David Cousins (The Strawbs) on Sandy Denny, Bill Monroe, and More
My record collection was once filled with so many great bands who formed in the 1960s and 1970s that some got short shrift. My mistake.
Then, a few years ago, I finally went to see Savoy Brown for the first time and was blown away by the band — particularly the brilliance of Kim Simmonds, the group’s founder, super-hot guitarist, and singer. They suddenly were so much more than the Hellbound Train album I primarily listened to for its smoking title cut and the other handful of albums I owned but, for no good reason, didn’t spin very often. Now I catch the band every chance I get.
A similar experience happened two weeks ago (on May 26) at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, Massachusetts. I drove a few hours to finally catch another legendary British band, the Strawbs, who, for years, I was always planning to see but never followed through. I always respected the band — from a few of their vinyl records I once owned and a few CDs I now have — but their music never fully sunk in. Heading to Northampton, I expected a good show but what I got instead was phenomenal.
It was the final show of the Strawbs’ brief US tour, which promised an electric recreation of their celebrated 1974 album, Hero and Heroine, billed by Rolling Stone as one of the Top 50 prog-rock albums of all time.
The Strawbs walked onto the small stage at the Iron Horse with founder/mastermind/singer-songwriter David Cousins — 71 years young — and three long-time members of the group who are 67 years old or older: lead guitarist and singer Dave Lambert, bassist Chas Cronk, and drummer Tony Fernandez. A new keyboard player, 56-year-old Dave Bainbridge, who joined the Strawbs in February and is a long-time member of the Celtic rock/prog/folk/ambient group Iona, filled out the roster.
Forget about the Strawbs members’ advanced age. The band proceeded to fill the small club with powerful, driving stadium-size prog-rock music that was stunning in its beauty, complexity, and warmth. Cousins’ impassioned vocals and gestures brought to mind, at times, a California evangelist with a little bit of Bryan Ferry in Roxy Music preacher mode.
Lambert’s guitar leads — sometimes psychedelic, sometimes straight rock riffs — were exciting, and his lead singing is underrated. (Cousins handles most vocal leads.)
The manic-yet-controlled drumming of Fernandez, who also plays in Rick Wakeman’s band, was off the charts, so it’s no surprise the Strawbs call him “Thunder Fists.” Cronk’s steady bass playing and fine vocal harmonies were also indispensable, and Bainbridge hit the keys with Yes-like majesty and aplomb.
As I listened to the first 45 minutes or so before the band took a break, I kept chastising myself for not previously seeing the Strawbs in concert. It was apparent that the band is an important component of rock and pop history and needs to be recognized as such.
The Strawbs’ opening set was so powerful and creative that I mistakenly thought they were playing Hero and Heroine. Then they returned after the break and played that amazing album in its entirety. Now I know why it’s one of the great prog-rock albums of all time. The prog elements are enthralling, and the lyrics, the folk music, and the three-part harmonies are mesmerizing.
In an interview, I asked Cousins how he would describe the music his band creates.
“Years ago, I would have described it as Gothic rock,” he says, “but when metal happened and Goths took over the style, we could no longer use it. It is rock music with lyrics that people identify with, and that is the reason for our longevity.”
Cousins says the band began in 1967 “as Britain’s first bluegrass band,” the Strawberry Hill Boys, and has evolved since. Besides Cousins, the Strawberry Hill Boys were comprised of singer and guitarist Tony Hooper and mandolinist Arthur Phillips.
Phillips was soon replaced by bassist Ron Chesterman. As the band expanded its sound beyond bluegrass, it changed its name to the Strawbs. Cousins recruited singer-songwriter Sandy Denny, and under the name Sandy Denny & the Strawbs, recorded that group’s first album, All Our Own Work, for a small Danish label. Denny soon departed to become a member of Fairport Convention and gain legendary status as a singer-songwriter.
“Sandy drew the caricatures for the album sleeve on the pavement,” Cousins recalls. “She considered herself a member of the band.”
The album’s second song was Denny’s enduring classic, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” but Cousins composed most of the songs.
