Steve Ashley – Nights of Fire and Wine

steve_ashley-stroll_onIn 1974, Steve Ashley released what remains one of the key albums in the entire history of English Folk Rock, Stroll On.  Forty years on, as the notoriously unhurried singer-songwriter contemplates his next album, his eighth, he is also celebrating the publication of the book Fire and Wine: The Armchair Guide to Steve Ashley.  A career biography, Fire and Wine (named for one of his best-known songs) traces his music from the earliest days in the folk clubs, through to his current status among the undisputed legends of British song.  

 In this exclusive excerpt, Steve recalls his days with Ashley Hutchings’ Albion Country Band.

 Ex-Fairport Convention, Ashley Hutchings became ex-Steeleye Span in November 1971.  A sizable royalty cheque had just been delivered, and after years of wanting to play more English music, more traditional music, than either of his past bands had allowed, finally he had the means.

Shirley Collins’s latest album, No Roses, was first out of the traps, swiftly followed by the sprawling madness of the Morris On project.  But he was also toying with an electric folk set-up, to be grandly named the Albion Country Band.

Originally convened for the No Roses sessions, but with fluidity the watch word when it came to recruitment, the band initially stepped out around an axis of Hutchings, Collins, Richard Thompson and Royston Wood, the Young Tradition mainstay who had recently been working with Steve on the long-germinating, but nowhere close to complete sessions for his projected debut album.

Thompson soon drifted away again, recording his Henry the Human Fly debut album, but the group was solidifying.  Steve recalls, “Royston told me that the new band he was forming with Ashley Hutchings would probably like to do a couple of my songs.  Then, a while later, Ashley called me himself and invited me to join the band for a rehearsal/try out.”

Steve duly caught the train up to the band’s base at Simon Nicol’s home in rural Thrapston, Northamptonshire, travelling with another of the aspiring hopefuls being auditioned that day, meloeon player Doug Sherriff.  Both would be given half an hour to show the band what they could do, then they retired to play table-tennis while the musicians conferred.  By the time they were called back into the room for Ashley to deliver his decision, the pair had half-jokingly decided to form a band of their own!

It was Steve’s songwriting abilities that swung the decision in his favour—a circumstance that would feel strangely ironic given the manner in which things panned out.  We are all, today, familiar with the notion of a football team buying a player, then leaving him on the sub;s bench all season; of a label signing a band on the strength of their success in one genre, then forcing them to change to another.  Steve was brought into the Albions as a songwriter, then found his writing sidelined as Hutchings instead ploughed all the band’s energies into traditional (and largely instrumental) music.

That, however, was a drama still to unfold.  For now, it was enough that what Karl Dallas would describe as “the first and most interesting” version of the Albions was finally complete; joining Steve and Hutchings were American violinist, Sue Draheim and Fairport’s own Simon Nicol and Dave Mattacks. In early 1972, the Albion Country Band locked into rehearsals.

With Hutchings’s avowed intent of taking his own electric folk visions further than either of his past bands had managed, the group threw themselves into the scenario with gusto—Steve remembers a chunk of the band’s Island Records advance was spent on the most esoteric instruments the musicians could find: Sue Draheim picked up a bass viol, Simon Nicol chose a hurdy-gurdy, Steve himself became the proud owner of a crumhorn.

Rehearsals brought any number of songs into the group’s repertoire, as Hutchings encouraged every member to present their own particular showcase.  Steve recalled, “the Albions did a version of ‘The Spirit of Christmas’ for a while… a fairly heavy treatment and quite different from the recorded version.”  His darkly haunting “Candlemas Carol” also made it through a few rehearsals, with Nicol laying down some exquisite guitar.

“Ashley had already sorted himself out.  He knew he wanted to do the Morris stuff.  As the thing evolved, he had the idea of bringing on the Chingford Morris Men, which again was very exciting.  Ashley knew I played the penny whistle, but I don’t think they realised that I also played the mouth-organ, so they were playing a tune and I joined in just for the craic.  The point is, I was a blues harmonica player, I didn’t often play a straight harp.  But then I started to play straight across it and I remember Ashley was really amazed and excited by this.  I think we all were.  It was also a much more sympathetic rhythmic support to Sue’s fiddle.”

