Song of the Day, May 13: Ampleforth / Lay Me Low by the Albion Band

AlbionLayMeLowThe Albion Band was a ever-changing group whose only constants were founder Ashley Hutchings and a mission to present the best of traditional English music. Their finest hour is their fourth album, Rise Up Like the Sun, on which Hutchings surrendered musical direction duties to John Tams so he could focus on being part of the band. The disc’s standout is a smart medley.

Ampleforth is a traditional fiddle tune that Tams and keyboard player Pete Bullock arranged over a synth line. The blend is delightful, creating a modern moment in the midst of old music. The instrumental segues into an amazing vocal arrangement.

Tams found Lay Me Low in a Shaker hymnal, intrigued by the book’s title, The Gift to Be Simple. The lyric is a repetition of the title with three short verses seeking shelter. The simplicity is elegant, and the gorgeous harmonies that Tams arranged are magical. Besides Albion regular Simon Nicol, Tams is joined by an impressive international folk chorale: Julie Covington, Pat Donaldson, Kate McGarrigle, Linda Thompson, and Richard Thompson. With fiddle and synth matching the intro and a tasty guitar solo, the whole package is amazing.

Enjoy this amazing medley today.


Song of the Day, December 9: Albion Sunrise by the Albion Country Band

AlbionBattleSunriseAshley Hutchings’ Albion Bands have had almost as many iterations as members. After forming as a backing unit for Shirley Collins, the group served as a brief support band for Steve Ashley, then a placeholder group featuring Richard Thompson while other members cleared their decks. “Albion IV” — featuring Hutchings, Martin Carthy, Sue Harris, John Kirkpatrick, Simon Nicol, and Roger Swallow — recorded the charming Battle of the Field in 1973.

Albion Sunrise is a stirring programme opener penned by Thompson for the group. It’s a smart song of welcome setting the stage for the diverse traditional tunes that follow. Carthy, Kirkpatrick, and Nicol sing the verses in turn, contributing to the sense of camaraderie. It took three years for the final product to see the light of day, but it was well worth the wait, a highlight in a set of accomplished careers.

Enjoy this modern anthem today.

Song of the Day, August 3: Murder of Maria Marten by Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band

CollinsAlbionNoRosesToday’s song is the brilliant product of the marriage of two very different folk talents. Ashley Hutchings was pursuing a passion for English traditional folk music and traditions, building on the electric folk he helped develop in Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. Shirley Collins was best known for her unadorned traditional singing over sparse, haunting arrangements by her sister Dolly. The two met, found common musical ground, fell in love, and married. They moved to the country to explore their musical interests and the result was No Roses, an ambitious new approach to electric folk inspired by Hutchings’ creativity and grounded by Collins’ stunning vocals. They worked with over 20 musical guests, using the name Albion Country Band, the first of many Albion incarnations helmed by Hutchings.

The centerpiece of the album is Murder of Maria Marten, a traditional song [Roud 215] based on the historical Red Barn murder. Collins delivers a chilling vocal, channeling the murderer, William Corder. She changes inflection subtly as she presents his perspective, has him consider the views of his victim — his lover Maria — and tells of the ghostly visits to Maria’s mother. Hutchings broke the song into sections, changing the pace to suit each one, and fades out the action with the wheels of the cart taking Corder to the gallows crunching on the gravel.

It’s one of the most inspired moments in the careers of two very talented musicians. The various Albion members provide a stirring musical backdrop, helping realize Hutchings’ vision for the song. The result is flawless and haunting.

Enjoy this dark tale today.

Album of the Week, July 26: Albion Bookends – No Roses and Rise Up Like the Sun

Ashley Hutchings is a restless spirit with a singular vision. He co-founded Fairport Convention in 1967, his distinctive bass work providing the steady pulse beneath the rapid evolution of the band. After a tragic accident nearly derailed the band, he immersed himself in research into traditional music, helping craft the band’s watershed, pioneering electric folk. Wishing to pursue that vein while his bandmates pushed to include original songs, he departed, founding another bastion of plugged-in traditional music, Steeleye Span. After three albums, he decided to pursue distinctly English folk and quit the band, retiring to the country to consider his next steps. He met established folk singer Shirley Collins, fell in love, and found his new course. The pair married and collaborated on an album that stands as a highlight in both impressive careers.

