Acoustic Strawbs – “Live in Toronto at Hugh’s Room ” (2003)

by | Jan 28, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Acoustic Strawbs –  “Live in Toronto at Hugh’s Room” (2003)

Studio: Witchwood Media 2004
Video:  4:3 color, no region coding
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo
Length: 84 minutes
Rating: ****

In the late 1960s something magical was occurring in the Strawberry Hill section of West London.  A loosely organized group of talented musicians were laying the groundwork to transform their traditional Anglo-Celtic folk-influenced songs into epics backed by the grandeur of full blown rock instrumentation.  The acoustic Strawberry Hill Boys became the Strawbs and released their pastoral first LP with a lineup including the late Sandy Denny.  As the years went by, the group became more and more electric – while at the same time remaining totally eclectic.  They established a sound like no other.  Their combination of fascinating tales with such daringly appropriate instrumental backdrops was astoundingly singular.  On top of everything else, the band possessed “the Voice”.  The magnificent vocals of David Cousins.  In all my listening to music over the last 40 years, I have never found a voice more perfectly matched to the songs presented.  It was almost a combination of listening to a poetic recital of a literary masterpiece with incredibly sophisticated backing arrangements.  The splendor of the material was like the old days of Cinemascope for movies – it was an aural spectacular.  Rick Wakeman (of later “Yes” fame) passed through the ranks, to be replaced by Blue Weaver and later by John Hawken.  The initial acoustic guitar-keyboard/Mellotron driven sound was supplemented by the electric guitar of Dave Lambert as the group evolved  over the years.  But ever-present was “the Voice” – no other band had a chance of sounding like anything remotely approaching  the Strawbs as long as David Cousins held sway there.

They released a series of marvelous albums to critical acclaim throughout Britain and Europe :  ” From The Witchwood”, “Grave New World”, “Bursting At The Seams”, “Hero And Heroine” and “Ghosts”.  There were others as well, but these five LPs represented them at their peak.  It was only Elton John’s “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only The Piano Player” that kept “Bursting At The Seams” from becoming the #1 chart album in England in 1974.  Ironically, the sales were fueled by a catchy, but lesser tune entitled “Part Of The Union”.  This song supported and celebrated labor unions during a period of labor strife in England and could be heard everywhere.  But much more revelatory was the immense quality of the other nine selections – they were stupendous.  A grand achievement of staggering proportions.  The Strawbs’ early to mid-1970s output revealed some of the highest quality rock ever imagined.  A perfect marriage of voice, arrangements, sound, lyrics and presentation.  The manner in which they interpreted the nature of the material they presented was blessed.  And that is an apropos adjective, since their sound has always seemed to carry a medievally religious component.  Mr. Cousins himself calls it “gothic folk”.  I guess that’s as accurate as any description can be, as long as one remembers that it is driven and supplemented by expert use of the electronic tools available to the master musicians of the time.  It was so splendid!  (By the way, A&M has reissued excellently remastered versions of all the discs).

But this review involves a 2003 acoustic concert by a threesome known as the “Acoustic Strawbs”.  David Cousins, Dave Lambert and Brian Willoughby.  Some classic material is presented here with guitar, banjo, Ebow and rich vocal harmony.  Actually, this is a tremendous delivery method as it shows the strength of the writing, melodies, and lyrics.  By stripping the electric layers away, what emerges is the inner beauty of the song structures.  I’ve heard these numbers in all their glory so many times over the years that I profoundly appreciate this opportunity to hear them in a different way.  By the same token, it powerfully reinforces my belief about just how intelligently glorious they always were.  The bare stage, with minimal lighting and a candelabra is very nice.  Mr Cousins handles the majority of the vocals, but Mr. Lambert shines during his opportunies and they harmonize magnificently.  All the selections include precise guitar/string interaction with incisive alternating leads and rhythm support.  They perform 13 songs drawn from an assortment of releases.  The show takes place in a small, sold out Toronto club where they gave a series of performances.  Actually, I would term it to be more of a recital – a masterful event presented by three titans of the genre.  A celebration of the music form only the Strawbs could give life to.

The tunes are ” Ghosts / McLean Street (Who Knows Where The Time Goes) / Flying / The Hangman And The Papist / Autumn (Heroines’s Theme, Deep Summer’s Sleep, The Winter Long) / Remembering / You And I (When We Were Young) / Out In The Cold / Round And Round / Hero And Heroine / Simple Visions / We’ll Meet Again Some Time “.  All possess rare beauty and significance, from the yearning memories throughout, to the harrowing tale of Protestant/Catholic violence where a village Protestant youth is forced to act as a hangman – only to agonizingly learn that the victim standing proud is his younger brother “who has failed to show allegiance to the king”.

In addition to the concert, there is a segment called ” In The Beginning, ” during which Cousins and the others  show some old West London hangouts and reminisce about their formative times.  The names of some of the artists who frequented the places they played in the early years are astounding (Jimmy Page, Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, John Mayall, David Bowie and so many others).  They’re filmed sitting in the pub where the photo gracing the jacket of their album “Just A Collection Of Antiques And Curios” was taken.  The nostalgia is endearing and comprises the first segment of the DVD.   This  is precisely the right way to begin the disc as it introduces David Cousins as the superb, gentle storyteller he always was.  He might be more rotund now, but he maintains the ability –  like a grandfather or favorite uncle –  to weave a tale leaving his young listener enthralled on his lap.  This analogy basically describes the massive body of work by the Strawbs.  They spun epic tales supported by an epic ability to present them in the manner which did them justice.  Do yourself a tremendous favor.  Pick up this inspired DVD and get some of their CDs.  If you’ve never encountered their music, you’re in for one of your biggest treats.  Once you’ve done this, you’ll never forgive yourself for missing out on the ability to appreciate the Strawbs during the last 30 years.

– Birney K. Brown

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