On Stage at The Strand - Plainsong and the Strawbs
For as long as I can remember, music has been at the center of my life. At home, it was show tunes and crooners; in grade school, there was Bandstand; come junior high, it was church basement coffeehouses and fire hall dances; in high school, new sounds from across the pond and jazz were added to the mix; and a job at a start-up music magazine in Philadelphia in the late 60s and early 70s gave me nearly limitless access to the city’s exploding music scene.
The reason I am sharing this condensed trip down Memory Lane is to make the point that music is part of my history.
And I don’t mean history in the record-of-events dictionary way, but more as a fluid, continuously moving thing that connects the present with the past and the future.
To bring this all back around, it is this continuity and connection that spurred me to write this feature about The Strand Theater in Lakewood, NJ and two upcoming concerts there – Plainsong, with Iain Matthews and Andy Roberts, on Saturday, April 8, and the Strawbs “Hero and Heroine” Live, on Wednesday, May 11.
Though I have yet to see a show at The Strand, their regular emails and event schedules are enticing. And I was downright delighted to discover their spring schedule featuring not one, but two of my long-time favorites – the Strawbs and Iain Matthews.
Recently, I talked to Ray Cole, who has worked with The Strand for 16 years and is the person who booked both acts. I told him I was a big fan of Iain Matthews and the Strawbs and asked why he wanted to bring these acts to the theater.
“I have seen a lot of trends come and go in music,” Cole told me, “but then there are artists with decades-long careers who continue to develop and create. It’s great to be able to provide another outlet for their music.”
Iain Matthews, Plainsong, and the Strawbs are excellent examples.
Iain Matthews began playing music professionally in 1967 with the British folk group Fairport Convention, and hasn’t stopped yet. I had a chance to chat by email with him, and I asked what helps him continue to create and perform meaningful songs.
“In a nutshell, it’s the love of the music, and remaining true to the muse,” he said. “I made a pact with myself that I would stop when I started to do this for any other reasons. So far I have stayed the course.”
Matthews is equally diligent about content, favoring fact over fiction and broad strokes over a narrow viewpoint. “I try to step outside myself and write in a more global way, whether it’s current affairs or hero worship,” he said. “I consider myself more of a conduit than a storyteller.”
This philosophy likely came into play when Plainsong assembled a collection of songs by Richard Farĩna into an album last year.
"This year marks the 50th anniversary of Farĩna’s untimely death,” Matthews told me. “We love his writing, and we wanted to bring attention to the recordings he and [his wife] Mimi made."
Matthews’ musical influences span a wide landscape.
“I was first drawn to British bands–Hollies, Kinks, Animals. From there, I discovered soul. My early favorites were The Impressions, Otis Redding, James Brown, and Joe Tex.
“I stayed with that until Dylan came along, and then my passion was acoustic music.
“These days, I listen to some pop, and a lot of jazz,” Matthews said. “Brad Mehldau, Bill Frissell, John Scofield, plus classic jazz like Mulligan, Monk, Miles.
“Right now, I’m reading a Duke Ellington biography and, consequently, buying more of his music, plus Billy Strayhorn and Ella.
“And there’s this Norwegian songwriter/composer/sax player, Bendik Hofseth,” he said. “He excites me.”
What also excites Matthews is the exchange that happens during live shows.
“I encourage my audience to talk to me and tell me what they want,” he said. “I rarely give it to them, but I love the feedback.” (I picture him smiling as he wrote this.)
This attitude will serve Plainsong well at The Strand, where they’ll perform at Backstage Pass, the theater’s intimate space that allows for plenty of interaction between artists and audience.
The pendulum will swing the other way when The Strand hosts the Strawbs performing–in its entirety– “Hero and Heroine,” the 1974 release that Rolling Stone magazine included on its “50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time” list.
Booking the Strawbs was a no-brainer for Ray Cole.
“I have been listening to them for a long time,” Cole said. “’Hero and Heroine’ is one of my favorite albums.
“I expect this to be an amazing concert,” he continued. “This group of musicians knows each other so well,” he said, “and they still love what they’re doing.”
In a recent phone call with David Cousins, long-time leader of the Strawbs, I asked about the decision to take “Hero and Heroine” on the road.
“This record has enjoyed great popularity and is the one that has ‘stayed’ longest in the U.S.,” he said. “But most of it has never been played live on stage.
“We did this tour in England last year and it went so well that we wanted to bring it to the U.S.”
One thing that has been surprising to Cousins is how much he’s learned from putting together this album-centric show.
“The songs developed over the years,” said Cousins. “They were raw when we did them originally. Now I’m starting to understand the emotions, and see the story line more clearly.”
The concert’s second set will feature the record from beginning to end, but the band won’t simply be reproducing the masterpiece note-for-note.
“We sort of took it apart,” Cousins explained, “and then put in some bits and linking instrumental parts to add to the continuity.
“It’s a new performance.”
I’d always assumed that the Strawbs’ distinctive sound was due to Cousins’ unique vocal style. But, imagine my surprise to learn that it was something completely different.
“When I was younger, I loved Flatt and Scruggs,” Cousins told me. “I listen to their records at half-speed so I could play along and learn the banjo.”
His first group was called the Strawberry Hill Boys (eventually shortened to the Strawbs), and was one of Britain’s first bluegrass bands (for real). And the evolution from then to what became the Strawbs came in no small part from Cousins’ early experimentation with the banjo.
“It was a largely modal sound,” Cousins said, “derived from those Appalachian banjo players.
“There are many songs on ’Hero and Heroine’ written in different guitar tunings.
“To this day,” he said, “I still write songs in that modal tuning.”
When I told him that I’d heard the Strawbs’ music described as “poetic mellotron rock,” it made him laugh.
“That’s funny,” he said. “I think it sounds like medieval monks playing music.”
But, honestly, it doesn’t matter much what you call the music or into which category you think the band belongs. What counts is that the Strawbs have managed to stay the course through the years.
Cousins is proud of this.
“When they come to see us now,” he said, “people are getting the genuine Strawbs.
“The four of us were playing together in the 70s,” he added. “We have strong connections. We’re like one big family.”
And, Cousins told me, with the addition of the new keyboard player, he thinks this is one of the best bands the Strawbs has ever had.
“We can’t wait to get out there and play.”
For tickets and more information on Plainsong with Iain Matthews & Andy Roberts, featuring Kevin John Allen, on April 9 and Strawbs' "Hero & Heroine" LIVE on May 11, visit www.strand.org.