Title No Roses
Rise Up Like the Sun
Act Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band The Albion Band
Label Pegasus Harvest
Release Date October 1971 March 1978
Producer Ashley Hutchings and Sandy Robertson Joe Boyd and John Tams
Chart Peak U.S. n/c U.K. n/c U.S. n/c U.K. n/c
  1. Claudy Banks
  2. The Little Gypsy Girl
  3. Banks of the Bann
  4. Murder of Maria Marten
  5. Van Dieman’s Land
  6. Just As the Tide Was A’Flowing
  7. The White Hare
  8. Hal-An-Tow
  9. Poor Murdered Woman
  1. Ragged Heroes
  2. Poor Old Horse
  3. Afro Blue / Danse Royale
  4. Ampleforth / Lay Me Low
  5. Time to Ring Some Changes
  6. House In the Country
  7. The Primrose
  8. Gresford Disaster
  9. The Postman’s Knock [single]
  10. Pain and Paradise [single]
  11. Lay Me Low [re-mix / b-side]
  12. Rainbow Over the Hill [outtake]

Collins has an impressive musical resume. While considering a teaching career in England, she met American folk collector Alan Lomax in London. He sparked her growing interest in folk music and the pair toured the southern U.S. collecting songs. She built on that experience after returning home, recording a series of impressive thematic albums. Most were arranged by her sister, Dolly, whose ear for early music and unusual instruments set a distinctive backdrop for Shirley’s clean, pure vocals. She also recorded an album with jazz-folk guitarist Davy Graham, displaying her adventurous, collaborative spirit.

Collins and Hutchings inspired each other: their shared knowledge of traditional music, his intense desire to craft the finest modern vehicle for it, and her distinctive, straightforward singing set up a lesser-known but magnificent hallmark in English electric folk. No Roses features over two dozen performers. Hutchings’ infectious spirit and many connections helped him bring in an array of singers and musicians. Fairporters Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks play on most of the tracks; members of the Watersons and Young Tradition join in the fun, as do numerous other folk luminaries.

Claudy Banks, collected by the legendary Copper family, starts things off just right. It’s a solid declaration of purpose and a lovely song enhanced by Collins’ delivery. Over the course of the next eight tracks, mostly first-person narratives, Collins and Hutchings work with their talented friends to serve up a delightful array of songs. The Little Gypsy Girl is a wink-and-nod lark; Banks of the Bann and Just As the Tide are delightful discoveries; Van Diemen’s Land is a perfectly dark transportation ballad that they give a clever twist. On The White Hare, Lal and Mike Waterson join in, managing to craft an even finer version of the song than the one their family recorded a few years earlier. A jolly chorus of singers provide heft to Hal-An-Tow, another staple of the folk circuit that shines with special energy here.

The two highlights of the album are the murder songs — each based on real events — that close each side. Hutchings builds a powerfully theatrical version of the Murder of Maria Marten, a retelling of the famous red barn murder. Sung from the perspective of the killer, the song alternates between his straightforward narration of the harrowing events and his pleas on the way to the gallows. It’s an amazing song, demonstrating Hutchings’ singular genius and Collins’ inspired singing while the band give them everything they need. Poor Murdered Woman is a perfect closer to the album, a quietly powerful song of sympathy and grief. It’s one of Collins’ finest vocal performances and an enduring example of Hutchings’ matchless art for framing a great song.

The assembled talent on No Roses was dubbed the Albion Country Band by Hutchings. These men and women would work together in a dizzying array of formal and informal groups for decades, often at Hutchings’ behest and inspiration. He created a slightly more formal Albion Country Band for one album, pursued some fascinating side projects, renamed the group Albion Dance Band to celebrate the Morris and other traditional dances that intrigued him, recorded an album, then rethought the band again.

The group’s fourth album featured the simpler name the Albion Band. Hutchings also decided to take a less active role, gathering the talent and providing bass and vocals but not producing or arranging. For those roles, he chose long-time Fairport producer Joe Boyd and rising talent and band member John Tams respectively. Tams rose to the challenge, demonstrating his powerful musical vision and crafting an amazingly diverse but eerily cohesive song cycle. In the end, Boyd shared the production credit with him.