Amidst reports in the UK press that an album was imminent, the group made its live debut at Sussex University on June 9.  Two weeks later, they were headlining the Kings Cross Cinema, blasting away the 2am cobwebs with Richard Thompson’s “The New St George,” and prompting watching journalist Karl Dallas to remark, “once Steve Ashley has learnt properly how to sing with a full band, he will be ‘a monster talent.’

The audience remains hushed throughout… so hushed that Steve, at one point, declares, “the people who are still asleep would appreciate it if you were all a little quieter.”

“The idea or ideal perhaps that we might create some music that was original, that we all contributed to, appealed to me,” Steve told Hutchings’s biographers Brian Hinton and Geoff Wall.  “But for some reason, it didn’t materialize.  What Ashley, quite understandably, did was create a gig whereby everybody had a shot.

“So Royston sang ‘Lovely Joan’ and ‘Seventeen Come Sunday,’ and I would do ‘Fire and Wine’ and ‘Lord Bateman,’ and then Royston and I would do a couple of songs together,” including “The Rambling Sailor” and “When A Man’s In Love,” a number picked up from a Bert Lloyd album.  Simon sang a couple of Richard Thompson compositions (“The Poor Ditching Boy” was a favorite), “and we played some of Sue’s tunes.”

There was also space at King’s Cross for a seasonal medley opening around “The Spirit of Christmas,” then moving through “Royston’s Song,” “Floral Dance,” “We Three Kings” and “Fire and Wine,” before wrapping up on a long, thrilling, instrumental work-out.

But Karl Dallas detected the direction in which the wind was blowing in his review of the show.  “It seemed as if …Hutchings’s developing infatuation with English traditional music had completely taken over.”

July 1971 delivered what remains the only recorded evidence of this incarnation of the Albions, a session recorded for the BBC’s John Peel, excerpts from which have since highlighted across successive volumes of Hutchings’s The Guv’nor CD anthology: “Four Hand Reel” and “St Anne’s Reel” on volume one (HTD Records HTD 23);  “Rambling Sailor” and the Morris medley on volume two (HTD Records HTD 29).  Additionally, “Princess Royal” was included on Hutchings’s box set Burning Bright (Free Reed FRQCD 50).

It’s an exhilarating listen, although it scarcely captured the sheer diversity and drama that was the band’s live set, with hindsight also suggesting the musical selection (Hutchings’s own) represents an early indication of the under currents that would ultimately break up the band.

British gigs through July and a short Dutch tour preceded a headline berth at the Courtyard Arts Trust Festival near Gloucester in August.

Steve: “I remember that one at the Courtyard Arts Trust—lots of straw bales dotted around the place. And in amongst the supports acts were Decameron, a bunch of guys I’d get to know a lot better three years later. In fact, they did another support slot for the Albion Country Band down in Penzance in Cornwall. It’s funny how these chance meetings recur in the music business.”

The set had shifted somewhat.  The Morris Men were now an integral component, performing to a Morris medley that was bookended by “Fieldtown Processional” and often prompting Hutchings, as the Men trouped off, to remark “[the stage] seems a bit bare after that.”  Karl Dallas agreed, describing this Albions as a virtual English National Folk Ensemble, “as theatrically exciting as any Eastern European troupe.”

Sue Draheim opened the set with a violin instrumental that led into “The New St George”; later in the set, a Shaker Shape Note Hymn, “Babylon” (“American as apple pie,” Sue would purr) invoked what we could describe as a foretaste of Steve’s own political activism a decade later, the damnation of modern society as a new Babylon, ripe for the fall.  Largely unaccompanied, stirring and martial, “Babylon” would reappear on Hutchings’s The World Turned Upside Down album in 1978, but would be delivered with even more potency by John Tams’ Home Service in 1985.  Home Service, of course, was formed from the wreckage of yet another line-up of the Albions.

