With over 250 recorded songs to her name, earliest professional recordings in 1967, traditional folk songs and covers, then with The Strawbs (1967), Fairport Convention (1968 to1969) and Fotheringay (1970), followed by four solo albums (1971 to1977) and various guest appearances and collaborations, though her voice sings clearly in my head, once heard never forgotten, I am ashamed to say, until this concert, I was knowingly familiar with no more than a handful of Sandy Denny songs; those heard at Fairport gigs; one of her earliest recorded compositions ( a 1967 demo) which has become synonymous with her name, ' Who Knows Where The Time Goes' ; and otherwise obliquely, via Johnny Cash, her oh so tender version of Leonard Cohen's 'Bird On A Wire’ matching his; through love of dance music, B-Tribe's remix of eternally emotive traditional song, 'She Moves Through The Fair', leading me to Marianne Faithfull's and then Sandy's version with Fairport ; and my first encounter, ultimate accolade , duetting with Robert Plant on an all time favourite, Led Zeppelin's 'Battle of Evermore'.
That first experience of her extraordinary voice, uniquely worthy to tangle vocal chords with God of exceptionally extensible, eloquent expression, Plant, held me spellbound, should have sent me reeling to explore her oeuvre but somehow she passed me by, until now. Listening again, no one but Sandy could have had that pure passion, bravura to bare her vulnerable soul, release it so freely and responsively in song ,exquisite embrace, two like spirits, intimately enmeshed, soaring free. A life time's observation of the human condition, pleasure, pain, heartbreak, woe, introspective yet full of wonderment, intensely passionate even when despondent, emotion real , raw, all condensed into eleven brief years of sound waves captured from her mouth, trapped breath infinitely emanating into fabric of being, whispering eternal tale, immortal exhalation which time cannot touch. Sadly, it has taken passing of many earth years; 2008 was the thirtieth anniversary of Sandy's death, for her music to garner wider recognition, respect and adoration than afforded in her lifetime, with posthumous releases; retrospectives, rare and previously unreleased material, remasterings and most recently, commissioning of singer/songwriter Thea Gilmore to put music to unrecorded lyrics written by Sandy, culminating in release of ten track album, 'Don't Stop Singing', in November 2011.
Many tributes have also sought to celebrate, raise her profile, including this particular homage which developed from a 2008 tribute, in Southbank's Queen Elizabeth Hall, by same creative producer, Andrew Batt, featuring some of the same artistes. This time an eight date national tour, including Thea Gilmore's compositions as well as Sandy originals, it is heartening to hear that Sandy has received hard to come by Arts Council accolade, whose pockets were unstitched a fraction to fish out a few coins, towards costs of a truly spectacular, iconic event. So, in death, Sandy has achieved more than many a deity, the miraculous opening of tightly zipped and padlocked Arts Council trousers, who together with the efforts of Andrew, Music Beyond Mainstream and The Sage Gateshead, made this venture possible.
Speaking to one of the performers, P.P. Arnold, before the concert, (you can read our fascinating chat elsewhere on this site) and thinking about how long it has taken for Sandy Denny’s musical talent to be fully recognised, emphasised yet again, for me, how bad we are at recognising encouraging, embracing talent when it is staring us in the face. Even a lifetime of struggle and anguish, seeking for strength to believe in oneself, when faced by stereotypes and sceptics, may not be enough, can destroy life itself when pain of expression and driven passion becomes too great to comprehend or bear. In this respect, I put Sandy in the haloed company of the likes of Jim Morrison, Ian Curtis, Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake, Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday, all of whom crashed out of this continuum, slaves to the trade cutting their bonds to fly free, no doubt making unholy racket in holy places, ruinous cacophonous choir rocking gates of heaven or hell, their reverberations still shaking this island earth. Reading Sandy’s lyrics and about her life, quiver of a shiver blows chill wind of recognition across my heart, confidence in the talent she knew she had, shaken, seeking acknowledgement from a world not as sensitive as she, to listen and see beyond surface things, to recognise depth and innate artistry without ceremony, quiet whisper drowned by shout. For some, such creativity, clamours and churns, life beauteous and miraculous beguiles, entices, but like mirage threatens to dissolve, frustration and fear invades, so there is no option but to single-mindedly create, do whatever is necessary to block black clouds that always threaten rain, to go to a place where nothing else matters, normal life pushed to periphery as blurred distraction, Sandy gave of her soul, for art.
