Late in November 1969, just days before the release of Fairport Convention’s seminal Liege And Lief LP, on which she had played such a crucial role, Sandy Denny announced her departure from the band – reportedly due to “an unwillingness to travel”, but more likely due to her increasing wish to showcase her own songwriting – which would have been at odds with Fairport’s new emphasis on traditional songs and instrumental pieces (and also as a result of her relationship with Trevor Lucas, whose own band Eclection had folded earlier that year). To cut a long story short, Sandy and Trevor recruited bass player Pat Donaldson, guitarist Jerry Donahue and drummer Gerry Conway, the whole ensemble then comprising Fotheringay, ostensibly more of a “family/collective” than a personality-oriented band.
The musical direction Fotheringay espoused could be viewed as a kind of “alternative universe” path from that of Fairport, being a kind of amalgam of early (pre-Liege & Lief) Fairport with a loose kind of country-rock that would’ve been called Americana if only the word had been invented, heavily influenced by The Band and Dylan’s Basement Tapes, together with a heavy quotient of Sandy’s own songs, truly a force to be reckoned with. It was an incredibly strong team, of that there was no doubt; and the intuitive rapport between the musicians was extraordinary – at least on the evidence of those recordings collected here (and others I’ve heard). The relaxed perfectionism of their approach and teamwork was much evident in the band’s only contemporaneously released studio album, which delivered a grand tally of no fewer than four brilliant Denny originals (Nothing More, The Sea, Winter Winds and The Pond And The Stream), alongside one co-write (Peace In The End), one Lucas (Ballad Of Ned Kelly), and a couple of approved covers (Gordon Lightfoot’s The Way I Feel, Dylan’s Too Much Of Nothing). The disc’s menu was completed by what has come – rather ironically, in view of the general away-from-trad direction the band initially seemed to be deliberately taking – to be regarded as perhaps its standout track, a magisterial, tautly imagined and arranged, supremely passionate account of Banks Of The Nile which has to be accounted as one of Sandy’s finest performances of all time.
Listening to the eponymous Fotheringay LP again today, I’m even more struck by just how much the band had to offer, and how brilliantly the different parts and elements went together, so organically and inventively. It really makes a virtue of intelligent use of the small-band framework to produce an exquisite, slightly understated whole that’s completely satisfying on its own terms. I can’t believe how much I underestimated the record at the time – criminally so, with hindsight; this I can only attribute to my own changing tastes (for a period in the early 70s inclining more towards traditional, classical or experimental musics and non-guitar-oriented instrumentation and away from the country or rock mainstreams). So this handsome hardcover-book-format release of “The Collected Fotheringay”, a four-disc (three audio, one DVD) compilation, now affords me – and I suspect a good number of other folks – the timely opportunity to re-evaluate the small output of this rather short-lived but truly excellent band. The three well-filled audio discs steer us through the band’s all-too-brief but stellar tenure, beginning (inevitably) with that eponymous Fotheringay LP, to this newly-remastered version of which are usefully appended six bonus tracks. These are described as alternate-takes or demos of tracks from that album, and are very revealing, not least the slower, more reflective alternate-take on Winter Winds and the “original version” take of The Way I Feel.
