Not sure if there’s actually a law that insists on it, or if it’s just some inviolable ancient tradition. But every time a writer introduces Strawbs (no definitive article!) to an audience, they first have to rattle off the highlights of the current band’s previous membership….
How their earliest orchestrator played bass for David Bowie, and how Bowie himself was their onstage mime.
How one of their singers invented folk rock, and a past piano player performed prog in ice-skates and cape. How another was a BeeGee through their mighty disco pomp, and another went on to join Deep Purple.
Oh, and how a former rhythm section had a monster hit with a song called “Nice Legs, Shame About the Face.”
Well, we said “former”….
It’s an odd way to start things off, but it doesn’t phase the current incarnation of the band. After all, why be in the past when you can still be in the present? And as Strawbs set out on their latest American tour (their first as an electric line-up since 2008), they have a lot to be thankful for.
They own great swathes of their prodigious back catalog, and have the thriving Witchwood indy label to prove it. They still pack the same front line of musicians with which they soared forty years ago – David Cousins (guitar & vocals), Dave Lambert (lead guitar & vocals), and Chas Cronk (bass & vocals).
Rolling Stone recently proclaimed their Hero and Heroine album among the top fifty prog LPs of all time. And tickets for the current tour (dates at the foot of the page) are moving fast enough to make your eyes water… so stop reading this for a moment, and go pick up your own right now.
And, finally, Strawbs have been responsible for a string of albums, FM stalwarts one and all, that still defy direct categorization, even as they define genres that remain crucial today – folk rock, prog, bluegrass.
Between a self-titled debut in 1969, at least through to Ghosts, in 1974, Strawbs redefined what some critics call “thinking man’s rock”… established mainman Dave Cousins as Britain’s greatest ever challenger for Bob Dylan’s songwriting crown… and even racked up a clutch of UK hit singles, at a time when the majority of their proggy peers weren’t even releasing 45s.
So it’s just as well that their homeland, at least, still thought of them as a folk band.
Dave Cousins, who has led the band since their bluegrassed beginnings more than half a century ago, shudders.
“There is a total difference of opinion as to what we are, that has continued to this day. But we never really were one. We started out as a bluegrass group with me playing the banjo, and gradually evolved… first of all, I suppose, because we started writing our own songs which then didn’t fit with the name Strawberry Hill Boys, as we were….
“And the reason we were the Strawberry Hill Boys was, all the great bluegrass bands had names like the Foggy Mountain Boys, the Rocky Mountain Boys, the Stoney Mountain Boys,and we were rehearsing in Strawberry Hill, in London, when somebody asked ‘oh, what’s your name, I want to book you for my club.’ So I said ‘oh, we’re the Strawberry Hill Boys. And we became that.
“But when we started writing our own songs, it just didn’t fit, because we then went into playing much more involved, intricate guitar parts; I was writing songs like ‘The Battle’ and ‘The Man Who Called Himself Jesus,’ and so on, and they were totally out of alignment with the banjo playing. People had already started referring to us as Strawbs for short – we’d arrive at a gig and someone would say ‘Strawbs are here,’ so that’s what we became.
“The only reason we are regarded as being a folk group in England is because we started playing in folk clubs. We didn’t play electric guitars and have a drummer, so they were the only place we could really play, and so we started. But even today – Prognostic [a killer comp rounding up the best of the band’s most progressive moments], that got rave reviews over here – if you go on Amazon in the US, it’s got eight 5-star reviews; you go up in England and it has five 2- star reviews – ‘oh, we’ve heard all this before.’
“They just don’t understand that what I was trying to do was show Strawbs as a prog band, as opposed to being a folk band. So the people in England don’t want it, because they want their folky stuff.”
The new show is going to shock them, then. Spin Cycle is still a few days away from catching the band in concert for the first time, Cousins is shocked to learn, since their heyday in the seventies. Shocked, because “that wasn’t me, that was my father. I took over from him about ten years ago.”
No, not really.
It was the Rolling Stone accolade that set the ball rolling for the current tour. Perched between ELO and Triumvirat, Hero and Heroine is described as “the band’s heaviest, most symphonic album, anchored by John Hawken’s ghostly Mellotron and guitarist Dave Lambert’s stinging distortion. Strawbs hadn’t abandoned their acoustic side — ‘Midnight Sun’ is one of Cousins’ most assured ballads. But the newfound muscle and energy broadened their appeal: Multi-part opener ‘Autumn’ is the band’s most majestic moment, a melancholy epic for the prog time capsule.”
The album’s immortality does not surprise Cousins; in fact, Strawbs rerecorded Hero and Heroine back in 2010, on the back of a massively successful UK tour. Copies of the slightly-retitled Hero and Heroine In Ascencia (“it’s Latin,” explains Cousins, “although there’s no such word – I dreamed it up”) will be available on the merchandising table, an instant souvenir of what promises to be an astonishing show.
