Black Sheep Inn
Wakefield, Quebec, Canada
March 7, 2009
Thanks to the internet, niche music has once again become not only popular with fans from around the world collected into global communities but even lucrative. Progressive folksters Strawbs never stopped entirely after a successful string of albums beginning with Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios (A&M, 1970) and ending with Ghosts (A&M, 1975). The group continued to record through the late '70s, but it was 1974's Hero and Heroine (A&M) that was the group's undisputed pinnacle, a triumph of symphonic, mellotron-driven anthems like the dramatic title track, the harder-rocking "Round and Round," the folksier "Shine on Silver Sun" and episodic "Autumn."
Still, after less successful albums, like Burning for You (A&M, 1977) and Deadlines (Arista, 1978), the groupled by the group's only original member, singer/guitarist David Cousinsmore or less disappeared until the late '90s, when it was revived in two formatsthe electric version that featured the Hero and Heroine line-up of Cousins, bassist/vocalist Chas. Cronk, guitarist/vocalist Dave Lambert, drummer Rod Coombes and keyboardist John Hawken, and an acoustic configuration with Cousins, Cronk and Lambert. It was the electric version of Strawbs, with keyboardist Oliver Wakeman, son of prog legend Rick Wakeman, replacing the now-retired Hawken, that performed two sets to a packed house at The Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield, Quebec, about 20 miles outside of Ottawa.
With Lambert providing a sweet vocal compared to Cousins' more melodramatic delivery, the group focused largely on material from Hero and Heroine, Bursting at the Seams (A&M, 1973) and Grave New World (A&M, 1972), though there were brief nods to Strawbs' early days with the late Sandy Denny on Sandy Denny and The Strawbs (Hannibal, 1967), and its early evolution towards a more electric sound on From the Witchwood (A&M, 1971)the latter featuring Rick Wakeman, an early member of the group. Oliver Wakeman proved capable of emulating both his father and Hawken's signature sounds and styles, but was equally capable of his own approach, most evident on the encore, where he was given the most solo space of the evening.
l:r: Oliver Wakeman, Chas. Cronk, David Cousins, Rod Coombs, Dave Lambert
Wakeman to the contrarylooking much younger than his 37 yearsthe band appeared pretty long in the tooth with the exception of Coombs, who looked lean and healthy behind his small kit. At times overwhelmed by the power and volume of the rest of the group, he was still a solid anchor, keeping songs like the anthemic "Lay Down," which opened the first set, moving forward with energy and finesse. The vocal trio of Cousins, Lambert and Cronk sounded as good as they did 35 years ago. Cousins' high end has suffered a bit in the intervening years, making him strain for the high notes on "Round and Round" and the bleak, mellotron-driven "New World," but for the most part he was in fine form, his 12-string acoustic guitar providing the foundation around which the rest of the band coalesced. Older he may be, but Cousins has lost none of his flair for the melodramatic, both in his delivery of songs like the rocked-out folklore of "Hero and Heroine" and in his spoken introductions, which referred to the rather serious nature of most of the material. Still, he wasn't without a sense of humor, announcing at the end of the first set, "We'll take a short break so you can refresh your drinks and we can go upstairs to plug in our pacemakers."
Lambert's few vocal spotlights, including a beautiful version of the romantic "The Winter and the Summer," from Bursting at the Seams, and lyrical "(Hold on to Me) Winter Long," the anthemic final section of Hero and Heroine's "Autumn," were highpoints of the sets, as was Cousins' powerful, Middle Eastern-tinged "The Call to Action," the opening track on The Broken Hearted Bride (Witchwood, 2008), the group's first electric studio record since 2003's Blue Angel (Witchwood, 2003). Clearly Strawbs is a reunited and revived group that still has relevance 40 years since it first came together.
While it's uncertain if Wakeman will stay or nothe has his own group, not to mention being in demand with other groups including Yes, who recruited him for its recent In the Present tour before it was cut short due to the health problems of bassist Chris Squire. It would be interesting to hear Wakeman given a greater opportunity to be himself rather than emulating others; still, between himself and Lambert there was plenty of solo power at a show that had progressive rock fans in an energetic and clearly appreciative mood.
l:r: Oliver Wakeman, Chas. Cronk, David Cousins
According to Tour Manager Neil Byford, the Montreal show the previous night sold out within hours, thanks to FMPM's Stephen Takacsy, who emailed progressive rock fans to spread the word. And the Ottawa show was no different, with fans including Molly Cort travelling with her husband all the way from Rochester, New York, for the show. The power of the internet to revive groups is undeniable, and with Strawbs' show at the Black Sheep Inn the subject of discussion the next day at Progressive Ears, it's clear that progressive fans have come together as a global community to help make tours like this possible.