The Lady: A Tribute to Sandy Denny
24th May 2012
The venue provided a set list which was much appreciated with such an ever-changing array of musicians, with the material drawn from right across the 19-CD box set of Sandy Denny material. I’m only Lower-intermediate level on Sandy Denny so it helped!
Additions to set list:
1 No More Sad Refrains – Joan Wasser solo
2 Who Knows Where The Time Goes? – Ensemble
Corrections to band:
Jerry Donahue played lead electric guitar throughout.
As well as a couple of keyboard bits, Nigel Stonier played acoustic guitar on all Thea Gilmore’s songs.
Andy Mellon also played trumpet, though only once.
Lavinia Blackwell played keyboards in a couple, as well as providing backing vocals in many songs.
Joan Wasser accompanied two of her songs on solo piano.
Lavinia Blackwell (Trembling Bells)
Blair Dunlop (Albion Band)
Pete Flood (Bellowhead)
Green Gartside (Scritti Politti)
Benji Kirkpatrick (Bellowhead)
Andy Mellon (Bellowhead)
Ben Nicholls (Dennis Hopper Choppers)
Joan Wasser (aka Joan As Policewoman)
tour photo album here.
It’s a combination across the years. Jerry Donahue played with Sandy Denny in Fotheringay and in Fairport when she returned to them in 1975. Dave Swarbrick was in Fairport Convention with her both times. Blair Dunlop is the son of Ashley Hutchings, who was on two Fairport albums with Sandy Denny. Maddy Prior was in Steeleye Span with Hutchings, and in The Bunch with all of them. P.P. Arnold sang on a Sandy Denny album (though I don’t know which).
I’ve seen Lavinia Blackwell with Trembling Bells twice supporting The Unthanks, and Joan As Policewoman supporting Rufus Wainwright so it was ex-support acts in the deserved spotlight.
This kind of tribute show is hard to manage in two ways: physically and egos. Artistic director Andrew Batt did a perfect job, with several artists commenting on how apposite the songs he had allocated to them were. There was none of the ego competition that was (mildly) visible in the big Leonard Cohen tribute show, and this was the smoothest multi-musician show I’ve ever seen. The line up was never identical in two consectutive numbers, yet people flowed on and off the stage seamlessly and effortlessly. Each singer introduced the next. There were mics right across, and no farting around with cables or mics. The show lasted just under three hours including interval, and reviews of earlier shows talked of three and a quarter plus interval (rather too long, as the Cohen show was). They have tightened it, and at a guess from three reviews, tweaked the running order too. These sort of shows can overrun because everyone has to have a fair turn (egos). Not apparent here even for a second.
Similarly the sound was excellent, a dramatic contrast to the wildly deafening Waterboys show a few days ago. The Anvil at Basingstoke is a pleasant but cavernous modern space (celebrating its 18th birthday) and for the first two songs the echo was mildly disconcerting, but the sound crew were working and had smoothed it within ten minutes. On Basingstoke (not a town name to conjure with), two singers noted how warm the reception was. ‘Better than London’ but I bet they say that to all the churls. The band had a core from Bellowhead, but bass player Ben Nicholls is his own band, and Jerry Donahue has played with everyone and his fluid but economical lead lines lifted everything he played on. Pete Flood on drums is a highly musical drummer. Lots of variety, never too much volume, lots of accenting. One of the very best British drummers of his generation. Dave Swarbrick just did the three, and two were without the band, but as Maddy Prior said in her intro, there are fiddle players and there is Swarb.
The stage was dominated by a huge backdrop photo of Sandy Denny that stared out at us. The lighting plot was subtle. No moving spots or highlighting performers: after all with so many people and a dozen monitors on stage, you need it well lit all the time.
The concert started with Lavinia Blackwell (Trembling Bells) and Dave Swarbrick with the whole band doing A Sailor’s Life, which as it should, ended with a rollicking extended instrumental, warming everyone up. She then took Late November (from the first solo album, The North Star Grassman and The Ravens). Her voice is beautiful, and she worked all evening adding backing vocals too. In 2012, her voice is closest to Sandy Denny’s.
