The Lady: Sandy Denny tribute at the Phil

Sandy Denny by Keith Morris 1972

The lady she had a silver tongue. 
For to sing she said, 
And maybe that’s all. 
Wait for the dawn and we will have that song. 
When it ends it will seem 
That we hear silence fall.

The Lady: A Homage to Sandy Denny is a touring monster of a show that celebrates the musical legacy of the folk icon who, in the years since her tragic death in 1978, has come to be regarded by a new generation of musicians as one of Britain’s finest female singer songwriters. We went along to the opening night of the tour at the Liverpool Philharmonic.

The show began promptly at 7:30 and was so efficiently compered by producer Andrew Batt that the stage came to seem like a revolving door as musicians entered stage left and departed stage right as soon as they had done their bit.  But, at just under three hours with a short interval, there was a lot to cram in. The Lady not only traces Denny’s entire musical legacy, encompassing her work with Fairport Convention, Fotheringay, her solo career as well as new songs discovered in Sandy’s archive and completed by Thea Gilmore on her acclaimed album Don’t Stop Singing.  It also ropes in a remarkable gathering of musicians to perform Sandy’s songs.  The performers  included contemporaries who worked with Denny, such as Maddy Prior, Dave Swarbick, Jerry Donahue and PP Arnold as well as younger musicians who have been inspired by her work, including Joan Wasser (aka Joan As Policewoman), Green Gartside, Thea Gilmore, Sam Carter, Lavinia Blackwall (of Trembling Bells), Ben Nicholls (Dennis Hopper Choppers) and Blair Dunlop (The Albion Band).

Andrew Batt, who has been involved in compiling recent collections of Sandy’s material was creative producer of an earlier London staging of this concert to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Sandy’s death. Then last year Thea Gilmore was approached by the Denny estate to put music to the words of previously unknown songs found among Sandy’s papers.  Andrew decided it was an opportune time to restage the London concert as a national tour, this time expanded to include Thea Gilmore’s songs.

In her short career, Sandy Denny wrote an astonishing range of songs, many in the folk tradition such as ‘Fotheringay’ which imagines the last night of Mary Queen of Scots’ life, and which sounds as if it was composed in the 16th century.  Then there were the later songs from her (to my ears) over-orchestrated solo albums on which her voice was swamped in sickly-sweet strings – great songs, though, such as ‘Like an Old Fashioned Waltz’ and ‘I’m A Dreamer’. Sandy’s songs were deeply personal and reflective compositions in which her ideas were often expressed through vivid evocations of the natural world – especially her love of the sea and the shore, hills and fields, the sky and birds in flight.  To my mind, there are few finer opening lines than:

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving 
But how can they know it’s time for them to go? 
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming 
I have no thought of time

Sandy Denny died, aged only 32, from head injuries sustained when she fell down stairs at home.  For many years she had struggled with loneliness and drug and alcohol problems.  Her husband had left her, taking their baby daughter with him.  What came across from so many of the songs in the show was a deep undercurrent of melancholy, a sense of isolation, pain and vulnerability.

The show opening with ‘A Sailor’s Life’, sung by Lavinia Blackwall accompanied by Dave Swarbrick on violin, evoking the days when Denny and Swarbrick were both members of Fairport Convention. Blackwall also sang  ‘Late November’, her beautiful voice sounding remarkably close to Denny’s.

If Fairport were the most important group in English folk-rock in the 1970s, Steeleye Span were always snapping at their heels. Maddy Prior was a founder member and gave a great performance of ‘Fotheringay’, the song which gave its name to Sandy’s short-lived band.

Thea Gilmore gave us some of the songs from Don’t Stop Singing – the album on which she has created the musical arrangements for lyrics left unrecorded by Sandy.  The title song is one in which Sandy expresses the determination to overcome any problems life might throw at her with music: ‘don’t stop singing ’til you drop’. ‘London’ rocks along, and with its catchy chorus of ‘I wish I was in London, that’s where I want to be’, this year of all years it ought to be a hit. It’s getting airplay on Radio 2 at the moment, so it might.