So, I come to this concert, eager to make amends for ignorance and discovered a whole new genre, precious gems glinting, glimpsed through shimmering river of life, bursting its banks, flowing free, tremulous with human emotion and pathos, uncontrived beauty shining, time illuminating its path though each song as it dripped, slipped, swift and slippery through hands of this talent lost way too young, at thirty one, already torn, tossed and tattered by storms, gripped by fate, its hand heavy on her shoulder, her unmitigated, undeniable musical conviction, lending her courage, to sing sweetly, sorrowfully into its dark face even as all hope was snuffed, and her time on this mortal coil snatched away, by mortality which both fired and tarnished the lightness of her being. Though not performed in chronological order, the songs in this homage chart Sandy's progress through her short years, the state of her heart and mind chronicled in their lyrics, some her own, others interpretations of traditional songs which she made her own. All effortlessly musical, mistress of her craft, meticulous song writing skills applied so candidly and directly to emotion, ephemeral nature of life, ultimate hopelessness of hope so honestly addressed, it hurts:
With The Strawbs (1967); 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes'- "..And I am not alone while my love is near me...I know it will be so until it's time to go...so come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again...I have no fear of time..."
With Fairport Convention (1968 to 1969); 'A Sailor's Life', 'Stranger To Himself', 'Fotheringay', 'By The Time It Gets Dark', 'Matty Groves'.- "..Yesterday is gone and will be forgotten... today is where every new day starts...got to be free as the leaves in autumn...you may be sad but it never lasts..." ('By The Time It Gets Dark')
With Fotheringay (1970); 'The Sea', 'Nothing More'. - "..My friend I know you’ve suffered...although you are still young...why was it you who’d not take help...from anyone...why can you not see reason... our lives they are not long..why can you take no time...to tell us all we’re wrong..." ('Nothing More')
From 'North Star Grassman And The Ravens' (1971); 'Late November', 'North Star Grassman', 'John The Gun'. - "...The methods of madness, the pathos and the sadness...God help you all, the insane and wise...the black and the white, the darkness of the night..I see only smoke from the chimneys arise.." ('Late November')
From 'Sandy' (1972); 'Bushes And Briars', 'It'll Take A Long Time', 'The Lady', 'It Suits Me Well', 'Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood'. - "..Oh it's like a storm at sea...and everything is lost...and, the fretful sailors...calling out their woes...as to the waves they're tossed..." ('It'll Take A Long Time')
From 'Like An Old Fashioned Waltz (1973); 'Like An Old Fashioned Waltz', 'Solo'. - "I’ve always lived in a mansion...on the other side of the moon...I’ve always kept a unicorn...and I never sing out of tune...I could tell you that the grass is really greener...on the other side of the hill...but I can’t communicate with you...and I guess I never will.." ('Solo')
From 'Rendezvous' (1977); 'I'm A Dreamer', 'Take Me Away' 'No More Sad Refrains'. - "..And when these winter days are over...I mean to set myself upon my feet...I see me as something that I have never been...pick up the pieces that will make the girl complete..." ('No More Sad Refrains')
From 'Don't Stop Singing' (2011); Thea Gilmore's music / Sandy Denny's lyrics; 'Glistening Bay', 'London', 'Long Time Gone', 'Don't Stop Singing'. - "...sun is only just arising.. yesterday’s long time gone.. he left with the sun beneath the hill will he ever come home again to me..." ('Long Time Gone')
The hall is full, as hush falls, breath suspended in absorbed attention only to be released in the interval, when speaking to some of the audience, many regular Phil goers, rather than dyed in the wool Sandy, or even folk music, fans, all have been entranced by the music, determined to find out more about a lady whose talent has reached and captivated them, more than thirty years after her death. The performers for the night, from different musical backgrounds and eras do not attempt to emulate Sandy's distinctive vocal style, each bring their own expression but have evidently been passionately united in appreciation and admiration for Sandy Denny's musicality and lyricism which touches them all in its universal expression of human soul.
