Bruce Rowland, who passed away last week, was one of the last great early seventies session men, the propulsion behind a stream of classic hits – and classic festivals, too; as a member of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, that’s him behind the kit at Woodstock.
But his loss will probably be felt the strongest by fans of British folk rock in general, and Fairport Convention in particular. Having first worked with the band during 1972, as Fairport struggled to recover from their latest line-up changes… the temporary loss of long-time incumbent Dave Mattacks… he became a full-time member in 1975, following Mattacks’s latest departure.
In 2013, he recalled, “[Producer] Glyn Johns phoned me to play on Rising for the Moon as Dave Mattacks had left the band halfway through the album. I did so, had a great time and went on my way. Some few days later, Glyn asked me for a second opinion on the running order as the band was on tour. I found that Glyn had worked his customary magic and that the album was a stunner.”
A few dates into the tour, he received a second call – or, rather, a plethora of them. “I started to receive calls from Swarb [Dave Swarbrick] and Peggy [Dave Pegg] about joining the band, but having spent a very happy couple of years just doing sessions and odds and sods, I was in no frame of mind to go back on the road and declined.
“These nuisance calls persisted and were carefully structured; lots of bonhomie, a good career move for me, I was just what they were looking for, there was a tour of Australia, New Zealand and USA for big bucks, all of which I resisted. I finally cracked when Peggy laid it on the line; if I didn’t join the band, they couldn’t do the tour, would all default on their mortgages, their children would starve and marriages founder….
“At this point I cracked and rationalised – I would like to go to Australia and I liked the Fairports and the music – but pointed out that they didn’t work that much, what could they offer in terms of other work? They offered lots of barn dances in the Banbury area and the possibility of working with Steve Ashley [then embarking upon what would become his Family Album], of whom I had never heard but Peggy’s enthusiasm for his material was the icing on the cake. I spent the next 48 hours and the flight to Oz with a cassette recorder on my shoulder to learn the set, and became the 100th member of Fairport.”
Rowland would remain on board for the remainder of Fairport’s time together (three albums and a farewell tour); and was also there or thereabouts as the members began scheming the group’s eventual regrouping. One of his final shows before he retired from playing in the early 1980s was contrarily one of the reformed Fairport’s first, at Broughton Castle in August, 1981 – while he also added another legendary festival to his resume when he appeared at Glastonbury with Steve Ashley and Chris Leslie that same summer.
Born in Park Royal, north-west London, on May 20, 1939, Rowland initially had little interest in a life of the road; he worked as a drum teacher through his twenties and was, in fact, looking towards his thirtieth birthday when he first came to notice, drumming on Wynder K Frog’s Island Records album debut in 1968.
His stint with Cocker followed, a glorious couple of years during which he and the Grease Band gave their frontman the greatest musical backdrop he ever enjoyed. Their performance at Woodstock, with Rowland a powerhouse through the set, is justly regarded among the weekend’s most memorable; and Cocker’s then-current eponymous album likewise captures the fire that the Grease Band ignited behind him.
Their own Grease Band album, was likewise phenomenal, one of the best British blues albums of the era. It was completely overlooked, however, and – interrupted only by his membership of Ronnie Lane’s original Slim Chance line-up – Rowland moved into the session work of which his initial dalliance with Fairport was just one more date.
Again, however, it was following his full recruitment to the band that he truly made his mark on the band – surprising long time observers, perhaps, with the ease with which he transitioned to folk rock, but surprising Fairport’s fans as well, with the brand new elements that he brought to the band. Listen closely, and A Bonny Bunch of Roses, the band’s 1977 album, is an exquisite fusion of the two styles; confirming Rowland’s strengths at the same time as revitalizing what were then Fairport’s own flagging spirits.
That his gentle humor, easy demeanor and overall enthusiasm were not enough to counter the declining sales and fading interest that ultimately led to Fairport’s demise was, of course, an inevitability. But fans from that time still remember how welcoming Rowland was to their approaches, cheerfully autographing records from throughout his career – without ever giving any hint that, once Fairport ended, that career would follow suit.
Rowland returned to the UK later in the eighties, settling in Devon with Barbara, his companion for the last quarter of a century and whom he married shortly before he died. He leaves behind a lot of friends, an army of admirers and a musical legacy that peaks with so many performances that it’s impossible to single one out.