On September 16, the Albions topped the bill at the Medway Folk Music Festival, staged in Steve’s old stomping grounds of Rochester Castle.  Steve: “The gigs with the Albions were always enjoyable for me because my activities in the band were many and various. I’d play a bit of rhythm guitar on a couple of songs, some vocal harmonies with Royston or a bit of mouth-organ or whistle. Then there was the Morris set where I’d play the tunes on the mouth-organ along with Sue on the fiddle. And of course I’d play my own songs, ‘Fire and Wine’ and ‘Spirit of Christmas’.”

The big number, though, for Steve and band alike, was “Lord Bateman.”

One of the so-called Child ballads, collected by the Harvard professor of that name  in the late 19th century, “Lord Bateman” was pieced together, says Steve, from a cylinder recording of Joseph Taylor which Bill Leader released on the album Unto Brigg Fair. That’s where the tune came from. The other verses came from Bronson, as far as I remember. We sat down together and went through the verses. I imagine it must have been a similar process to the one Fairport used for ‘Matty Groves’ and ‘Tamlyn.’ It was a rare occasion in the Albions where the whole band came together to structure the song in a way that would give the drama maximum impact.

“The links and tags between the verses were vital in maintaining interest, while Dave’s drum fills punctuated the narrative.”

It was a process that might have made traditionalists blanch, but the Albions’ treatment of “Lord Bateman” nevertheless demonstrates the sheer energy that fired the folk revival —the refusal to accept any single version of a given ballad as “definitive,” even if such a thing were possible.

Professor FJ Child publishes no less than fifteen different versions of “Young Beichan” (Child 53), with almost as many titles, of which “Lord Bateman” is but one.  Ewan MacColl, the New Lost City Ramblers and Steve’s friend Peter Bellamy were among those who had already recorded versions by the time it arrived in the Albion Country Band’s set; Sandy Denny, John Kirkpatrick, Planxty and Sinead O’Connor have covered it since then.

Not one was as magnificent as the Albions’ version.

“It was a real highlight of the gigs we did. It was quite a responsibility too, with seventeen verses to remember. But it was a joy to sing in front of that rhythm section. It was like driving a train. The main focus for me was Dave Mattacks. I felt like he was responding to the vocal all the way through, whilst I was relying on the rhythms he was driving. Simon, Sue and Ashley were always inventive on it but it was Dave’s drumming that I was singing to. Of all the gigs we did, there was one in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire where I felt we really cracked it.”

Another show, in Birmingham, introduced Steve to another of the musicians he now counts among his oldest friends, Fairport Convention bassist Dave Pegg.  “Peggy” recalls, “when I lived in Sutton Coldfield, the Albions all came to our house and we had quite a good party involving lots of drink….”

Another show, in Canterbury in September was recorded from the audience, and circulates today as an exhilarating, but horribly low-fi example of just how stunning the group was.

Journalist Colin Irwin never caught this incarnation of the Albions, but was in no doubt as to the band’s significance.  “The Albions were a major point of contact for anyone interested in modern folk music, and Fire & Wine was already being referenced as something of a classic. I remember hearing the Anne Briggs version somewhere but not sure where, probably on the radio.

“For most of us interested in folk rock, Ashley Hutchings was something of a deity and by association, Steve was worth checking out. The Albions were a great band who deserved to do a whole lot better but I guess record companies got in the way, as they so often do.”

In fact, recording of the Albion Country Band’s debut album was now scheduled for October, a mix of old and songs that would be ready for release by the new year.  Or so Steve told Disc at the end of September.  Sadly, it was not to be.  Weeks later, the group shattered.

Steve: “The break-up of the Albions came out of the blue. For the most part, the gigs were good and so were the reviews. It’s true that we were beginning to pull in different directions, Ashley was very keen to focus upon the Morris and traditional side, which I valued too, but my natural inclination was to explore ways to create new songs.  But really I was alone in that aspiration.