From P.P. Arnold, I understand that Andrew Batt suggested songs to each performer but such are Sandy's song writing skills, every song brings connection, inspires individual interpretation beyond melodic restraints and it soon became clear that her music, apart from sharing a common western scale, transcends genres, its melodic patterns and effectiveness withstanding different emphasis and delivery. Even so, there is a palpable nervousness amongst performers, anxious to do justice to Sandy's creations. Andrew Batt, as compère, slightly self effacing despite obvious enthusiasm, was engaging, though rather reticent in naming songs which would not have been such a problem if lyrics were clearly comprehensible. Sandy's emotive lyrics being such an integral part of her songs, this was at times frustrating, though the music did take over.
Performers not at fault, though the hall has amazing acoustics, its shape and ceiling were particularly designed for orchestra, when the hall was rebuilt after being destroyed by fire in 1933. Of the many criteria favoured for classical music, one is to blend acoustic instruments, which when added to an unintentional bass coloration which the hall suffers from, due to materials used in its structure, makes it somewhat difficult to direct and manage, when multiple amplifications are involved. Solo singer and acoustic guitar shines bright, while cross talk of many amplified instruments, drums and vocals tend to get muddied, sometimes beyond easy comprehension, their focal points not so clear. Despite such distractions, it was completely enthralling to hear Sandy Denny songs in the mouths of others, especially male soloist and those such as P.P.Arnold, Joan Wasser (Joan As Police Woman) and Green Gartside (Scritti Politti), whose signature genres appear to be so far removed from English folk.
Lavinia Blackwell, from Trembling Bells, beginning the show with mystical, ethereal sound of 'A Sailor's Life', robbing young girls of their hearts’ delights, set the scene for the night, robbing our hearts, filling them with delight, Lavinia’s voice and echoing instrumental drone, weaving misty, magical atmosphere. Ships surface again or rather, sink in 'Late November', which followed, delving deep into English folk’s emotive heartland, twisting melodies spinning gold. Most spookily like Sandy in vocal timbre and range, tremulous yet clear and resonant, with extraordinary depth, Lavinia’s style, as expressed with Trembling Bells, perfect natural emulation, fair maiden, slightly wayward long blonde locks making the similarity even more striking. Dancing like wood nymph, she introduced a wonderful whimsy, sparkling thread running through the whole show, lifting it from memorial to celebration, which continued on her return with scintillating Swarbrick fiddle on 'Quiet Joys of Brotherhood', her voice, choir boy soaring crystal clear and high , harmonised by Maddy and Thea, haunting, hymn like, shivered fiddle breaking into responsive song, its only accompaniment, moment of magic which hung in the air to stunned silence, followed by rapturous applause before air was torn apart by P.P. Arnold.
Green Gartside, from sparky, tongue in cheek, post punk band, Scritti Politti ,with a very eighties sound, would seem to be unlikely cohort in this homage but taking the baton from Lavinia, once again at sea, metaphorically, desultory 'NorthStar Grassman' , heralded by maudlin violin and tolling cow bell, unexpectedly but ideally suited his slightly strangulated, yet honeyed, flexible, distinctive vocal style, seeking North Star which leads to 'Stranger to Himself', more low key, lilting, meandering, reflective, though not as exciting, still endearing, gently drifting.
‘Nothing More’, towards the end of night, brings us gently back to earth, after performances by P.P.Arnold and Maddy Prior, steeped in intensity, soaring to high heaven, he reflects, “... spare a thought for the poor soul who’s got to follow...” before delivering more introspective, yet equally emotionally draining experience, goblin voice tangled with weeping guitar.”...my tune it does not change he said... neither does your song...words I use them rarely...when I’m all alone...”, crash us down to sorrowful depths of Sandy’s soul.
