The other day the estimable Jonathan Calder over at Liberal England drew attention to the Homage to Sandy Denny that’s currently touring the UK, and posed the question as to whether she really was Britain’s greatest singer songwriter. Last night, I took myself off to the Barbican to find out…
Sandy has certainly always been difficult to pigeonhole, not that that has ever stopped people. Her early work with Strawbs and Fairport put her quite neatly into the folk category, but I think that to see her as a purveyor of folk whimsy would be to do her a great disservice. Nowadays, she is frighteningly forgotten. I don’t mean by the trad folk denizens of the Whitby or Sidmouth folk festivals, who still recognise her even though she had arguably outgrown them even before she joined Fairport Convention, or even by the attendees of the latter’s annual Cropredy Festival. Mr Calder is absolutely right when he contrasts Sandy with Nick Drake – once united in their relative obscurity and unacknowledged genius, he has gone on to TV background music ubiquity, while poor old Sandy, outside the cognoscenti, continues to languish.
The current tour is a restaging of a one-off show put together for the 30th anniversary of her death in 2008, and features a host of Sandy’s contemporaries, along with the best of a new generation of folkies. Well, I say folkies, but it is still as you would expect drawn largely from the compromised electro-folk end of the scale, rather than the new-trad exponents like say the Young ‘Uns. A quite extraordinary line-up has been assembled including Joan Wasser (Joan As Policewoman), Lavinia Blackwall from Trembling Bells, Thea Gilmore, and Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside, coupled to PP Arnold, most of Bellowhead and three people who actually knew Sandy well – Maddy Prior, Jerry Donahue and the legend that is Dave Swarbrick.
Before we get on to the meat of the show, a quick word about Swarb. He’s announced his retirement in the near future, and to see him now is rather akin to seeing say Barry Cryer performing with I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue – worth going a very great distance to be in on it.
The material spans the whole of Sandy’s career from the earliest days, through Fairport to the tragically short-lived Fotheringay, out the other side with the North Star Grassman and the Ravens album which was salvaged from the ruins of that band’s projected second album, and then onto the solo work which saw her increasingly spread her wings and move beyond folk through the course of the seventies.
Inevitably, some of the performances were stronger than others – Lavinia Blackwall stands out as perhaps the most Sandy-like of the cast, and her interpretation of A Sailor’s Life (accompanied by Swarb) was a great intro. She then moved on to a perfect rendition of the eerily bleak Late November, a song whose lyrics sound traumatic enough before you know what the subject being obliquely treated is…. I did feel though that the evening was weirdly stop-start, and a lot of the enjoyment depended on sympathy or otherwise with the person who happened to be singing at the time. I thought Green Gartside’s highly distinctive voice just about got through The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, but he murdered Nothing More. I don’t think there’s anything he could have done differently, and it’s a shame because between songs he came across as possibly the most genuine fan, but it just wasn’t for me.
Thea Gilmore ran through a few numbers from last year’s Don’t Stop Singing, which confirmed Sandy’s status as a lyricist of the first rank I think, but the night seemed on surer ground when it was going through the back issues of the sandy songbook. Maddy Prior got going with a slightly halting version of Fotheringay which had me fearing she had some sort of throat infection, but as her vocal chords warmed up over the evening she was on her usual transcendent form with a storming rendition of John the Gun – a track crying out for its own horror film.
My personal highlight of the evening was when Maddy, Thea and Lavinia combined with Swarb for a rendition of The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood so perfect that any record label with half a brain will get it released sooner rather than later – it really was joyous.
The male side of things was less satisfactory, I think because you just don’t associate Sandy’s songs with anything much below an alto. Having said that, the Dennis Hopper Choppers’Ben Nicholls pulled off a wonderful interpretation of Matty Groves (although I suppose, strictly speaking, that’s “trad. Arr.” In any case). Blair Dunlop got through a competent take on It’ll Be A Long Time, but other than that, nothing else really stuck in my mind.
Joan Wasser, on the other hand, was a revelation. She;s another one that really ought to get something from the night released because that woman was born to sing The Lady. PP Arnold was extremely nervous, and had to start I’m A Dreamer three times before getting beyond the first verse, once she’d got over the hump though she was as good as you would expect. Incidentally, for all Arnold’s fans namecheck her work with Nick Drake, Roger Waters and Ike and Tina Turner, I bet I was the only one there last night who first saw her onstage with Ocean Colour Scene at the NEC in 1998….
Last night in many ways was an opportunity to sit down and really put Sandy in context across the output of her career. Consequently, it was possible to see how much she progressed as a writer, and experimented with different genres, whilst all the time managing to pull off the difficult trick of being life affirming whilst being very red wine at three am ( at trait she shares with early Barclay James Harvest in that respect).
I suspect globe spanning fame will continue to elude her for a while yet, although if enough of us keep the flame it can only be a matter of time. Personally I think it went a long way towards answering the question posed on Liberal England at the beginning of the week:
“Up to a point, Lord Bonkers”