“Apart from Royston, who wrote one song to a traditional tune, nobody else in the band was a songwriter. I’d hoped that we would be able to work together to create new material. All those combined skills and experience could have created something special, but it didn’t come naturally to the other members of the band to go down that path. We could have done more of my songs but if we had it might have upset the balance of power.”

Ashley Hutchings admits, in Geoff Wall and Brian Hinton’s biography of his career, that Steve’s material should have been utilized more:  “We could have used loads of Steve’s songs.  They were suitable, English and rooted in the tradition.  [But] I was still under the spell of traditional music at that point.  Had it been a few years later, it would have been a totally different story.”

A new Albions line-up came together, Richard and Linda Thompson, Martin Carthy, John Kirkpatrick, Sue Harris, Roger Swallow and Simon Nicol among those joining Hutchings for live shows and, finally, recording that long overdue debut album, The Battle of the Field.  But stability clearly was not in the group’s nature.  The Albion Country Band disbanded in August 1973, and the album would lay unreleased for another three years.

The Albion split was still in the headlines when Melody Maker caught up with Steve in November 1972.  Writer Dallas found him in uncompromising mood. “I don’t want to have an inquest.  I want to talk about the future, not the past.”

He had already drawn a line beneath the Albions when he reconvened the line-up one last time, in early November, to cut a full-blooded version of “Lord Bateman.”  “It had taken so much work and was undoubtedly a highlight of our gigs.  It seemed like a nice opportunity for us to get together one more time and do something positive.  I was really pleasantly surprised that everybody was up for it.”

Proucer Austin John Marshall recalled the session for DJ Edward Haber. “The interesting thing about the Bateman ballad is, going right back to where John Renbourne [worked with Marshall’s ex-wife Shirley Collins], we were thinking about early music then, and we let him have a tape of something called “the Triple Ballade” by Guillaume de Machaut.

“Now, about this time, John’s girlfriend was a lady called Sue Draheim, who was the fiddle player in the Albion Band, and when they were putting the Bateman ballad together, Sue put in the Triple Ballade, so that piece did a full circle… and it’s a wonderful interlude in this marvellous ballad that I think Steve has done the only good contemporary version of.  I think its a fantastic track.”

The resultant six-and-one-half minutes rank high among the most tumultuous renderings any Child Ballad has ever experienced, building slowly from its first forty-five a cappella seconds; the drums coming in, then the guitar and bass, everything building slowly, verse following and layering on verse.  And then, just when you think it’s all over, with a moment of silence at two minutes and fifty, a change of pace and now the Albions are in full flood behind him, every instrument in exquisite clarity and the story driving towards its conclusion, seventeen verses on from the outset.  Simply listening to it leaves you breathless.

“It’s a pity” Steve mourns today, “that there isn’t more recorded evidence of the first line-up apart from ‘Lord Bateman’ and a few live tapes..  But there it is, it was a long time ago and we’ve all moved on to other things. It’s a while since I’ve seen Dave to talk to, but I had a good conversation with Ashley last year here in Cheltenham at the launch of the latest version of the band. And of course, Simon and I have shared a number of musical adventures over the years.

“The only real tragedy of the first Albion Country Band is that two of our number are no longer with us—the two that left when I did, Royston Wood and Sue Draheim.  Royston died twenty-three years ago on April 8, 1990 as a result of a car accident, and Sue died on April 11 just this year (2013) in her home in Berea, Kentucky, following diagnosis of an inoperable brain cancer.

“They both left a legacy of great recordings behind them and I will always hear the sound of Royston’s voice combining with mine with that great vocal contrast that we shared. ‘Salt and pepper’ John called it when we were added to the Home Brew on Anthems in Eden. And with Sue, there was a powerful charge between us through the fiddle and the harmonica. And that smile she had, that sheer enjoyment of life through her music lives on in my memory, and in many other memories I’m sure.”

A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of over 100 books, including Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” as well as Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition , both of which are published via Krause Publications and are available at www.krausebooks.com 

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