The Strawbs have a long and varied history. Since starting out as a bluegrass band in 1964, their personnel has changed a multitude of times and their style has gone from traditional folk to a mix of folk and progressive rock.
The two recently released collections, Strawbs at the BBC, Volumes 1 and 2, offer up a compact history of the band. Volume 1 consists of 19 tracks covering BBC sessions from 1968-1974. These sessions were culled from U.K. television programs such as Top Gear and Sounds of the Seventies; Volume 2 covers the years 1971, 1973 and 1974, and consists of three hour long BBC radio concerts (the 1971 show being Rick Wakeman’s final performance with the group).
Dave Cousins, the founder and longest standing member of The Strawbs, grew to be a remarkable songwriter. His strengths were at their height through the early to mid seventies and these recordings are a testament to his talents.
The chronology is such that it is easy to hear how Cousins and the various incarnations of the band progressed over a period of a few short years. 1968 folk ballads like “Poor Jimmy Wilson”, “That Which Was Once Mine” and “Another Day” are lovely if slightly fey, while others like “The Battle” foreshadow the more haunting material to come. Compared to later tracks such as “The Hangman and the Papist”, “Benedictus, and one of the band’s earliest signature tunes, “Part of the Union”, these early songs were mere stepping stones toward what became the Strawbs’ unique blend of prog and folk stylings.
The band’s personnel changes may have had something to do with their evolving musical style. In addition to Cousins, Tony Hooper (guitar, vocals) and Ron Chesterman (bass), played on the earliest of the sessions. In years to come, band members included Richard Hudson (drums), John Ford (guitar) and Rick Wakeman (keyboards), who along with Cousins and Hooper played on the 1971 BBC radio concert. The material featured in this show is a far cry from the early folkie sessions. The ‘old’ Strawbs might never have played songs like “R.M.W.”, which begins with Wakeman’s classical piano stylings and explodes into a prog-jazz soiree, and “Amongst the Roses”, a tune which relies heavily on the mellotron and is reminiscent of The Moody Blues.
The early BBC sessions may be historically viable but it is the 1973-74 radio concerts on Volume 2 that are truly worth the price of admission. The band was at their creative peak here with their two most impressive lineups. In 1973, The Strawbs consisted of Cousins, Dave Lambert (guitar), Hudson, Ford, and Blue Weaver (keyboards). This was the band that made the classic Grave New World and Bursting At the Seams albums. A sampling of the best work from these releases is featured in this set, the highlight being Bursting’s “The River”, which segues into Down By the Sea. The pairing of these songs was a stroke of brilliance. Cousin’s singing is dark, haunting, and frightening in its intensity.
Hero and Heroine, an album considered by many to be the band’s masterwork, is well represented in the 1974 radio concert. The ambitious mult-layered “Autumn”, a thrillingly terrifying version of “Round and Round”, and a mad whirling dervish rendition of the title track are just a few of the highlights. Yet another lineup takes the stage here: Cousins, Lambert, Chas Cronk (bass), Rod Coombes (drums), and John Hawken (keyboards). It’s impressive how this almost totally new band recorded what became one of The Strawbs’ best loved works. Cousins’ voice sounds ragged on a few of these live cuts but its rawness gives the material an extra layer of the Strawbs’ trademark dark edge, which isn’t bad at all.
Both volumes include a booklet with liner notes by Dave Cousins and vintage photos of the band. The first volume is a single CD and the second is a two disc set.
For those already familiar with The Strawbs, I would recommend these collections wholeheartedly. If you’ve never heard the band, start out by listening to Hero and Heroine, Bursting At the Seams and Grave New World. If these recordings strike your fancy, definitely check out Strawbs At the BBC, Volumes 1 and 2. You won’t be disappointed.