It scarcely caused a ripple back when it was released... well, not unless you count the howls of anguish and confusion that rose from some quarters, but Lal and Mike Waterson’s Bright Phoebus is now firmly established as the UK folk album that we’d all give our first-born in exchange for.
Largely misunderstood even by its target audience in 1972, Bright Phoebus's repute has grown commensurate with its scarcity - it is, arguably, the single most important UK folk album never to have been released on CD (a brief, and swiftly suppressed appearance long ago notwithstanding), while the original vinyl sold so poorly that supply cannot even spell "demand," let alone match it.
We seek out surrogates. Shining Bright, an all-star Mike and Lal tribute that bought a few of the album's songs back to life; and, last year, a similarly fashioned live re-enactment that rates among 2013’s most acclaimed expeditions. Both of which can be said to scratch the itch, but they only prolong the agony as well. So it’s probably a bittersweet blessing to unveil the next installment in the Phoebus tease, a self-styled Portrait of Lal Waterson, Teach Me to be a Summer’s Morning (Topic Records).
Five of Bright Phoebus's dozen songs are here... which in turn equates to almost half its original bodyweight. But not in the form that Bright Phoebus presented; rather, these are the demos for “Never The Same,” “Scarecrow,” “To Make You Stay” (a duet with brother Mike), “Shady Lady” and “Red Wine and Promises” - which means no room for “Winifred Odd,” which might well be the single song that most illustrates the album’s own so-singular oddness; no “Magical Man” (the best known track, courtesy of its appearance on the Electric Muse vinyl box set); no “Fine Horseman,” “Rubber Band” or “Danny Rose.”
But we do get ten other songs from throughout Lal’s career, spectral guitar and piano renderings perched deep within a beauty that is so distinctive that it’s genuinely fair to describe her muse as an “acquired taste.” Even deep in the bosom of English folk rock aficionados, there are many who can’t bear to spend more than a few songs in the company of the Watersons, individually or collectively; stripped of all accompaniment beyond the skeletal bones that Lal alone provides, this could be an obstacle course too far.
Love the uniquely structured wildness of her voice and lyricism, though; lose yourself in the dark forests and foreboding marshes of her imagery, and a winter’s evening spent with Summer Morning is to touch a primal, even pagan electricity whose circuitry is so resolutely self-contained that you could not name a single other performer (fellow Watersons notwithstanding, of course) capable of scraping the same scratches into your heart.
This is not a standalone disc, however. Lovingly curated (as was the music) by Lal’s daughter Marry, the CD is merely an insert within a seventy-two page hardback book (and I mean hard; the end boards are pushing one-quarter inch thick) packed throughout with Lal’s artwork, lyrics, sketches, photos and scraps.
Some of the words pertain to songs on the CD, others hang in splendid isolation until you seek out the rest of her canon and locate them. Some of the drawings are doodles, some of them fully-fledged family portraits. She illustrates old folk songs, and scribbles herself reminders, and one line that resonates through all of her work is pencilled onto a scrap of paper ranged here alongside a tight sketch of a fairy.
“If you can’t understand me, dance with me, then.”
As much as anything else she ever sang or wrote, that simple sentence captures the essence of Lal Waterson, in the purest, and most potent draught. And we purchase Summer’s Morning to remind ourselves just how precious that is.