Thea Gilmore, at only 33 in a different generation to Sandy but steeped in Fairport music from her father's record collection, her own music , Indie with touch of country, yet, her melodic interpretations of Sandy's unrecorded lyrics, resulting in her 2011 album, ‘Don’t Stop Singing’, seem to fit the spirit of the songs so well. Like Sandy, drawing on traditional folk melodic structures, she has, in reverence, not dared to stray too far, into territory Sandy might have trodden in exploration of musical twists and turns but her melodies are as easy and uncontrived as Sandy's, though perhaps sung in a slightly different key of life, informed by her own experience, duskier, deeper vocal register and slightly more lush instrumentation, informed by modern ears.
The four songs she sings tonight all come from this collaboration, starting with astonishingly beautiful 'Glistening Bay’, which like ‘Late November’ goes straight to core of English folk with its characteristic, lyrical, expressive musical motives, Thea’s rich, deeply emotional voice woven with violin, piano and Lavinia on backing, telling totally mesmerising tale, a classic for sure. Quipping as quirk in sound creates hiatus, halts proceedings, brings a break which lightens atmosphere, perfect introduction to 'London', completely different to preceding songs, faster moving has , dare I say it, a country feel with touch of Sixties ‘flower power’.
Retaking the stage, later in the night, to sing heartbreaking 'Long Time Gone', following deep gravel of Ben Nicholls, her clear tones once again shone like beacon through dark night, her melody wrapped perfectly round Sandy’s tear jerking lyrics, delivered in vocal of different timbre but just as emotional, couldn’t have portrayed the essence of this song better, my favourite of her set. After such emotion, 'Don't Stop Singing' is perfect antidote, sunny, hopeful, capturing an irrepressible spirit, it sweetly shines, revealing innocence and wonderment.
Sam Carter, though from folk background, again younger generation of singer/songwriter, with sparkling virtuoso guitar technique, more modern day Indie, his east London intonation brought contemporary touch to half intoned, clergy tale 'Bushes and Briars' making the story his own, emphasising its timelessness, bringing story vividly alive with expressive, instinctive voice, accompanied by guitar, meandering like beautiful lost boy, kicking sand. Returning in the second half with effervescent Swarbrick on fiddle, 'It Suits Me Well' suited Sam exceedingly well, his rakish accent perfectly portraying Jan the gypsy who travels the land, roaming, rolling through life without care, an innocent abroad, at home wherever the wind blows him, imbued with vivacity, alluring insertion of sunshine.
Maddy Prior, born in the same year, contemporary to Sandy both in years and genre, singing with Steeleye Span, I had expected her renditions to flow as easily as water but there was a certain hesitance, feeling her way into songs, though in similar genre, quite different from Steeleye, her steelier, silver tones more gleefully strident, fluttering at first like butterfly, afraid to break fragile beauty, as she said, “...a very scary affair..” However, with mischievous glint, her wonderfully life affirming side and bubbly personality, unable to resist, soon came out to play, making everyone smile as she delicately introduced story of ‘Fotheringay’, as the “... story of the night before...the event...” for Mary Queen of Scots, lyrical piano leading into most emotional , sensitive, tremulous interpretation, tugging emotion in the way only she can, every corner of melody and lyric illuminated, voice clear as bell, wound with ‘cello, capturing so clearly forlorn feeling, “..days of precious freedom... forfeited long before...to live such fruitless years...behind a guarded door...” ending with shyly reverential, deliciously cheeky, sweeping little dance, a perfect rendition. ’John The Gun’ introduced as a “...universal image of violence...” , sinister from start with violin drone, heavy tread of bass and drum, twists her voice and violin into equally illustrative tale, demonstrating her artistry and musical breadth, in tawdry tale, its minor note, as relevant today as it has ever been. Later in the night, Maddy, equally wise, ideal choice to follow impassioned P.P.Arnold with whimsical ‘Solo’, her light touch and wit airily floating this fairy tale song into ether.