‘Glistening Bay’ proved to be a great song infused with archetypal Denny imagery of the sea, nature, and the sense of passing time.

Oh those hills were tall and winding, all the roads they did divide
And when we reached the top we stopped to see over the side
Oh the fickle sea I’ve always loved
And to this very day
I do recall that city far below me like a glistening bay. [...]

I do recall I took a stone and felt it with my hand
I sat there on the high cliff top upon the warming land
I hid the precious stone I held inside a weathered tree
The perfumed cedars caught the wind which blew in from the open sea

A handful of small coloured flowers were nestling in the grass
I tossed them to the blustery sky and watched them as they danced
Oh the fickle sea I’ve always loved and to this very day
I’ll see those flowers come floating down towards the glistening bay.

Gilmore doesn’t attempt to copy Sandy Denny’s vocal style: the songs emerge sounding more Gilmore than Denny, and they all benefitted here from the sparseness of the arrangements: on the album, there are far too many strings for my taste.  The hairs on the back of the neck moment came with Long Time Gone with its aching chorus:

Will he come, will he ever come, will come again to me?

Thea was ably supported by Nigel Stonier on guitar.  This is a recent live version of the song from a performance at Cecil Sharp House with Liz Hanks on cello.

All who took to the stage exhibited great musicianship, but there were some contributions, as well as those already mentioned, that stood out for me.  Joan Wasser gave one of best solo numbers in the show, seated alone at the piano and singing ‘No More Sad Refrains’. She also gave strong performances of ‘By The Time It Gets Dark’ and ‘The Lady’.  Throughout the show guitarist Jerry Donahue played excellent lead guitar very reminiscent of Richard Thompson.

Another memorable moment came when the voices of Thea, Maddy and Lavinia were joined by Dave Swarbrick’s violin for a beautiful rendition of what I think is my favourite song of Sandy Denny’s after ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’.  ‘The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ is a green hymn that speaks of man’s despoilment of the land:

As gentle tides go rolling by,
Along the salt sea strand
The colours blend and roll as one
Together in the sand.
And often do the winds entwine
Do send their distant call,
The quiet joys of brotherhood,
And love is lord of all.
The oak and weed together rise,
Along the common ground.
The mare and stallion light and dark
Have thunder in their sound.
The rainbow sign, the blended flower
Still have my heart in thrall.
The quiet joys of brotherhood,
And love is lord of all.

But man has come to plough the tide,
The oak lies on the ground.
I hear their tires in the fields,
They drive the stallion down.
The roses bleed both light and dark,
The winds do seldom call.
The running sands recall the time
When love was lord of all.

‘Bushes and Briars’ is another great Sandy Denny lyric, based on an old Essex folk song, here performed (if I remember correctly) by Maddy Prior, Thea Gilmore and Lavinia Blackwall:

I can’t believe that it’s so cold
And there ain’t been no snow.
The sound of music it comes to me
From every place I go.
Sunday morning, there’s no one in church
But the clergy’s chosen man
And he is fine I won’t worry about him
Got the book in his hand.
There’s a bitter east wind and the fields are swaying
The crows are round their nests.
I wonder what he’s in there saying
To all those souls at rest.
I see the path which led to the door
And the clergy’s chosen man
Bushes and briars, you and I
Where do we stand?
I wonder if he knows I’m here
Watching the briars grow.
And all these people beneath my shoes,
I wonder if they know.
There was a time when every last one
Knew a clergy’s chosen man
Where are they now? Thistles ans thorns
Among the sand.
I can’t believe that it’s so cold
And there ain’t been no snow.
The sound of music it comes to me
From every place I go.
Sunday morning, there’s no one in church
But the clergy’s chosen man
Bushes and briars, thistles and thorns
Upon the land.

