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Plainsong, Pentangle, and a big pile of '70s prog reviewed

Three buoyant box sets keep your '70s jive alive
Plainsong

Plainsong

Following Amelia

Lemon - 6 CDs

Formed by Iain Matthews following his two early '70s solo albums, Plainsong remain an oddly overlooked chapter in the story of British folk rock - probably because they had as much in common with its American counterpart as anything hailing from their homeland shores. And while that didn’t stop their debut earning Record Mirror’s “contemporary folk album of the year” award, when it came time to record its successor… ah, well that’s where the problems start.

Originally a quartet of Matthews, Andy Roberts, bassist Dave Richards and American guitarist Bob Ronga, Plainsong had already trimmed down to a trio when they began work on their second album, then broke up when they couldn’t agree on that. And that’s where the story ended, at least for the next twenty years. So squeezing a six disc box set out of the tale might seem a little over-ambitious. But wait!

In Search of Amelia Earhart, Plainsong’s 1972 debut album, remains a remarkable beast, country-fied in exquisite west coast stylings, a worthy (if perhaps a little belated) successor to the latter-day Byrds, CS&N et al. And the sheer body of material that built up around its release is equally remarkable.

The first disc’s remastered reissue of Amelia herself is appended by the group’s first ever recording, a version of the Association’s “Along Came Mary,” plus an alternate vocal for the group’s defining number, “Ever The Guiding Light”; and a glorious thirty minutes spent in the company of a live BBC audience, that includes a great take on Richard Thompson’s “Poor Ditching Boy.”

Disc two follows through with what would have been the band’s second album, the very soberly titled Now we Are 3, alongside a very entertaining clutch of Plainsong songs as performed by both the solo Matthews and the reformed Plainsong across the 1980s and beyond.

There’s more of the same elsewhere in the box; here a handful of songs that were Plainsong live favorites but were never recorded by the band itself; there, half a dozen revivals recorded by Matthews and Roberts in 2022; and, spread across disc five, live shows and radio broadcasts that capture the band at various high points across its rebirth, not least of all a terrific Dutch radio session from 1997.

The real treasures, however, lurks across discs three, four and six. A mountain of BBC material consumes the first two, studio sessions and further live material, much of it recorded for deejay John Peel. Some of this has seen daylight before, across the 1992 On Air collection. But additional material includes the entire Sounds on Sunday live show from 1973, and a welter more studio sessions, from DJ Bob Harris's show. A few of which, it has to be said, offer grand improvements on the original album takes.

And then there’s disc six, whose big attraction is the legendary Folk Fairport Concert in Amsterdam in 1972 - titled, incidentally, not for Matthews’ past, but for the Dutch cafe where it was recorded. Performing acoustically without a PA (but all togged out in newly purchased clogs), it’s a relaxed, atmospheric performance that captures what some might call the true spirit of Plainsong, just kicking back and playing, without red lights, studio consuls, and expectant paying customers to worry about. It’s almost worth the price of admission alone.

Packaged in a clamshell box, with a chunky booklet of Matthews and Roberts’ reminiscences, Following Amelia marks the 50th anniversary of Plainsong with an archive-scouring to be proud of.

  

pentangle

Pentangle

Through the Ages 1984-1995

Cherry Tree 6 CDs

As the most virtuosic of all the original UK folk rock bands, Pentangle always occupied a remarkable place in the appropriate annals, not only for the sheer magnificence of their arrangements and compositions, but also for the brilliance with which they executed them - a status that was only to be expected with the likes of John Renbourne, Danny Thompson, Terry Cox, Jacqui McShee and Bert Jansch in the ranks.

The original band sundered in the early 1970s; close to a decade later, they reformed for tours of Italy and Australia, and while the succeeding years slowly chipped away at the original line-up (Renbourne was first to leave, before they even started recording again), Pentangle effortlessly reconquered their original heights, and the six CDs here show us how.