Blair Dunlop, son of Ashley Hutchings, formally of Fairport, though only 20, again has a folk background, had the honour of playing at the latest Cropedy festival, organised by Fairport and has “...lived with Sandy’s music all his life...” Like Sandy, apart from his own compositions he also revisits traditional folk songs, revealing melodic structures which remain strikingly contemporary, my favourite being his version of 'Black Is The Colour ' (of my true love’s hair), almost Nirvanaesque, highlighting extraordinarily evocative musical structures which translate directly into modern idioms. Singing ‘The Sea’, his haunting, ethereal voice, with intertwined guitars, lute and double bass, captures atmosphere, expresses perfectly this mellow tale with its tantalising major to minor shifts, spiking traditional English folk with later folk , more modern musical metaphors and touch of slide guitar country, entrancing take on this song. Joined by Lavinia for, as he said “... probably my favourite Sandy Denny song...” ‘It’ll Take A Long Time’, again he has knack for adding contemporary touches, trumpet adding plaintiff, jazzy edge, which fully respects intent but bring the song to forefront of now, translated into modern tongues without losing its past.
Joan Wasser, from New York, quirky, edgy, indie rock, would not at first seem an obvious choice but has a dark, troubled, fragile edge which somehow relates to the core of Sandy’s music. Reticently but amusingly introducing ‘By The Time It Gets Dark’, as “... something I am always telling my boyfriend to do...”, dress shimmering with sparkle as bright as her guitar and the first line, “... every cloud has a silver lining ...”, her sotto voiced, emotional drawl again brings another understanding, transcribed to modern times, relevance to current day and omnipresent human concerns, shines clear in Joan’s sensitive hands. “This song scares me to death ...oh dear...” preceding ‘The Lady’ brings touching vulnerability, before sparkling again like lady of the song who “....had a golden heart...” Initially exposed, with only piano for company, smoky vocal sinks into deep, deep bass, wavering, soaring, diving into lower register, adding dark liquorice dimension to this classic, transporting it to speakeasy. Singing penultimate song, ‘No More Sad Refrains’, Joan and piano tenderly draws night to close, introspective, soulful, anguished yet hopeful, a movingly naked song which draws together threads of the night, in clear statement of prescient talent of Sandy Denny. “...golden light will wash away the dust of yesterday...”
Ben Nicholls, of his Dennis Hopper Choppers, plays rock and roll, deep and dangerous, with rumbling deliciously velvet, indigo midnight voice, setting aside his double bass, he is perfect choice for one of my favourite songs, the spine tingling, eerie ‘Matty Groves’, actually a traditional song, which Sandy made her own, with Fairport and a song which could have been made for Ben’s darkly destructive tones. Reminiscent of Chris Isaak’s, a voice to fall in love with, as it rumbles through tempestuous tale of adultery, duel, murder and wit “... but bury my lady at the top for she was of noble kin...”, accompanied by lilting gypsy fiddle and heavy footed bass. I have to admit, one of my favourite performances of the night despite reverberations disturbing clarity.