But the truly outstanding performance of the evening came for me when soul singer PP Arnold (‘Angel of the Morning’  and ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’) walked out on stage. I was surprised by this: I hadn’t noticed she was part of the ensemble, and I would not have associated her with the world of English folk.  But, as Andrew Batt pointed out in his introduction, she did sing on one Sandy Denny album – as well as providing backing vocals on Nick Drake’s  ‘Poor Boy’. Her gospel-infused take on  ‘Take Me Away’ was simply stunning:

Such sweet love is so hard to find
Look around, these are troublesome times
The sun beats down on our hunger and thirst
It would soon all be over if we let it be worse

Yet when I revisited Sandy Denny’s version, I realised the gospel sensibility was already there in the original.  PP Arnold is making her version available as a free download here.

The finale was, of course, inevitable, with the entire ensemble on stage to perform ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’. I can see why they did this, but it was a rather ragged and noisome performance of an introspective song that is best performed as a solo.  Perhaps they could have done a solo version earlier in the show and still ended with the ensemble version.

It had been a great show, if slightly marred by the less than perfect sound balance in the Circle (I’ve experienced this before at the Phil). The vocals, especially were distorted, making the lyrics hard to hear at times – not what you wanted in a homage to a great songwriter.But it was great to hear these songs live, performed by consummate musicians. Sandy Denny’s legacy is well worth celebrating.

Afterthought: noone sang ‘The Pond and the Stream’, a song  inspired by the reclusive folk singer Anne Briggs that has something of the essence of Denny in these lyrics:

Annie wanders on the land
She loves the freedom of the air
She finds a friend in every place she goes…
There’s always a face she knows
I wish that I was there [...]

We all live in the city
And imagine country scenes
Poor among the rich
Within four walls and out of reach
We live behind a screen

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12 thoughts on “The Lady: Sandy Denny tribute at the Phil

  1. Thanks for filling me in on so much about Sandy Denny, I knew so little, her duet with Robert Plant on ‘Battle of Evermore’ and through Eva Cassidy’s (another sublime voice, sadly missed) interpretation of ‘Who knows…’, and the occasional choice made by someone on Desert island Discs or the like. It sounds like her life was so desperately sad, always that question I ask when I read of early deaths like this, ‘If only someone had been there, maybe….

  2. And so was Gateshead: also billiant.
    It sounds as though the whole tour has been superb, despite the views of a few self-important, self- aware and self-appointed critics who seem so ignorant of the work.

  3. I haven’t seen this, Gerry, but I appreciated this post very much.Someone pointed out to me awhile ago the eerie similarities between Sandy Denny’s accident and death and my own situation. Ms Denny fell down a flight of stairs and fell into a coma; I fell down a flight of stairs, appeared for almost a month to have little wrong, then collapsed and fell into a coma. Ms Denny’s coma lasted four days, mine lasted almost ten, we both suffered brain haemorrhage and blunt force trauma (hers midbrain, mine subarachnoid)and both were in comatose state for more than sufficient time to cause vegetative state. She died, I lived. Sometimes I sit easy with my current state, sometimes not. Sandy Denny left an impeccable and far-reaching legacy, something that I most certainly would not have done and am even less likely to do now. I don’t really know where these thoughts are leading me…just something about the fragility of life, the way it is no respector of talent or person and perhaps that in celebrating her legacy and life, we should all be mindful of our own focus and using every moment that we have with a passing, but not dwelling, reference in our heads to the fact that, like beautiful, spherical and perfect dandelion clocks that are re-arranged and scattered with the slightest breeze, all that we have been or are could be blown away tomorrow.