“I’m very, very excited about coming over to play in America again, we haven’t bought the electric band over in eight years and its about three years since the acoustics toured. It’s so much easier to tour with the acoustic trio, but the public want to see an electric band and so I had this idea…
“We’re doing the whole of Hero and Heroine, but it’s not Hero and Heroine as you remember it, going through each track on the record and playing them identically. It’s been reworked. All the same songs in the same order, but where I have to change guitars, we have linking passages and having listened to the original album, I realize it was a concept album although you wouldn’t put it down as that. But now we’ve got an intro to it which makes more sense – it’s only one minutes thirty seconds, but it works.
“When we were making the album in 1973, I knew all along that it had to have a concept, and in the old days of vinyl you had to have a break in the middle. But now it all flows together.
“The last song on the album, ‘Lay a Little Light on Me,’ was really the conclusion of it all, and it was written about the cathedral in California, the glass cathedral. I saw a sermon on television one Sunday morning from there, and it was so strange to see this vast, huge cathedral with all the cars parked outside. But when we did it on the album, it just petered out, it had no conclusion. So to end it, I came up with this bright idea of taking the chorus of ‘Shine On Silver Sun,’ putting it on a huge tape loop that must have been twenty feet long, and we all stood there with wine glasses with it going round, playing backwards. We had to have something to finish the album.
“Now when you see Hero live, that song is far more intense than it ever was on the album, far more powerful, and we’ve got a few little tricks up our sleeve even at the end of that, which makes the whole thing lock together. And because of the way in which it is put together with these keyboard interludes, they take over from where one song ends, carrying on maybe with a reprise of the previous song, leading into the next song. It all locks together and it’s almost like one continuous piece of music.
“We do stop, obviously, after ‘Hero,’ because the audience want to applaud a bit, but essentially from then on it doesn’t stop. It just goes on and on and on and the intensity builds and builds, I’ve never known anything like it, I’m absolutely shattered at the end of the show because of the intensity of it.”
But Hero and Heroine is only a part of the live set.
“We do ‘The River” and “Down by the Sea”; we do a curious collection of songs, we start with ‘Turn Me Round’ from Deep Cuts, which is a good rocker, then we go into ‘New World,’ then ‘Promised Land’… it’s a very strange collection but it works.”
The machinations of the seventies music industry ensure that Strawbs do not own the rights to Hero and Heroine – or, indeed, any of their other “classic” era albums. However, since 2000, the band has operated its own record label, Witchwood Media, and have maintained an impressive barrage of new releases, among them a slew of live recordings, four acoustic collections, a couple of excellent archive releases and more. It’s the Witchwood catalog that will be dominating the merchandising table on the tour.
“Most of the band members, past and present, are shareholders in the company, so we export records to America for us to sell on the tour, and that money doesn’t go to the band, it goes to Witchwood Media, who then pay royalties on the sales. We’ve exported about 500 albums for this tour, although the two we’re concentrating on are Prognostic and Hero and Heroine In Ascencia.”
There’ll be no room, however, for A Taste of Strawbs, an all-encompassing 5CD box set, which skirts the licensing problems to present an alternate view of the past, through demos, live recordings and the like.
Arranged chronologically, this gorgeously packaged collection chases the band from the first ever Strawberry Hill Boys recordings, through the halycon era of hits and Hero, on through the eighties and a few reunion shows, and finally into the modern era; a final disc then scoops up further odds and ends that didn’t make it onto the first four.
A long sold-out limited edition of 3,000, A Taste of Strawbs remains high on many fans’ wish lists, particularly in the US, where it never saw release. Any chance of there being a box or two left unsold someplace?
“There might be one or two copies in our loft, but probably not. I do want to bring out another version, though, because it sold all 3,000 copies essentially in the UK; I’d like to do an updated version with a different fifth CD. It would be to our advantage, I think, to press up another thousand for America….
“It’s a wonderful package, the way the white cat appears on each of the CDs, and the booklet is fantastic. Maybe I’ll do a crowd funding thing. That seems to be the way to go – we’ve started pre-selling our albums to the fans, so they get their names on the sleeve, and that’s worked pretty well; it paid for half the production costs of the last album, and the albums have been very successful. The last all new one we put out, though [Dancing to the Devil’s Beat], was about eight years ago with Oliver Wakeman on it, playing keyboards, and Oliver did exactly the same as his father did, he left us to join Yes. Bloody cheek!”
In part two, Dave discusses Strawbs’ history – both the highlights and the low points. And catch them on tour across the east coast this month.
Wed 11 May – Strand Centre for Arts, Lakewood NJ
Thu 12 May – Mohegan Sun/Wolf Dn, Uncasville CT
Fri 13 May – YMCA Boulton Centre, Bay Shore NY
Sat 14 May – St Ann’s Hall, Wilmington DE
Sun 15 May – Ukranian Cultural Center, Whippany NJ
Tue 17 May – Rams Head, Annapolis MD
Wed 18 May – AMP by Strathmore, N. Bethesda MD
Fri 20 May – Arcade Theater, St Charles IL
Sun 22 May – Turner Hall, Milwaukee MN
Tue 24 May – Music Box Supper Club, Cleveland OH
Wed 25 May – Lovin Cup, Rochester NY
Thu 26 May – Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton MA