Buoyed no doubt by the events of summer 1970 – the commercial and critical success of the LP record, some storming live gigs, and then Sandy’s being voted Britain’s Best Female Singer in the Melody Maker poll – the band set out to record a second album, work on which was eventually abandoned in January 1971 when Sandy announced she was leaving the group to launch a solo career (this decision following close on the heels of a concert where the band were upstaged by a then-unknown Elton John!). The master tapes from the sessions for the second LP were scattered all over, but were lovingly, painstakingly reassembled by Jerry, Pat and Gerry just over a decade ago, and finally released by Fledg’ling in 2008; this assemblage is reproduced here in all its glory, and duly remastered, on Disc 2 of this new collection. Listening to it immediately after the first album, the progression – and differences – will be quite apparent. It’s an altogether more upfront production, with some more consciously full-textured arrangements, and sports a more diverse mix of musical stylings that to my mind doesn’t altogether satisfy, notwithstanding some fine performances. And disappointingly, the tracklist contains only two new Sandy Denny originals, albeit two of her finest – these being Late November and John The Gun; the latter’s intense menacing power is, I feel, somewhat undermined by both the full arrangement and its sax solos (the playing’s great, it’s just the context that doesn’t feel right). The arranged-traditional songs, though well enough conceived and solidly performed in the approved folk-rock manner, could never hope to attain the lofty heights of Banks Of The Nile (but let’s face it, that’s such a hard act to follow!), but to be fair Trevor’s vocals on Bold Jack Donaghue and Eppie Moray are also pretty darned good by any standards. Even now, though, the pair of Lucas original compositions on this album feel like makeweights, albeit respectable ones. The three covers fared better, with Sandy’s limpid, sensitive, leisurely-slowed-down rendition of Silver Threads And Golden Needles and her lovely revisit of Dave Cousins’ wistful Two Weeks Last Summer (which she’d demoed during her stint with the Strawbs) both seeming to pave the way for her immediate-post-Fotheringay solo-album predilections. Needless to say, it’s good to be able to experience again this second Fotheringay album, whose eventual release back in 2008 had met with deserved acclaim. And of course, it’s an essential piece in the contradictory and sometimes enigmatic jigsaw of the Fotheringay story, not least as a complement to the various live concert recordings from within the vital 1970 timeframe that have surfaced over the years. Disc 2 of this new set is completed by six bonus tracks; the first three are listed, somewhat enigmatically, as “Joe Boyd mixes” of tracks from the album, the fourth is credited as “2004 version” of Silver Threads…The final pair of tracks are versions of Bruton Town: the first is a slightly flaky transfer of a band rehearsal, undated, whereas the second, billed as “2015 version”, would appear to feature the specially-convened 2015 touring incarnation of Fotheringay (Jerry, Pat and Gerry; Kathryn Roberts, Sally Barker and P.J. Wright). Sadly, however, no reference is made to any of these bonus tracks in the set’s booklet essay, or in the press release, so I’m unable to confirm or elaborate on the above details.
Disc 3 comprises various live recordings. The first nine tracks come from the Holland Pop Festival in Rotterdam in June 1970, and certainly capture the fire and togetherness of the live unit, with excellent accounts of Two Weeks Last Summer, The Sea and Banks Of The Nile and storming, rocking takes on non-album covers I’m Troubled and Memphis, Tennessee – and much else besides: hot, real hot! By the way, six of the live tracks had previously been issued elsewhere, four of them on the 2004 Fledg’ling reissue of the original Fotheringay album – but the complete set is well worth having. The remaining seven tracks on Disc 3, all previously unreleased, were recorded for sundry BBC radio sessions during 1970; these include a brief snatch of Top Gear interview, a stunning Sandy solo a cappella Lowlands Of Holland and a version of John The Gun that felt closer to the spirit of the song than the album-2 rendition, while I also much prefer the radio-session take on Wild Mountain Thyme for its use of interweaving guitars rather than keyboard for backing.
Disc 4, the DVD, delivers four songs that were recorded for the German TV show Beat Club in late November 1970, two of which (Nothing More and John The Gun) were not even broadcast at the time. These, the press release says, “effectively double the existing footage of Sandy Denny in performance” (hmm…?); but there’s no denying they’re unforgettable performances of their kind, and thus must-haves; oh I wish there were more!
To summarise, Nothing More is a most valuable set, not least in that it brings together under one roof a host of recordings that together could be argued to represent the best, the bulk of the collected Fotheringay, and impeccably presented in the house style of earlier Island/Universal hardcover box-sets. The booklet is bound into the package, and contains a brand new authoritative essay by Mick Houghton, along with a copious selection of rare and previously unseen photographs typically well-reproduced. I’d repeat my quibble about the omission of any decent level of detail regarding the bonus material, though. And with respect to the set’s title, Nothing More – isn’t that a bit tongue-in-cheek (if more than a touch misleading), for clearly there is more in terms of extant recordings of Fotheringay – the Essen concert from October 1970, for instance, that was issued on CD a short while back. But let’s celebrate the set for what it does contain – the most comprehensive collection to date of the recorded legacy of Fotheringay.
Review by: David Kidman