Five studio albums and a final live set were released across the next eleven years, each revisited here with a swathe of bonus tracks - BBC sessions, selections from live shows, even a German single remix. The booklet rounds up the recollections of various band members, and there’s a mass of terrific illustrations, too.

But, of course, it’s the music that really shines. Maybe Pentangle’s second act was not, ultimately, to match the overall consistency of their first (although 1986’s In The Round is a match for most of it), and the loss of the Thompson/Cox rhythm section was definitely a hurdle. The liners make clear, too, that Jansch was growing increasingly unhappy, although he held on until the (almost) end, despite mounting reservations.

McShee, however, remained constant throughout, and it’s her presence that ensures the inestimable majesty of the original band remains intact throughout the set.

The expected blend of new material and traditional song, too, continues to shine, despite the fact that, first time around, Pentangle were pioneering the introduction of “folk” into the mainstream, whereas now they were playing catch-up behind all the bands that followed in their footsteps. Discussing the inclusion of “The Blacksmith” on So Early in the Spring, even McShee admits she was glad she’d not heard Maddy Prior’s rendition before taking on the song. It made certain that things stayed fresh. And freshness, of course, might well have been the greatest of all Pentangle’s manifold attributes.

  

High-in-the-morning-1973-front-cover

Various artists

High In The Morning - The British Pop Progressive Sounds of 1973

(Grapefruit - 3 CDs)

Three years into the decade to end all decades, and the mood of the room is decidedly raucous. It was the age, of course, of glam rock, a musical genre that didn’t simply drape sparkles over every song it could, it scattered glitter dust over every songwriter too, until you could barely make a record in 1973 without first being run through a bedazzler.

It wasn’t even a matter of making glam records. Simply existing at the same time was enough to make the sequins stick. Check out how many “glam rock” comps feature 10cc … those guys wore denims for Sunday Best, for goodness sake. By the time you reach Nazareth, a mere sparkly jacket was enough to get the kids excited. And the Sensational Alex Harvey Band didn’t stand a chance.

Ah, the good old days.

High In The Morning captures the moment with exquisite accuracy. From Mott The Hoople to Roxy Music, Stealers Wheel to Medicine Head, Roy Wood to Family, the cast simply sashays by in a riot of rhinestones, and it’s true - there was something so incandescent in the water that year that even swotty Al Stewart, jazzy Byzantium, hippy Hawkwind and pubby Ducks Deluxe turn in sounds (we dream the visions) that keep the illusion alive.

Caravan, Free, Curved Air, Spencer Davis Group… it’s surprising how many names that history has tied to earlier eras of prog and blues rock were still firing on all cylinders in ’73; as though Kevin Ayers’ “Caribbean Moon” - truly one of the most gloriously glam of all prog rock’s glumsters - had shone its light on all of them. And then you step even further beyond, into the realm of the no-hit wonders, the one record hopefuls, and the Next Big Things you never heard of again, and even here, there are joys untold to be unfurled.

Who here honestly remembers Bachdenkel (as opposed to having looked them up on the internet earlier this century)? Joe Soap? Mouse? Streak? Duffy? As is so often the case with this series of releases, it’s the no-names that often deliver the greatest surprises; the ones that make you keep the discs on hand for that moment when you awake from a sound sleep, knowing you will never rest until you’ve listened to Hemlock’s “Fool’s Gold” again.

We get the Faces’ “Poolhall Richard,” one of the most incoherently gleeful records anyone has ever made… that cry of “this kid can play” close to the end is so joyously unfettered that you wish you had it on vinyl, just so you could make the record stick. We get the Kinks’ “Sitting in the Midday Sun,” surely the peak of Ray Davies’s doings through the whole of the Kinks’ Konceptmania. Kevin Coyne’s “Marlene,” the Pink Fairies’ City Kids”… 65 tracks across three CDs, and a great booklet as well.

Roll on ’74!