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