P.P.Arnold, again contemporary with Sandy, but as she told me prior to the concert, not part of Sandy’s musical scene, instead rolling like a stone with rock and roll’s hall of fame, soul queen extraordinaire, is perhaps most seemingly alien to this genre of English folk, though thinking back to her associations with the likes of Marianne Faithful and The Stones, her ear must have been well a tuned to its sensibilities. None the less, her performance was most startling of the night, taking Sandy’s music, shaking out its roots, seemingly uncomplicated but roots steeped deep in musical history and human psyche, to emphatically demonstrate versatility and universal appeal of its musical structures, grounded in tradition which has permeated all forms of western music. As P.P. Arnold says, she is always true to the melody of a song but injecting her own emphasis, her own experience, her own spirit into emotion expressed by lyrics, she really shook up the place, a small body, most diminutive on stage, brimming with soul, filled up those songs and sent them ringing into the air, like glorious church bell peals. Quiet introspection and whimsy it was not, this was a very un English interpretation, quite unlike Sandy’s own vocal but there was no artificiality, the music flowed naturally, at home in such artful, loving hands, soul and folk linked by life affirming heart. Following on from hymn like ‘Quiet Joys of Brotherhood’, Ms Arnold took Sandy’s music to another church. starting wistfully enough with ‘I’m A Dreamer’, emotion catching her throat at opening line, “...you make me nervous when I see you...I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you...”her delivery revelatory, though melodically true, it swung light on shadows which lingered in darkness, travelling this song to another continent, another place in music and emotion, where it is just as affecting, relevant. Full of soul, there was nothing forced, the music took her hand, went willingly with her to new shores, joyously sprang free, on wings of Patricia’s voice, to explore new horizons. ‘Like An Old Fashioned Waltz’ also swung and swayed soulfully, old tune dancing on fresh feet, lightly, gracefully tripping its newly learned waltz, secure in practised hands which taught it tenderly to take a new turn. Her final song, ‘Take Me Away’ took us away, impassioned gospel, soulful lilt transforming without detracting, bringing new understanding in a voice torn, drenched with emotion, tearing air asunder in joyous chant bringing people to their feet. P.P.Arnold embodiment of innate wisdom, did something remarkable, she illuminated those sparks of hope, shyly peering and brought them into sunlight. www.pparnold.com/News/-Take-Me-Away-Free-Download.html
The Band: Equally acclaimed as the vocalists, the ‘band’ artfully wielded every instrument, acoustic and electric (and some unidentified) known to folk man and woman. In addition to soloists above, who also served as instrumentalists, featuring three members of English contemporary folk band, Bellowhead; Peter Flood, Andy Mellon and Benji Kirkpatrick ; Jerry Donahue (ex Fairport and Fotheringay); Nigel Stonier (who composed for Fairport); Nick Pynn (British musician and composer); and the estimable, Dave Swarbrick, fiddler beyond compare. (ex Fairport). Awe inspiring as they swapped effortlessly between instruments, mind boggling, nimble fingered virtuoso solos interjected ecstatically, super band of epic proportions. Of course, the finale had to be ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, when everyone crowded back on stage, unified in song, sound and spirit, P.P.Arnold in centre of chain of hands, raising them in solidarity and adoration. Strangely, though there was no other choice, this rendition was my least favourite of the night, wistful, introspective, wondering nature of the song somewhat lost, as were some of the words but, any qualms were rent asunder by joy beaming from all participants, whether performers or enraptured audience. Icing on the cake of this glorious celebration, sprinkling of sparkling, floating, elfin dresses, conjuring folklore England of nymphs, fairies, magical mists and grassy glens, a concert that will remain forever stamped in my memory and hopefully encourage all who hear or read about it to explore Sandy Denny’s music.
Returning home to continue my explorations, it is a song not played tonight, 'Song 4' from Thea Gilmore's collaborative album, 'Don't Stop Singing’, which strikes the greatest chord for me, sums up heart wrenching talent of the Lady, her honesty, courage and unique ability to articulate deep pain and joy, at the core of us all, to shine her light on humanity's spirit, to illuminate the human condition:
"..I'm in such a terrible state... can't afford to live in this place...can't afford to leave...everywhere goes past so fast... I don't know what I've seen.... they push me round on wild goose chase by land, sea or sky...give me a bottle of wine...get me out of my mind...don't want to think when I close my weary eyes...think that it's the end...then...realise...I'm my own best friend...another chance at the sixpence in the pie...if I don't find it before I die ...then I just ain't going to die..." - True to her word, Sandy’s music has made her eternal.
Heartfelt thanks go to:
Jay from Prescription [who persistently pursued tour managers on our behalf]
Dave Woods from the Phil [who procured passes lost in communication and translation]
Dave Clarke, sound engineer at the Phil, [who relinquished his prized programme]
Review by Chumki Banerjee
Photographs by Melanie Smith