    Gosh, that sounds depressing … now you know why I just usually press the ‘like’ button!! x

    • Your response, Elizabeth, is moving (not at all depressing, but life-affirming) and uncanny. I read it just after finishing a book recommended by another respondent to this blog a few posts back – ‘The Philosopher and the Wolf’ by Mark Rowlands. He is an academic philosopher who tells of the time, some years back, when as a young university lecturer in Alabama he became the owner of a wolf. He weaves together the remarkable story of the relationship between man and wolf with philosophical explorations. So, when the wolf dies, leaving the philosopher literally howling at the moon, he seeks an answer to the question – what did the wolf lose, what do we lose when we die? To cut a lengthy disquisition shorter, he concludes that ‘what time can never take from us is who we are in our best moments’. By ‘best moments’ he means the times when our back is to the wall, there is no hope, there is pain, when death is leaning over our shoulder. The meaning of life is to be found in such moments when we find out what is most important in our lives. I may not have communicated that too well – far better to read the book. And thanks, too, for breaking your vow not comment on blogs!

      • Thanks for the tip The Philosopher and the Wolf. Just ordered it for my husband because he is into philosophy and had to put down his wolf-hybrid (80% wolf) a year ago and was really badly affected. I think he will appreciate the book as you describe it.

  4. I’m glad that you qualified ‘best moments’, Gerry. In my first analogy of my situation, I felt very much that my ‘best moments’ had been taken not only from me but also those I live with. For example, I have no actual memory of being married to M, birthing my children or, perhaps more devastatingly, the deaths of my daughters; all I know of those times is through accounts that I had written previously or what I call ‘received memory’ – ie; other people have shown me the evidence or told me that these things happened. Over time, I have revised my thinking on this, as far as I personally am concerned (‘though not necessarily for those around me for whom it must be a far greater challenge living with me than I with them), and have come to an acceptance that the ‘best moments’ are in the everyday, no matter what heartache it contains. You have seen me write on a number of occasions that had I my time over again and had the power to control events, I wouldn’t change what happened as the experiences I’ve had since, because of it, have been mind-blowingly enlightening, not in any ditzy spiritual way, but in ephemeral ways that I can’t begin to evaluate or communicate. Perhaps, yes, in the way you describe here.

    I shall seek out this book and add it to my ever growing pile of ‘as recommended by Gerry’ titles! As to breaking my vow to commenting on other blogs, you may have seen my recent post where I used the analogy of the joke ‘Schrödinger’s cat: wanted dead or alive’. In some people’s eyes, I will always be ‘dead’ and not worthy of a place on the internet, in the eyes of others I am very much ‘alive’ and have a contribution to make. Sadly, blogging, for me, has brought me into contact with more than my fair share of the former and I now struggle enormously with a medium that I originally embraced to tether those elusive memories and celebrate my on-going recovery. But, I have come to the conclusion that to hide away completely is to give the bigots a glory they don’t deserve, to deny the care, encouragement and support that I have received and to lay waste the ‘voice’ that I have to speak for all SAH survivors, most of whom do not have the quality of life that I have. So, I now tread a precarious path, posting only on my original blog when I feel a need and commenting even more rarily. You have always been such a wonderful support and encouragement to me, Gerry, urging me to continue when I felt like throwing in the towel and there is only your blog and one other that I know that I can safely comment on knowing that your other visitors will respect my comments and right to be there. Thank you.

    I am facing a new challenge this summer; I am playing a significant speaking role in the York Mystery Plays 2012, something I never envisaged to be a possibility. It is frightening, exhausting but exhilarating, calling upon all of my reserves of energy and pushing the boundaries in memory and interaction with others like nothing else so far (post SAH). This is far more challenging than walking through fire! So, I have a new blog, just recording the milestones, involving myself in the moment and allowing myself to have fun with it, without any other agenda. It’s here – http://tmastanforth-sharpe.com/ x

  5. I did really appreciate the review,Gerry. I heard of Sandy Denny for the first time some 5 years ago and fell immediately in love with her voice. It communicate deeply with me in a way I can’t explain. Its very hard to find somethig about her here in Brasil but I could read her biography “No More Sad Refrains”.

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