prominent, sounds more like the equal-parts democracy that she wanted the band to be.

GC: There wasn’t a band leader as such but for my part I felt that Sandy was the teacher and I was the pupil. Trevor was very ambitious for the band and often came up with grand ideas that didn’t fly but we had a lot of fun trying.

PW: Was the Albert Hall gig with Elton John really as scary as has been suggested?

GC: Not scary just a bit daft. Pat and I had been doing sessions with him and thought he was a great singer and player. We didn’t know anything about him and certainly didn’t know that he had a full scale rock and roll show. Not the perfect opener for Fotheringay but one for the grandchildren.

PW: Nick Drake toured briefly with you. Any memories?

GC: I don’t remember the tour unfortunately, only being in the studio with him once at Sound Techniques but I don’t think the tapes survived.

PW: The only archive film of Fotheringay is from German TV Beat Club. The band looks very relaxed. Do you remember that session?

GC: We would have been doing European dates at the time and probably dropped in to record it very quickly between gigs. When I first saw it I was shocked to see how young we all looked. It’s very nice to have though.

PW: The farewell gig in 1971 must have been emotional? I’d love to have heard Sandy’s take on ‘Let It Be’: was that solo at the piano?

GC: To be honest I’m not sure but we probably would have played along with her having found ‘ourselves in times of trouble’.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Troubadour anniversary tribute

Onstage at the Troubadour, 1962: Ethan Signer, Martin Carthy, Richard FariƱa, Bob Dylan, Eric von Schmidt. Photo by Alison Chapman McLean.
Onstage at the Troubadour, 2007: Beth Rowley, photo courtesy of http://www.stevelawson.net/

Sandy Denny: an anniversary tribute

On the eve of the thirtieth anniversary of her death, in one of the clubs where she made her name, a celebration of the legendary singer-songwriter in words and music.

News of an event I am co-organising at The Troubadour Club, London, on Sunday 20th April 2008: http://www.troubadour.co.uk/programme_view.php?view%5Btype%5D=programme&view%5Bid%5D=1488

With Linda Thompson, Joe Boyd, Martin Carthy, Linde Nijland, Lisa Knapp, Kamila Thompson, Karl Dallas and Vikki Clayton.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

'Please take it off!'

An amusing feature of the dear old Melody Maker was ‘Blind Date’. Hip cats were given a pile of the week’s new releases (or 'sounds') to listen to and asked to pass judgement, without being told what they were listening to. Sandy Denny submitted to this upmarket Juke Box Jury in February 1970. Johnny Cash and June Carter proved too much for her.

(Click on the picture to enlarge)