tue 25/06/2024

The Lady: A Homage to Sandy Denny, Brighton Dome | reviews, news & interviews

The Lady: A Homage to Sandy Denny, Brighton Dome

The Lady: A Homage to Sandy Denny, Brighton Dome

Mixed results for a folk tribute show featuring more new friends than old

Sandy Denny: her songs are 'full of romance, if of the almost exclusively doomed variety'

The proto version of this tribute show took place at Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2008 on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Sandy Denny’s death. This tour coincides with the release of a new box-set and draws on Thea Gilmore’s courageous recent settings of some of Denny’s rediscovered lyrics. A career-spanning set of covers, it pours water on the embers of a stunning back catalogue as much as it reignites them.

Young compere Andrew Batt is clearly a dedicated Denny fan, having himself compiled the 19-CD box set (including 100 previously unreleased tracks). But with his trendily rolled jacket sleeves, unfortunate tendency to refer to songs as “numbers”, and Glee-style introductions (“Well, next up we have a soul legend! Please give a big hand for PP Arnold!”), he’s a rather incongruous presence on the stage.

Dave Swarbrick's extraordinary, bird-like fiddle-playing flits where it pleases

Nor is there much attempt to romance the process of pulling this show together. Joan Wasser, aka Joan As Policewoman, had never heard “By The Time It Gets Dark” before. “Then Andrew told me I was doing it and I listened to it on YouTube, like, a thousand times…” Everyone is “honoured” to be here, but erstwhile Steelye Span frontwoman Maddy Prior is rare in expressing a little context and emotional connection. Prior took the song "Solo" straight to heart, she recalls, because “Sandy left a band and I left a band around the same time. But I’ve just learnt the song’s not actually about that at all!”

Luckily Denny’s songs are full of romance, if of the almost exclusively doomed variety. Prior gets two dramatic character songs: the Mary Queen of Scots “number” “Fotheringay” (complete with courtly dancing and Elizabethan-style guitar) and “John The Gun”, a death march pounded out by musical director Pete Flood on drums and Brightonian Nick Pynn on lurching violin, delivered with as much brute power as must be possible while jacketed in crushed orange velvet.

Matty Groves goes to Ben Nichols, aka one-man rockabilly/country-noir act Dennis Hopper Choppers, who slings his banjo as low as his bass guitar with a baritone to match. “North Star Grassman and the Ravens” falls to Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, a talented man whose rather mewling vocal is singularly ill suited to singing anything other than Scritti Politti. (It was at the Brighton Festival two years ago that we heard him apologetically murdering Nick Drake – is there a tick-box somewhere reading “please automatically sign me up for other tribute shows by uninterested third partie”?)

Listen to Fairport Convention's "Who Knows Where the Times Goes?"

Throw in Blair Dunlop (who’s replaced father Ashley Hutchings at the helm of The Albion Band) and it all gets a bit too politely-scruffy-white-boys-with-guitars-grinning-awkwardly-at-each-other-during-the-strummy-bits. So there are big cheers for Wasser as she sits down at the piano to perform “The Lady” in a shimmering gold gown. It’s “a song about the dawn of song – tell me anybody else that’s written a song about the dawn of song?” which she says is “scaring me slightly less every night we do it”. Wasser always slips sighing into songs as if into someone else’s bed. In a show dominated by full band versions that have had to be rehearsed up and locked down, it’s great to hear her exploring the song as she sings it.

The same is true of Fairport Convention legend Dave Swarbrick, whose extraordinary, bird-like fiddle-playing flits where it pleases. “Oops!” he cries merrily as he and Sam Carter launch into far-fetched gypsy yarn “It Suits Me Well”, “got the wrong bit!”

Denny left Fairport Convention to explore a world of music beyond folk, with mild experiments in gospel and blues (such as “Take Me Away”) about which PP Arnold is precisely here to get excited. But it was in the songs of dead sailors and dying love that her voice, so clear and strident, came truly alive. So it’s no surprise that Trembling Bells’ Lavinia Blackwall, whose soprano most resembles Denny’s, steals the show in its opening moments with “A Sailor’s Life”, which swells on a sea of yearning and recedes into a foam of Swarbrick fiddle. “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood”, also accompanied by Swarbrick and performed in a sort of singing medieval triptych by Blackwall, Prior and Gilmore, comes a close second. As for “Who Knows Where The Time Goes?”, winner of a 2007 BBC poll to decide the best ever folk song, let’s just say no one will be voting this pack-‘em-all-in-for-the-finale belter the best cover of all time.



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