2009 sees the 40th-ish anniversary of the Strawbs. I say "ish" because it's actually the 40th anniversary of their first record which isn't really the same thing, as they actually began life five years earlier as a bluegrass band called the Strawberry Hill Boys. In fact, to be scrupulously accurate, their first record came out in June 1968, with their first album coming out in 1969. Whatever… this year sees a couple of special live shows lined up which will see five different lineups of the band performing the music of yore. So what better time for the band to put out a brand new studio album?
Their bluegrass period didn't last once main man Dave Cousins started writing, and they quickly became mainstays of the UK folk-rock scene. However, once Rick Wakeman arrived on keyboards, alongside a new rhythm section consisting of Richard Hudson and John Ford, they added a progressive rock edge to their sound on albums like the live Just A Collection Of Antiques And Curios and the studio sets, From The Witchwood and Grave New World. The prog edge largely vanished once Dave Lambert arrived, something that coincided with the pop success of singles "Lay Down" and "Part Of The Union" and album Bursting At The Seams.
After their most successful lineup imploded, Cousins and Lambert put together a new Strawbs, which concentrated its attentions on the USA, and it's the nucleus of this version that is back together in 2009. The band went on hiatus in 1980 when Cousins departed for a career in radio, but there have been a few reunions over the years including headlining the 1983 Cambridge Folk Festival with the Grave New World lineup, a twenty fifth anniversary tour in 1993 and a thirtieth anniversary celebration. Since then, they've popped up fairly regularly leading up to this arithmetically challenged 40th anniversary.
Dancing To The Devil's Beat sees Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert, Chas Cronk and Rod Coombes back together with new boy Oliver (son of Rick) Wakeman, and it's all rather good. After a slow start in the shape of “Beneath The Angry Sky”, the most ineffectual song on the album, which tries to build up slowly, but just goes nowhere, the Strawbs settle into a groove reflecting their way of doing things circa 1974. A lot of thought and effort seems to have gone into making the lyrics in particular, very much a part of now, with even the World War I-based "Pro Patria Suite", capable of being a parable of the modern day. It's a marvellous, albeit bleak, suite, beautifully arranged with banjo and pipe organ up front and centre. The anti-war (although never anti-soldier) theme continues on into "Where Silent Shadows Fall", which is driven along by a miltary snare drum backing and closes evocatively with an instrumental coda led by the sound of a cornet.
Elsewhere, greedy politicians are the targets of the title track, and the album closes with an excellent reworking of their very first single "Oh How She Changed". The production is a bit 1980s in places, especially with some rather dated percussion sounds, but when then whip out a song as blissful as the acoustic "Copenhagen", which harks back to their very early folk rock days, evoking a spirit of times gone but not forgotten. The band are all in fine form, with new boy Oliver Wakeman splashing some excellent piano and organ around, embellishing without overpowering the songs.
As a celebration of Strawbs, past and present, this is an utter delight.