With nine official members and a supporting cast that rivals No Roses, Rise Up Like the Sun has a solid core and dazzling spirit. Ragged Heroes is a Tams original, a stirring calling-on song that welcomes the listener to the proceedings. Invoking “half-remembered Albion hymns”, it hints at the treasures to come while showing off a great Tams vocal. Poor Old Horse is an adapted sea shanty that Tams intended to channel a country blues vibe. It’s a great song with an amazing sing-along chorus featuring Martin Carthy, Richard & Linda Thompson, Kate McGarrigle, and many others.

The instrumental pair Afro Blue / Danse Royale fuses John Coltrane and medieval courtliness with an energetic folk-rock adhesive. Inspired and unexpected, it’s typical of this fine album. Ampleforth is an old fiddle tune that bridges the instrumental with the next vocal piece. Lay Me Low is one of the album’s highlights, a stirring Shaker hymn painstakingly adapted to fit the tone of the disc. Richard Thompson’s Time to Ring Some Changes came from a demo that Hutchings heard — Thompson himself wouldn’t record it for another decade — and brought to the party. It’s a great political song and another invocation to action. House In the Country is a touching Travellers song featuring delightful vocals by Tams and Kate McGarrigle. The Primrose is another nice instrumental, a fun combination of two variants of the song. The original album ends with the grim, majestic Gresford Disaster, a tragic mining tale intoned by guest vocalist Martin Carthy. It’s a dark, stunning closer to a powerful album.

Later releases of Rise Up Like the Sun feature four bonus tracks that enhance the listening experience and round out the picture. Postman’s Knock is a fun dance tune that Hutchings had included on an earlier Morris album, here featuring a sly Tams vocal. Pain and Paradise is another Tams adaptation, a brilliant song of optimism and effort, and a rare Albion Band single; Tams remixed Lay Me Low as its b-side. The final track is another discarded Thompson song, Rainbow Over the Hill. Sung by Linda Thompson, its hopeful spirit brings the enhanced disc to a charming close.

Most of Rise Up Like the Sun was recorded live in the studio, a daunting task for the varied sounds and large assembly. Tams and Boyd inspired the group, creating a highlight of electric folk that shines with a charmingly different light than its peers.

FURTHER LISTENING: Given the complex array of talents on these discs, let’s look at four different catalogs.

ASHLEY HUTCHINGS – The bassist, vocalist, and inspirational band leader has an amazing, complicated set of recordings, ranging from his straightforward work with Fairport to one-off gatherings for a variety of musical purposes. His finest project outside of the various bands is 1972’s Morris On, a fun dance-folk collection co-starring Richard Thompson, Barry Dransfield, Dave Mattacks, and John Kirkpatrick. Hutchings has curated a number of discs that collect his many musical projects, all bearing the title The Guv’nor. The box set of these discs is a perfect, if necessarily incomplete, overview of his career.

SHIRLEY COLLINS – Despite her long career, Collins has a fairly small catalog. Her collaboration with Davy Graham, 1967’s Folk Roots, New Routes, is an inspired blending of seemingly irreconcilable talents and helped set the stage for electric folk. The lovingly crafted themed albums she created with sister Dolly are beautiful and complex. I find the careful arrangements a bit difficult to penetrate, but the passion and brilliance behind them are clear. The best of these is Love, Death and the Lady.

THE ALBION BAND – The group’s first official album after backing Collins is Battle of the Field, an amazing disc that compares well to these two seminal recordings. The lone Albion Dance Band album, The Prospect Before Us, is a fine romp but lacks the cohesion of Hutchings’ best projects. After Rise Up, the band became a more predictable, slightly less inspired enterprise but continued to offer fine traditional and modern folk songs with a changing array of talented members.

JOHN TAMS – As the Albion Band splintered into side projects, Tams poached some of the best talent for Home Service, a group he co-founded with Bill Caddick. Their work as a band and as musical support for the National Theatre helped establish him as a force to be reckoned with and set the stage for a small but impressive solo catalog in the 21st Century. More on that another week.