Green Gartside came on (and Lavinia moved to keys) to stay with the same album’s title track. Green was in Scritti Politti and his voice is light which brings a general comment. On the Cohen tributes, the women stood out better than the men, because the change of gender took away any thought of imitation of the original. On these sort of tributes, a gender switch is a positive. Throughout this show though, the five women, P.P. Arnold, Joan Wasser, Thea Gilmore, Maddy Prior and Lavinia Blackwell all shone out above any of the guys. It’s built in. P.P. Arnold and Maddy Prior are seasoned, charismatic performers with a proven track record. Thea Gilmore and Joan Wasser are both in their prime as writers and singers. Lavinia’s youngest and newest, but has the voice. They naturally have more impact than the much less well-known guys..
Thea Gilmore was part of the impetus to do the show when she made the acclaimed recent Don’t Stop Singing album, putting surviving Sandy Denny lyrics to new music. The other artists treated in the same way in the last couple of years are Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, so good company to be in. Her musical partner and husband Nigel Stonier joined her, adding forceful heavily-strummed acoustic guitar. If I can upset every Sandy Denny fan in the world, there is a signature to her melodies and arrangements. You can say the same about Elton John or Paul McCartney. Though it’s not true of every song, there is a recognizable Sandy Denny style. The joy of Thea Gilmore’s ‘posthumous collaborations’ is that the music she has set to Sandy Denny’s lyrics works with the lyric, works with Sandy Denny’s style, but brings in a fresh melodic sensibility. As a result, all four of the songs she did stood out. In the first set she did two: Glistening Bay, followed by London. London has been getting a lot of airplay recently and is a stunningly good song, and one of the outstanding moments of the evening. Lavinia and Joan joined in on this one, as did Nigel Stonier, giving the first of several powerful ensemble singing moments of the night.
Solo singer Sam Carter stepped forward from the backing band to do Bushes and Briars, very well too, but a basic solo folk club rendition.
Maddy Prior gets the ovation just by walking on, and so it should be. She explained Fotheringay’s lyrics about Mary Queen of Scots 18 years in jail, and the night before her execution. I read recently that in spite of her long incarceration and title, Mary Queen of Scots spoke not a word of English nor Gaelic (she was French) but I’m sure Sandy Denny didn’t know that when she wrote it! The instrumental section had Maddy doing her gentle, flowing dance steps, beloved of all Steeleye Span fans.
Just a little note for Sam Carter. It’s a note from someone who sees more theatre than music. When you’re standing one yard behind someone doing an emotional lyric beautifully, and you’re standing there waiting to come in on guitar, NEVER fiddle around picking up a water bottle, swigging, putting the top back on, putting it down. Very distracting and even fatal if it had been someone like Van the Man singing and he’d seen you.
Her second song was John The Gun, the song where I first thought how Sandy Denny sounded like Grace Slick. The song sounds like something from Crown of Creation with chorus from Blows Against The Empire (and we got the other singers on for the chorus). Even the soft padded drum sound of the original sounds like Airplane, but it’s the chill Snow Queen quality in Sandy’s voice that nails the comparison. It needed Jack Casady’s bass, and it could have fooled you. Maddy Prior didn’t channel Grace Slick, but the version was excellent, with Pete Flood playing the military drums.
Maddy introduced Blair Dunlop as the new generation, him being the son of Ashley Hutchings. He had two good songs, The Sea and It’ll Take A Long Time.
Joan Wasser closed the first half. Maybe it’s working with Rufus Wainwright, but as soon as she appears she has charisma, which is why she’s closing the set. She got two superb songs. By The Time It Gets Dark is one which breaks the Sandy Denny style, one which would have sat happily on (dare I say it?) an Eagles hit album. The Lady is the title of the show. The band left and she moved to solo piano, telling us how conscious she was of the weight of singing such an iconic song on such a night. Methinks ‘the lady’ doth protest too much. You’ll never hear it performed better.
At that point they took the interval. I’m informed that The Anvil, Basingstoke is the first British venue ever to get my partner’s A* rating for ladies loos. If only the directors of other venues could check and see you don’t need queues lasting the whole twenty minutes of the interval.
The second set had a good opening choice. Ben Nicholls put aside his basses, strapped on a tiny low slung banjo, stepped up front and rocked through Matty Groves. Ben only had the one song, but because he has a deep male voice, immediately had that difference that works in tributes. Nothing like the original at all, but rollicking good.
