Lal & Mike Waterson: Bright Phoebus
Domino Records – 4 August 2017
Bright Phoebus is a strange but wonderful beast of a record: a collection of entirely self-penned material from two siblings who were previously known exclusively for performing traditional folk songs acapella in the context of the acclaimed Waterson’s group. After the group had split, Lal and Mike Waterson had begun, quite independently of each other, to create their own songs “freed from the strictures of folk orthodoxy”. In 1971, Martin Carthy heard the songs they’d been writing and alerted Ashley Hutchings, who set up some recording sessions with Bill Leader.
The album was recorded in the space of a week in a makeshift studio in the basement of Cecil Sharp House with the eager participation of a generous handful of musician and singer friends (Lal’s husband George Knight described the sessions as “purposeful conviviality” and an “instant happening” – O to have been a fly on the wall!). Originally released in 1972 on the Trailer label, Bright Phoebus’ initial pressing was exhausted shortly after the label went bankrupt, and the disc rapidly gained sought-after-rarity status and became a cult classic, subsequently surfacing only on a 2000-vintage CD-R of dubious origin before now, at long last, attaining a richly deserved, properly remastered and lavishly packaged multi-format (CD and vinyl) reissue.
Bright Phoebus’ doggedly unusual adventures-in-song have intrigued music fans over four decades, and it may seem surprising that so elusive an artefact can have exerted such a disproportionately strong influence on the current generation of musicians, spawning a 2002 tribute album (Shining Bright), then a 2007 BBC Radio 4 documentary, then in 2013 even a Bright Phoebus Revisited tour). However, even considering (or maybe in spite of) the album’s legendary status, its slightly cranky reputation (being too folk for the rock world, too original for the trad-folk world) has also, for many folk fans, had the effect of overshadowing its artistic merit – thus making this fulsome Domino reissue doubly valuable as a tool for proper reassessment.
Bright Phoebus’ musical identity is something of a patchwork ragbag (a bag of rags overall, to coin a paraphrase), and not perhaps the easiest of that era’s most iconic records to come to terms with. We find gleefully ramshackle full-band arrangements being more or less alternated with compellingly sparse-textured, intimately scored tracks. Nevertheless, and largely due to the consistent “songwriting voice” which brother and sister, and Lal in particular, had by then (astonishingly quickly) developed and presented, the album still manages to hang together surprisingly well. In some ways, it’s ahead of its time, and yet at the same time, it’s very much of its time, not least in the songs’ often idiosyncratic structures and progressions but also in the somewhat eccentric at-home nature of the musical settings on around half of the tracks. Pete Paphides’ booklet essay, which provides a useful (if tantalisingly partial) element of commentary on the songs and some measure of background to their gestation, contains the following insight: “How ironic that these songs were once so disparaged for the mere fact that they were written by the people who sang them. Listening to, say, Child Among The Weeds or Fine Horseman over four decades later, the mark of their greatness is that they don’t sound like they were *ever* written. They sound like they were always out there, awaiting excavation from our collective ancestral memory bank. In this sense, Bright Phoebus is as much a folk album as anything else bearing the Waterson imprint.” And indeed, there’s evidently so much more of a story to be told.
The album’s calling-on song, the bouncy (sic) Rubber Band, is possibly its least “traditional” piece. With knowing nods to chirpy pop and the zeitgeist of chummy Sergeant Pepper-style nostalgia; its “novelty” scoring features cornet, trombone, clarinet, twanging jew’s harp and electric-folk rhythm section, with Tim Hart & Maddy Prior joining the three Watersons (Mike, Lal and Norma) on exuberant vocals. The next pair of tracks couldn’t form more of a contrast, with phantasmally spare settings (centred around the intricate interweaving guitars of Richard Thompson and Martin Carthy) and singing of gorgeously abrasive beauty. The Scarecrow’s simple but masterly unfolding of the primordial seasonal round is evocative, sinister and profoundly disturbing, while Fine Horseman is a powerful study in dashed hopes and unfulfilled expectations. After this, it’s back to the oddball with a pair of character studies, Winifer Odd and Danny Rose, the idea for the former came from an imaginary friend of Mike’s daughter, while the latter sports an authentic rockabilly flavour (with Richard Thompson on lead guitar).
Closing the first side of the original LP is one of its standout songs, Child Among The Weeds (which Lal wrote with Christine Collins – we learn, following the birth of Lal’s son Oliver and the stillbirth of his twin sister); this receives a magnificent one-take reading from Lal in an astounding vocal duet with Bob Davenport (a harrowing tour-de-force) and the accompaniment of tingling harmonics from Martin.
The original LP’s second side opens with the breezy Magical Man (a kind of folky take on Mr. Kite, the booklet essay posits), which brings back the sturdy Thompson/Hutchings/Mattacks bedrock and a large vocal chorus consisting of anyone who just happened to walk through the door! Immediate contrast is then provided by Lal’s devastatingly bleak reflection on the threat of a nuclear winter Never The Same (one of the tracks to memorably feature Clare Deniz’s cello in consort with the delicately interlocking Carthy & Thompson guitar parts). To Make You Stay plaintively expresses a mother’s anxiety at the thought of her child taking flight, after which comes Mike’s composition Shady Lady, the general feel of which rather foreshadows the folk-rock adventures of early Richard & Linda Thompson. The album’s penultimate track is another masterpiece – Norma taking the vocal (accompanied by Martin) on Red Wine And Promises, Lal’s self-deprecating recounting of a true incident that happened during her own courtship. Then comes the disc’s finale (and title song) – an irresistibly cheery, rousing country-Americana-cum-early-Fairport-style singalong number guaranteed to earworm itself with you all the way home.
While the original Bright Phoebus album is gold-dust in its own right, it’s the disc’s deluxe edition that’s the one to have, for it contains a second disc’s worth of demos dating from 1971, the majority of which are previously unreleased. Of these, nine are of songs from the album itself; and all are of considerable interest; some have significant changes to the lyrics which are sung on the LP (eg. on The Scarecrow, it’s “a man new born” that’s tied to the stake), and others are sung by different voices (Lal instead of Mike on The Scarecrow; Mike instead of Bob on Child Among The Weeds; and Lal instead of Norma on Red Wine And Promises). These are readings of extraordinary starkness and primal power. Of the remaining three demos, two are superb songs by Mike that didn’t make the album – One Of Those Days, a poignant portrait of a lonely childhood, and Jack Frost, a truly chilling study of winter that tellingly parallels and references war. The final demo is Lal’s heartbreaking tribute to a young local woman Song For Thirza (a tremendous song that had to wait until Shining Bright for exposure). Incidentally, this latter demo had previously been outed on the Watersons Mighty River Of Song box-set, as had that of Red Wine And Promises, along with a different, later (1996) demo of Jack Frost. One final curiosity is that this bonus disc of demos doesn’t include demos of album tracks To Make You Stay and Shady Lady, which had appeared on the wondrous 2013 Fledg’ling book-and-CD artefact Teach Me To Be A Summer’s Morning. But that’s the most minor of quibbles in the context of what is a splendid package that will restore the Bright Phoebus album to its rightful place in the permanent catalogue. It’s available in standard (single-CD and single-LP) and deluxe (double-disc CD or vinyl) editions, but as I said above, the deluxe edition can be counted the essential purchase.
Bright Phoebus Deluxe Edition – CD| Vinyl | Download