Album of the Week, April 19: Liege and Lief by Fairport Convention

FapCoL&LRBHSJDIDBadgeFairport Convention had a very busy 1969. They released their brilliant second album — the first to feature vocalist Sandy Denny — in January. Singer Ian Matthews left shortly after that, not interested in the band’s musical direction. In summer they released Unhalfbricking, which featured the traditional song A Sailor’s Life, folding Denny’s interest in folk music into the mix. A van crash traumatized the band, killing drummer Martin Lamble. They regrouped, bringing in powerhouse percussionist Dave Mattacks and adding veteran folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick who had guested on Unhalfbricking. Bassist Ashley Hutchings was fascinated by traditional folk and began digging for material that would suit the band. Lead guitarist Richard Thompson was writing more of his own songs and adapted his style to fit the traditional tone of the pieces Hutchings and Denny were providing. Rounding out the sextet, stalwart rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol — who would become the single constant in decades of changing lineups — shared his bandmates’ enthusiasm. The result was a set of eight songs that adapted traditional material to the group’s solid rock foundation and added smart originals that fit in seamlessly.

Title Liege & Lief
Act Fairport Convention
Label A & M Release Date December 1969
Producer Joe Boyd
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  17
  1. Come All Ye
  2. Reynardine
  3. Matty Groves
  4. Farewell, Farewell
  5. The Deserter
  6. Medley:
    The Lark In the Morning
    Rakish Paddy
    Fox Hunter’s Jig
    Toss the Feathers
  7. Tam Lin
  8. Crazy Man Michael

Come All Ye is one of the smartest opening tracks in rock. It’s a stirring dance march, introducing the band members one by one and inviting the listner to the party. Traditional in tone and structure, the Denny/Hutchings composition shows them taking what they found in the archives and making it their own. Everyone joins in, building a stirring, joyous celebration.

Denny provides a stark, haunting vocal on the traditional Reynardine, a staple in British folk circles. She captures the dark essence of the lyrics nicely as the band provide subtle, sympathetic backing. It’s a masterpiece of dramatic restraint, showing just how much the group had grown as a unit during their busy year. Another trad standard follows, the lust / betrayal / revenge epic Matty Groves. The first half is a stirring, urgent recitation of the story, with another fine Denny vocal. After that, Swarbrick and Thompson take over, weaving electric guitar and fiddle into a frenzy of musical power. The song provides the finest example of folk rock on the disc, clearly respecting the original material while making something distinctly new.

Side one ends with the lovely Thompson original Farewell Farewell. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet track that finds him coming into his own as a writer. The band create a quiet backdrop for Denny’s poignant delivery, perfectly suited to the folk themes of the disc.

Side two opens with another traditional track, The Deserter, an ironic look at betrayal, freedom and authority. Swarbrick provides a perfect fiddle line to hold the track together while the rest of the band simmer with barely restrained tension. Denny’s vocal is stately and almost detached, a nice touch that fits the lyrics and shows off her varied sonic palette. An instrumental medley follows, a fun romp through a variety of traditional dance tunes. It’s smartly sequenced, amping up the energy while staying true to the spirit of the proceedings.

Tam Lin is another mini-epic, a traditional tale of magic and true love. While it lacks the brilliant frenzy of Matty Groves, it’s an equally important statement of folk rock, fusing the two together in a beautiful, compelling package. Swarbrick’s fiddle is much more traditional but no less compelling and Thompson shows off his virtuosity with a lead line that embellishes without dominating. Mattacks really comes into his own as well, with his drumming providing a critical element to the glorious mix. Thompson and Swarbrick collaborated on the final tune, the tragic Crazy Man Michael. Thompson wrote a lyric that fits into traditional themes of magic and lost love nicely, setting it to a traditional tune; Swarbrick thought the tune weakened the song and rose to Thompson’s challenge to write something better. The result is a fine piece of acoustic folk rock and a perfect ending to a stirring musical journey.

Fairport Convention didn’t really invent folk rock. One form was already brewing in the U.S., where the singer-songwriter tradition — already one step removed from traditional songs — was being fused to rock forms by the Byrds, Dylan and others. What Fairport did on Liege and Lief was create something distinctly British, crafting the first full outing of trad-rock. They invigorated the burgeoning traditional folk revival, stirring interest in acts that stayed truer to the original material and also provided a template for building on those traditions within a rock framework. The trail they blazed resulted in many other acts adapting original material while inspiring others to write rock songs that used traditional folk elements.