Thea Gilmore returned for an impassioned and emotional Long Time Gone from her album. The instantly memorable Don’t Stop Singing had the other women back on stage, Lavinia escorting Thea and Nigel’s five year old son, Egan Stonier, to join them on violin. A touching moment.
It introduced one of the magical highlights of the evening. The band left stage, Dave Swarbrick came on and took a seat. Lavinia Blackwell moved to the centre mic, with Thea and Maddy backing her. Three vocals and ambient violin took us into Quiet Joys of Brotherhood. It finished with a long Swarbrick violin solo.
Sam Carter then performed a fine It Suits Me well on acoustic guitar, with just Dave Swarbrick on fiddle. They combined well.
Green Gartside was back for Nothing More, then Maddy Prior, again with the women backing for Solo, noting in her intro that both she and Sandy followed the process at the same times. Go electric, then go solo. She also noted that the song wasn’t supposed to be about that though.
I’ve seen P.P. Arnold sing before. People say Sandy Denny was the best British singer of the generation. P.P. Arnold was born in America, so we’ll just say for me she was the best British-based singer of her generation. I remember seeing her in Kings Road in 1968 strolling out of a restaurant with full wig on, and thinking to myself, ‘Wow! London really is the capital of the universe …’ She’s an artist no one, however stellar, would want to follow on stage. Always incredible, and they wisely placed her last with three songs together. She did I’m A Dreamer with the band, the power of her voice lifting the rafters as usual, then Like An Old Fashioned Waltz with just piano and violin.
A couple of reviews were surprised at P.P. Arnold’s soulful presence. It’s hard to see where the surprise comes from. Sandy Denny’s original version of Take Me Away is going for just the soul feel that P.P. Arnold gives it today. Oliver Gray in Volume: A Cautionary Tale of Rock and Roll Obsession recounted interviewing Richard Thompson at a Fairport Convention university gig with Sandy Denny in the late 60s:
(They said) that if they had to compare themselves to any other bands, they would say Big Brother & The Holding Company. At the time, I was astonished. There didn’t seem to be any similarity between Sandy Denny and Janis Joplin. History was to prove, however, that there were a number of similarities, not least in their volatility and their embracing the darker side of the rock lifestyle.
P.P. Arnold said in her intro that Sandy was exploring soul and blues at the end, and Take Me Away is a perfect example of a song Janis could have sung. P.P. Arnold held centre stage and everyone joined her for it. Her version is also available as a free download on her website.
The first encore was just Joan Wasser and solo piano for No More Sad Refrains. That was inspired. It took the pace gently down from the powerful final song, the lyrics were right, and Joan Wasser was the one where I came home and thought I’ll get an album by her tomorrow. (I already have P.P. Arnold’s albums!)
No one had to guess that the second, closing encore would be an ensemble version of Who Knows Where The Time Goes? It easily achieves that Let It Be / I Shall Be Released closing song status. They did it Live Aid style, taking a couple of lines each and moving along the line of vocalists. It was anthemic rather than reflective, but the melody can take that too. A long standing ovation.
Watching the last ensemble a couple of things struck me. Joan Wasser and P.P. Arnold were next to each other and both Americans immediately fell into an assured backing singer sway. They both locked in together too, though I’m sure it was unconscious. Both have been backing singers of course. In contrast, the Brits didn’t do it … well, Maddy half did it. The other two not at all. I’m not saying they should, or one is any better, just it was noticeable how both Americans did it naturally and did it well. The other is that as ever the women had all dressed carefully … in very contrasting styles, each to their own, but trouble had been taken, and each had a strong image. I loved Joan’s split skirt and white cowboy boots look. Maddy as with Steeleye Span last year was exotic and colourful. Thea accentuated her height with slim jeans. Lavinia had the floor length pastel dress and her long straight blonde hair for a perfect English folk image, P.P. Arnold had the bright silky top, braided hair and heels. Then you look at the guys, and you think, ‘Hey, going on stage is more than picking up the nearest T-shirt / plaid shirt! To be fair, it may have been a conscious decision for the band to be lost in sombre shirts in the background. And it is folky.