Barbican Hall, London, May 23 2012
Sometimes the irony isn’t lost on me. Sandy Denny, musical genius, singer, songwriter, drinker and partier extraordinaire, was never the most reliable of people, and often turned up late for engagements, leaving friends and colleagues wondering where the bloody hell she’d got to- and true to form, due to various complications including a sick cat and my plus 1 insisting on drinking a can of lager outside before going in, I arrive some 20 minutes late for the start of this show, meaning I miss my good friend Lavinia Blackwall’s renditions of 'A Sailor’s Life' and 'Late November' - the two things I was looking forward to most, and had pictured in my head right from the start.
The fact that I only find out this information during the interval means my initial enjoyment remains unhampered, but even so, I can’t help wondering, with the exception of Thea Gilmore, Maddy Prior and the stunning Joan “As Policewoman” Wasser (flanked by the shadowy figure of ex Fairport ‘n’ Fotheringay man Jerry Donahue, holding it all together from the rear) who the bloody hell all these people are, as much as the predominantly fiftysomething audience -the so-called fans who bought all those acid-folk comps seven odd years ago having voted with their feet by staying firmly away- are probably wondering who everyone is. Not that I have anything against new artists breaking through in the folk (or for that matter, indie) field, but Sam Carter? Blair Dunlop? New ones on me mate, although they’re both bloody good, particularly Dunlop, who tackles 'The Sea' with a haunting fragility and purity one wouldn’t normally expect from a male vocalist.
From Thea Gilmore’s recently released album of previously unfinished Denny songs, Don’t Stop Singing, come two widely contrasting tunes 'Glistening Bay' and 'London', the latter that rarest of beasts, a paean to the capital written by one actually born and raised in it, as opposed to the romanticised vision of the outsider: its cheery nature contrasts with much of Denny’s other work, but again, these are written the way Gilmore believed they may have sounded, and had their lyricist had ever deemed them any different, it is almost impossible that we would ever know. Ah, there’s Blackwall on backing vocals. “When’s she coming on to do her main bit?” I foolishly wonder…
Yet the more one watches Gilmore it becomes apparent that she was born to assume the more commercial end of Sandy’s mantle (Blackwall already having claimed the ‘fantasy folk’ side of things) and is the perfect woman for the job: while nowhere near as neurotic or troubled as her mentor, and altogether more positive in outlook (something she is keen to point out) she shares that inner frailty so particular to any artist who sings truly from the heart. This description is also more than apt in the case of lovely Joan, a figure of sheer smouldering sexuality in platforms and gold bricade who manages to highlight dormant qualities hitherto unsuspected in Sandy’s music by delivering jazzy, almost torch-like variations on 'The Lady' and 'No More Sad Refrains' that slay the senses.
Prior, always the most plaintive, uninflected and hymnal of the UK’s first wave of female folk rockers, is perfectly suited to both the tender 'Fotheringay' and the martial, ominous 'John The Gun', its military beats gaining in force with each chorus but sadly not so much to 'Solo'. Sure, her reworking of Sandy’s words does paint an interesting picture of their original author from an outsider’s perspective, but she also fluffs them halfway through in full comedy fashion and has to start again from scratch. Still, at least with Maddy you get someone who fully understands, unlike bassist Ben Nicholls, whose sub-Waits/Cave (never a winning combination anyway unless you live in Camden and wear silly hats) gruntings on 'Matty Groves' do nothing for the song’s legend either as a traditional murder ballad or a Fairport track. They should have put him on first whilst I was stuck outside with Plus One downing Okocim Warzone. I do wonder briefly if my disdain for his performance is largely due to having found out in the break what I’ve missed, but on later reflection, I have to concede that no, he really is just a bit pants. Thankfully, Gilmore’s back with the one and only Dave Swarbrick, now fully re-lunged, de-wheelchaired and literally as fit as a fiddle, for 'Don’t Stop Singing' itself, followed by a returning Blackwall for the evening’s other highlight, a semi-acapella 'Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood' set to flurries of cascading, tumbling violin, so any such unwelcome spectres are soon banished to their whiskey-sodden waterhole. Swarb also remains stagebound for the return of Sam Carter, whose rollicking uptempo delivery of 'It Suits Me Well' really shouldn’t work, but somehow does.
A young-looking, slim man clad in the Islington gastro denim garb of the thirtysomething indie kid, replete with Midlake beard, steps up to the mike, guitar in hand, and precedes a fine rendition of 'Nothing More' by telling the audience how the release of Liege And Lief and the Island sampler Nice Enough To Eat in 1969 when he was 14 years old changed his life: “who is this lying git”, I muse, thinking he looks at least 5 years younger than me, before the reintroduction of the band at the end of the show throws the awful truth at me. Oh my God, it’s Green Gartside!! Of Scritti Politti. And he really is in his mid-50s. Can this really be the same bloke who spent the mid-80s poncing about the TOTP studio in a lycra jumpsuit singing homages to Aretha Franklin? Apparently so, and I tell you, whatever diet he’s on, I’m going on it. He looks and sounds fucking incredible. And he must be chuffed to know that while Aretha herself is conspicuous by her absence, we do have the next best thing here tonight - the final and most special guest of all in the shape of PP Arnold, looking and sounding every inch as spectacular as she had in 1969 when, whilst not necessarily listening to Sandy, she was definitely to be found in the same bars.
“I’m not sure I’ll fit in here”, she declares, “I’m a soul singer”, and true enough, it takes three cracks at 'I’m A Dreamer' for her to overcome a massive rush of nerves, to the point where Prior and Gilmore rush to her aid, but once she nails it, she nails it, effortless renditions of 'Like An Old Fashioned Waltz' and 'Take Me Away' completing a quite mesmerising triumvirate. Following a sublime second dose of Joan, only one song could possibly be left - Denny’s anthem, the ever-apposite 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes' shared by the full ensemble cast, the features of its flame-haired author smiling benignly upon us from a giant floral and now fully-lit psychedelic backdrop. And truly, who knew where it had gone? Such a full evening’s entertainment had never passed so quickly.
In an ideal world, of course, the running order would have been different (grrr) there could have been more time devoted to explaining the significance of the different songs in relation to which part of their writer’s turbulent life they originated from, there would have been at least one Strawb onstage (they must have been in the States). Thommo and Iain Matthews would have turned up, someone might have had a crack at “Dark The Night” “Next Time Around” or “One More Chance” (OK, I later discovered I’d also missed Gartside’s cover of “Stranger To Himself” from the same album, but, to paraphrase Crispian Mills, Jerry was there, so it seems a shame not to have taken full advantage of him) and you might have even got Kate Bush doing “Whispering Grass”. Then again, in an ideal world, Sandy Denny would still be alive and well, touring and celebrating her 65th birthday with us- but if life is generally far from satisfactory, evenings like this go someway to compensating for it- and I still think she would have found tonight’s revelries a befitting- if at times confusing- tribute, maybe even because of the confusion. A fine time, then, for Crazy Men and Crazy Ladies of all persuasions.
Darius Drewe Shimon