Awarded the distinction of “Most Influential Folk Album of All Time” at the 2006 BBC Radio Folk Awards, Liege and Lief was truly something old and something new. It was also the last work of a classic lineup as the headstrong, independent talents began to pull in different directions. Bringing a close to a powerful, tumultuous year, Fairport Convention proved their talent, dedication and vision and left a stunning legacy.

Song of the Day, November 18: Matty Groves by Fairport Convention

FapCoMattyToday’s song is one of the most compelling moments in the early days of the British folk rock movement. Matty Groves is a very old traditional British ballad (Roud 52, Child 91). There are references to it dating back to 1613 making it likely that it’s been around since as early as the 14th Century. It’s a classic murder story, which accounts for much of its appeal, and exists in multiple versions with the names of the players changed but the basic events surviving surprisingly intact.

The wife of a nobleman takes advantage of his absence to invite a young man (Matty Groves) to share her bed. A servant overhears their plans and runs off to warn his master. The master returns and catches the pair in flagrante, challenging Matty to a duel. After allowing the young man to dress, lending him a sword, and giving him the first strike, the master kills Matty, only to find that his wife still prefers the dead man. He kills her in a rage and orders the pair buried together, but with “my lady at the top, for she was of noble kin.”

Fairport Convention were in a period of significant transition when they took up the song. Drummer Martin Lamble had been killed in a van crash that injured the rest of the band; the brilliant Dave Mattacks came on board to replace him. Singer Ian Matthews departed, not interested in the band’s move toward traditional music. Veteran folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick joined full-time after pitching in on the second album. Vocalist Sandy Denny, bassist Ashley Hutchings, and guitarists Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol kept the push for more traditional songs, with Hutchings doing significant research before the recording sessions. Wedding that music (plus some very folky originals) to their growing rock confidence, they created the masterpiece album Liege and Lief.

Matty Groves is perhaps the finest track on the disc, a perfect merger of a beloved song with long traditions and the band’s superb chops. The rhythm section of Hutchings/Mattacks/Nicol is amazing, propelling the whole song along with a driving beat. Sandy Denny is in fine voice, a clarion call of urgency as she tells the tragic tale. Thompson, already known for his guitar pyrotechnics, found the perfect foil in the brilliant fiddling of Swarbrick. The two coil around each other, adding a sneaky, sinister groove to the track. After the story is complete, things break into a three-minute jam with Thompson and Swarb’s instrumental work rivalling Denny’s vocal delivery on the first half. It’s folk rock at its finest, establishing Fairport as a force to be reckoned with.

Enjoy this musical masterpiece today.

Song of the Day, November 29: Pain and Paradise by the Albion Band

AlbionP&)Today’s song is Pain and Paradise by the Albion Band. After co-founding and leaving Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, bassist and music historian Ashley Hutchings created the Albion Band as studio support for his wife, folk singer Shirley Collins. The band took on a life of its own and began recording. As with the other two bands, it had a fluctuating lineup; it also suffered the occasional identity crisis, known on some discs as the Albion Dance Band. Primarily focusing on traditional songs, it also featured a few modern folk compositions.

The band’s most lauded album is 1978’s Rise Up Like the Sun, featuring over a dozen band members and guests. Hutchings cedes bandleader duties to new member John Tams, a talented and well-respected singer and musician. Tams wrote this song inspired by the sea shanty Riding a Donkey. It’s a wonderful exploration of fate and fortune, pondering the role our own actions and desires have on shaping them. The lyric clearly says “pain or paradise” but the Albion version changes the conjunction to “and.” Later versions, including a remarkable cover by June Tabor and the Oyster Band, correct the title to match the lyric.

Some you lose and some you gain
You take a chance and play the game
Is it paradise or pain, when I see you smile
Fortune teller do you see
What the future holds for me?
Happiness or misery
Pain or paradise?

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, September 6: Hal-An-Tow

WatersonHalAnTowToday’s song is Hal-An-Tow, a very old traditional song (Roud #1520) associated with the various Spring greening festivals performed in England in May. It is particularly associated with the Helston Furry Dance, one of the oldest British customs still performed today. The title means “calends garland” and refers to the floral abundance of early May. As folk singer and collector A.L. Lloyd notes:

The green calendar of spring has many songs. dances and shows, particularly around the opening days of May. Here and there are clear traces of old cults and superstitions (well-dressing against droughts, etc.) but generally their original meaning is lost. So the customs are transformed into ritual spectacles, festivities, distractions, opportunities for a good time…

It’s a perfect song for the Watersons’ debut album, Frost and Fire, a celebration of the seasons.

Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbalow
We were up long before the day-o
To welcome in the summer,
To welcome in the May-o
The summer is a-coming in
And winter’s gone away-o

The-Oyster-Band-Hal-an-TowTheir version is stirring and energetic, showing off their unique family harmonies. They also included a wonderful live version on the documentary Travelling For A Living which shows just how much fun they had performing.

Many other artists have recorded the song, perhaps most famously the Oyster Band. It was their first single from the powerful album Step Outside, demonstrating their passion for traditional music and their skill at adapting the old songs to electric treatments. They use similar lyrics to those chosen by the Watersons, demonstrating the stirring power of traditional songs, no matter how they are interpreted.

Noted British traditional singer Shirley Collins also recorded a version of the song. Her first collaboration with her husband, Ashley Hutchings (of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span fame) was the splendid No Roses, featuring over 20  guest musicians under the umbrella name the Albion Country Band. On this track, Richard Thompson provides guitar and Trevor Crosier adds a quirky Jew’s harp line. Collins is in fine vocal form, ably joined by Barry Dransfield, Royston Wood, and Simon Nicol for the rousing chorus. The result is a splendid reading that fits with the experimental but loving touch given all the tracks on the album.

Song of the Day, July 18: Come All Ye by Fairport Convention

Fairport_Convention-Liege_&_Lief_(album_cover)Today’s song is Come All Ye by Fairport Convention. It appears on their seminal 1969 album Liege and Lief. After suffering the death of their drummer in a crash, the band regrouped for third album, Unhalfbricking. That disc included the traditional song A Sailor’s Life, featuring fiddle work by folk veteran Dave Swarbrick. Building on that foundation, singer Sandy Denny and bassist Ashley Hutchings convinced the band to record an album of mostly traditional tunes. The result is the first true British folk rock disc and a stunning classic. Swarb joined the band officially along with new drummer Dave Mattacks; both would prove mainstays of the highly volatile lineups.

Along with the five traditional songs are three composed by band members. Come All Ye opens the album with a traditional sound, but was written by Denny and Hutchings. It’s a joyous romp, celebrating the power of music. After welcoming the listener to the album, it introduces each band member with a stanza noting their contributions to the powerful mix. It’s a delightful track that perfectly suits the theme and tone of the album.

Come all ye rolling minstrels
And together, we will try
To rouse the spirit of the earth
And move the rolling sky

Those that dance, will start to dance
And those who don’t will stay
In time to this, our merry tune
That we play for you today

After the album was released, Denny left for a solo career and Hutchings departed to pursue more authentic traditional work by launching Steeleye Span. Their contributions to this amazing record, however, set the stage for the next four decades of beautiful Fairport music. Enjoy this grand celebration of music today.

Album of the Week, June 2: Bright Phoebus by Lal and Mike Waterson

brightphoebusThe Waterson siblings — Mike, Norma, and Lal — grew up in a musical family. They were surrounded by all kinds of songs: classical, jazz, big band, pop, and more. They also heard the traditional English songs of their native Yorkshire. In the late 50’s they toyed with forming a skiffle band, but soon dropped that idea. Joined by cousin John Harrison, they switched to a cappella versions of traditional folk songs. Their harmonies were powerful and unique and their love of the music shone through in every note. They quickly became a major force in the folk revival of the 60s. They released three albums in two years and appeared on many compilations. By 1968, tired of touring and concerned with the uncertainty of raising families on folk wages, they took a break. Norma followed a boyfriend to Montserrat where she became a DJ. Mike and Lal stayed in Yorkshire, where they discovered that each had been writing their own poems and songs while pursuing other jobs. They decided to collaborate on an album of original material; thus was Bright Phoebus: Songs by Lal & Mike Waterson born.