In 1969, the Strawbs recorded their first album without Denny, Strawbs, on A&M Records. Cousins wrote or co-wrote all 10 songs. The album was praised as a folk-rock album with classical orchestration and choral backup vocals.
Keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman, who would later go on to international fame with Yes, played on the Strawbs’ second album. He, drummer Richard Hudson, and bassist John Ford then joined the band.
After Wakeman and then Hooper left the group, Lambert joined in 1973 and brought more rock and roll muscle into the band.
“Before Dave joined, we relied on keyboards or cellos as the melodic lead instruments,” Cousins says. “I played some electric guitar bits but could never master lead guitar.
“Dave was best friends with John Entwistle, and John was Dave’s best man at his wedding. They played together in a scout band called Boys Brigade Band with Dave on snare drum and John (who later would become the Who’s bassist) on horn. Dave was inspired by the Who and brought power chords to the band which, when played in unison with the mellotron, gave us a new identity.”
The Strawbs’ 1973 album, Bursting at the Seams, received international acclaim. Two songs, “Lay Down” and “Part of the Union,” made the Top 10 list in the United Kingdom, and the album received a lot of airplay on FM radio stations in the USA.
On the recommendation of Wakeman, Cronk joined the Strawbs after the album was released and was the bassist for 1974’s Hero and Heroine. Fernandez came on board in 1977.
“We have never consciously gone in any direction,” Cousins says. “As players join the group, they bring their own identify, and the band responds to their influences.”
Today’s live version of the Strawbs is the top one in the band’s long history, Cousins says.
“The latest shows we are doing in the USA are the best the band has ever sounded. Our new keyboard player, Dave Bainbridge, has brought melodic and inspiring sounds to us.”
What was the thinking behind the recent electric recreation of Hero and Heroine?
“We played it in the UK three years ago,” Cousins says. “When Rolling Stone magazine listed it as one of the 50 greatest prog-rock albums of all time, it was an opportunity to play it in the USA. The reaction has been astonishing. We have had to add links between the songs to allow us to change guitars, and they give the album a whole new entity.”
Cousins says it’s much easier leading the Strawbs now than in the group’s 1970s heyday.
“We all pull in the same direction,” he says.“When Hudson and Ford were in the band, there was a conflict about material.”
In the next few months, the Strawbs plan to record a new album. Cousins will also head to Canada as part of the acoustic Strawbs in October, and the group may add some US dates. He also says a live DVD and a live CD will be released to document the recent Hero and Heroine shows.
“I want to bring Hero and Heroine back to the USA next year and include some new songs in the set,” Cousins says.
The best live show he ever attended as a spectator, he says, was a BBC TV performance by Bob Dylan in 1965.
“I sat in the front row about 10 feet away from him, and he was mesmerizing. He played guitar with just downstrokes. It was the first time I heard ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ and the BBC put photo images to it. Sadly, the two half-hour shows have been deleted. Barrie Wentzell took photos of Bob just before the show, and they are on his website.”
The live performance that most influenced Cousins as a musician was by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in the mid-1960s. It took place in the garden of a home owned by bluegrass musician Bill Clifton in Kent, England. “Peter Rowan was on guitar, and they were inspiring,” Cousins remarks.
After the Iron Horse show, I also asked Lambert his influences as he casually puffed on a cigarette and chatted with fans on a Northampton sidewalk. He said a lot of American blues artists played in England in the 1960s who were big influences. He mentioned Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry, and Lead Belly, and also rockabilly pioneer Eddie Cochran.
Lambert also cited Carlos Santana, the “brilliant” Frank Zappa, and King Crimson as “best” concerts he has seen.
Those artists have carved out important niches in the history of rock music, so I asked Cousins, as we sat at the Iron Horse bar, how the Strawbs should be perceived historically.
The key, he says, is how Strawbs fans through the years have identified with — and become emotionally attached to — the band’s songs and lyrics. “People are getting married to our songs,” he says. “And people are burying the dead to our songs.”