Berry nice to see you again
Classic folk-rockers the Strawbs, never gone for long, keep weaving six-string tapestries for the attentive listener.
By MARY BETH BARBER
The Strawbs were once three boys on guitars in 1968 or so. Now the Strawbs are three men on guitars grown-ups with glasses and thinning locks, men who have had careers and lives away from their guitars and in the real world. The English folk-rock group that once toured with the Eagles and Santana is on the road on its own, pitching a new album and playing with a sense of soul and maturity that pinpoints them as the masters of the art of the guitar.
A brief history lesson: In publicity materials the Strawbs get linked to the infamous Fairport Convention, the pioneering English folk-rock band from the late '60s that mastered the task of blending folk and rock. (A famous Fairport singer, the late Sandy Denny, started with the Strawbs.) Bands like Fairport represented the smarter alternative to the blissful simplicity of the Beatles sound when every young lad from London to Edinburgh wanted to play guitar.
|David Cousins (guitar)|
Chas Cronk (guitar, bass)
Dave Lambert (guitar).
Related links: Official site
Fairport Convention seems to have launched a thousand music careers. Almost every decent guitarist notes them as a major influence, and with the number of musicians who claim to be of Fairport Convention fame you'd think the band was a hippie commune with a constantly revolving door. (Which quite possibly it was.) Quite a few Fairport alumni have Strawbs credits to their name. And the Strawbs, like Fairport, went through a stage when they toured with large bands and electric guitars, putting the "rock" ahead of the "folk" in their music.
But that's not the stage that David Cousins, Dave Lambert and Chas Cronk are in now. The drums are gone, the electric guitars gather dust somewhere, and these three focus on blending their guitars into a sound that seems old and new at the same time and with a dedication that attracts real music aficionados like sophisticated older lovers attract younger mates.
The English folk-rock of their current tour is not the typical sound of folk, nor typical rock, but a unique sound that defies the typical melody-based sound of most music on the radio. There's certainly some folk a folk sound that's more ethereal, straight out of the British Isles or Ireland from a hundred years ago. And there's some rock not rock-and-roll, but sound that seems just harsh enough to sound electric, and with a rhythm and complexity that feels like a full percussion section.
But most of the time it's just three guys on guitar. Sometimes Cronk switches to bass, and Cousins uses a banjo for some tunes, but you get the idea.|
I came across the Strawbs in a small venue in northern California, opting to listen because of the Fairport connection and rave reviews from friends better connected to the music world than I. While they have dedicated fans, the Strawbs seem to be a well-kept secret. They are "sort-ofs" who aren't "has-beens," mostly because they can't be they never "made it" in the platinum-album, thousands-of-screaming-chicks kind of way. The Strawbs are musicians who are highly respected by other musicians, regardless of their popularity level on the charts. As with a wine steward who knows all the best vintages, it's a good bet to see the bands that other musicians revere.
Like a fine wine, the years are a benefit. This isn't a "re-hash the hits of the '70s" reunion tour of a bunch of guys who hate each other but need the cash. They're the real deal talented men who love to play and who are on the road with a new album, years be damned. Their age adds to the complexity and purity of the sound.
The benefit of their musical maturity became glaringly apparent through direct comparison. The next day this reviewer found herself watching a wildly popular young band at a jam-packed stadium. The energy of the crowd for the youngsters was vastly different the lights and theatrics, the harshly amplified sound, and the screams of girls each time the lead singer bounded around the stage and pounded out chords. Cronk, Lambert and Cousins didn't move off their stools unless it was to reach for a beer. But if what matters is the intimacy of the music and not the energy, then it's the three guys on chairs.
Simple chords, fingers thick on the strings, the songs coming harsh and sloppy, imprecise and unsophisticated ... that was the young popular band. The Strawbs, by comparison, play with a sense of personal attention to the audience. The masterful hands of Lambert on the nape of the guitar hit chords from top to bottom with precision and gentleness not one whine of stress on the strings despite the complexity of the moves. Cronk, whether he is on bass or guitar, fills in the empty spaces of the music and provides a sweet and steady undercurrent of rhythm. And then Cousins, the poet and the voice, leads you on an intimate ride through the music, until with a flourish of the hand he lets you know you're finished.
The Strawbs' current tour sets include songs from their most recent CD, "Deja Fu," released two years ago. The entire album is solid, but one song, "If," stands out as something that has longevity. It's a love song absent of clichˇ, and Cousins delivers it with the simple intensity of a man who's lived too long to be desperate. The unmentioned famous band of youngsters had their love songs too, but while their lyrics resembled begging, "If," is a soulful dedication full of confidence. Cousins, Lambert and Cronk typically play some older songs as well in their set, and Autumn especially shows off their talent to create an incredibly full sound.
For a while the Strawbs weren't touring, or even playing at all. Cousins the frontman of the group since its inception has a solid career as a radio executive in England and was too busy to put the Strawbs on the road during the '90s. Lambert and Cronk played with a number of different bands during that time, occasionally keeping in touch with their radio-producer friend and jamming every once in a while. But the Strawbs and Cousins are back. They won't play forever (we think), so catch them now.
The Strawbs play in New York on Saturday May 27, 2005, at 7 p.m., at Joe's Pub.
|MAY 21, 2005|
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