Title Bright Phoebus
Act Lal & Mike Waterson
Label Trailer Release Date September 1972
Producer Bill Leader
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. Rubber Band
  2. The Scarecrow
  3. Fine Horseman
  4. Winifer Odd
  5. Danny Rose
  6. Child Among the Weeds
  7. Magical Man
  8. Never the Same
  9. To Make You Stay
  10. Shady Lady
  11. Red Wine and Promises
  12. Bright Phoebus

Once they got started, they assembled a crack team of singers and musicians to join them. Norma was back in Yorkshire; her new beau and future husband Martin Carthy joined the party. Guitarist Richard Thompson contributed to most of the tracks; his former Fairport Convention bandmates Dave Mattacks and Ashley Hutchings were the rhythm section for several songs. Tim Hart and Maddy Prior (Hutchings’ and Carthy’s cohorts from their time in Steeleye Span) contributed a number of guest vocals. The all-star approach together with the unique writing of the Waterson siblings resulted in one of the finest underappreciated albums of the 70s.

Things kick off in fine fashion with Mike’s Rubber Band. Rife with wordplay and joyously energetic, it’s a rousing choral tune that rings with lovely harmonies. The full band is in place, making it clear that this isn’t a typical Watersons disc. The addition of a jaunty brass section makes the Yorkshire via New Orleans feel complete. Up next is a distinctly English song, the haunting The Scarecrow written by Lal and Mike together. Its mystical tone and agricultural setting make it seem like a part of their traditional repertoire, with Mike’s aching vocal adding to the timeless quality. It’s one of the finest songs on the album and has been covered many times. Lal’s Fine Horseman is next, keeping with the traditional feel and mystical bent. Mysterious and powerful, it’s one of Lal’s finest vocal moments.

Things shift in tone again with Winifer Odd, a character sketch of an aptly named woman. Lal writes and sings her story, in which nothing ever goes quite right. Poor Winifer is even snubbed by Death, left behind with her sad life. Up next is Mike’s Danny Rose, another fictional biography. This character is a notorious criminal, and the song reads like a 30s crime story from Chicago. It’s nicely crafted and deftly explores the public fascination with flashy ne’er-do-wells. Side one of the original LP wraps up with Child Among the Weeds, a duet between Lal and fellow folk luminary Bob Davenport. A quirky but ultimately uplifting lullaby, it presages her later work with son Oliver Knight.

The second side opens much like the first, with a full chorus number about an entertainer. Magical Man, written by Lal and Mike, is a fun look at stagecraft. Switching narrative point of view between the astounded audience and the supremely confident performer, it’s nicely crafted and delightfully sung. Never the Same is one of Lal’s darkest songs, a look at the many ways that people crush the joyous spirits of children. It’s heartbreakingly beautiful. To Make You Stay is a romantic song, a plea for a lover to remain. Lal is in especially fine voice on this track as well, backed by a simple guitar and bass figure.

The final trio of songs are different forms of celebration. Shady Lady is Mike’s entreaty to a woman to make the most of her life and not hide herself away. It’s another choral treat, with all the voices coming together to urge her to “take a chance.” Red Wine and Promises is another true standout, even in this company. Lal composed a magnificent song that June Tabor has introduced in her shows as “a song of somewhat vulgar independence.” That sums it up nicely. Sung beautifully by sister Norma, it’s a declaration of the self, wonderfully rendered.

The siblings saved the best for last with the title track. Mike credits the inspiration to a flash of sun caught out of the corner of his eye. That moment led him to write a powerful, jubilant celebration. With everyone joining in, it’s an amazing song of hope.

Ironically, the album that got the Watersons recording together again was poorly received. Fans wanted traditional, unaccompanied songs. With Martin Carthy replacing John Harrison, the quartet began providing just that, releasing a number of wonderful albums over the years. Mixed with various side projects, the family discography is impressive. Despite — or perhaps due to — its starkly different nature, Bright Phoebus remains a singularly fine element in that canon.

FURTHER LISTENING: Over the years, many tracks from Bright Phoebus have been covered by a wide variety of folk, pop, and rock acts. Scarecrow, Red Wine and Promises, and Fine Horseman have had especially robust careers. For the album’s 30th anniversary, producer and graphic artist David Suff assembled a loving tribute collection. Shining Bright features fifteen songs (including two versions of the title track) by a wide variety of friends, family and fans. They cover eight of the original album’s songs as well as six other lovely tracks written at the same time. It’s a great companion piece.


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