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Les Cousins folk

Music Reviews: ‘Les Cousins’ (Folk Anthology), plus Steeleye Span Live and Eric Brace & Thomm Jutz

Rock wasn’t the only kind of music that was exploding in the 1960s: a major folk and blues revival was underway on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the States, many artists who championed these genres performed at famed clubs such as Greenwich Village’s Gaslight and Bitter End; Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York; and Cambridge, Massachusetts’s Club 47. In England, meanwhile, one of the most important venues for folk and blues was Les Cousins, which opened in October 1964 in the basement of a Greek restaurant in Soho. It was known for all-night jams and for music that pushed the boundaries of traditional folk and blues. And it attracted an impressively long list of great performers—not only many leading and soon-to-be-famous British artists but lots of important American musicians as well.

Les Cousins: The Soundtrack of Soho’s Legendary Folk & Blues Club features quite a few of them. Undoubtedly due to licensing constraints, there are a handful of notable omissions, such as Bob Dylan. But the 72-track, three-disc set—which has a playing time of just under four hours—packs in contributions from many of the club’s most notable performers. It comes with an illustrated 36-page booklet that features an essay about the club’s history and significance plus notes about every song.

One caveat: though the anthology’s title could be taken to mean that it delivers live recordings from the club (where several acts did make albums), that’s not what you’ll find here. These tracks are taken from studio LPs by artists who performed at Les Cousins; a few of them were even recorded or released before the venue opened or after it closed in April 1972. Previously unreleased live performances would have made for a more exciting collection but presumably, no such material was available from most or all of these musicians.

That said, this is a terrific anthology of mid-’60s and early-’70s folk and blues. Fans of those genres from that period might already own tracks from some of the better-known artists, such as the Incredible String Band (“No Sleep Blues”), Al Stewart (“Manuscript”), Nick Drake (“Northern Sky”), Donovan (“Sunny Goodge Street”), Cat Stevens (“The Tramp” and “Portobello Road”), Tom Rush (“Joshua Gone Barbados”), Tim Hardin (“If I Were a Carpenter”), and Paul Simon (the pre-Garfunkel solo version of “I Am a Rock” that appears on 1965’s The Paul Simon Songbook).

But material from lesser-known performers predominates, and it was well-chosen. Such tracks go a long way toward making this a must-hear collection for fans of folk and blues and offer plenty of opportunities for discovering overlooked gems. Among the dozens of standouts: American-born Julie Felix’s spirited “The Young Ones Move”; “Babe I’m Leaving You,” a folk rocker from the Levee Breakers, a trio with jug-band leanings; Steve Tilston’s self-penned “I Really Wanted You,” a lovely acoustic guitar excursion; and “The Holmfirth Anthem,” by the Watersons, an acapella group that started out in skiffle.

Also Noteworthy

Steeleye Span, Live at the Bottom Line, 1974. One beloved British folk-rock group from the 1960s and 1970s that Les Cousins does not feature is Steeleye Span, but another new release offers an excellent introduction to the band, which was a spinoff from the equally acclaimed Fairport Convention. This previously unreleased concert recording—made at New York’s Bottom Line just six months after the club opened—shows off the group’s ability to reinvent traditional Irish and Scottish folk tunes as rock music while retaining plenty of their root elements.

The program, which incorporates lots of consummate fiddle work and acapella vocalizing, features “Thomas the Rhymer” and “Two Magicians” from Now We Are Six, an album that came out three months before the concert. (Its title refers to the addition of drummer Nigel Pegrum to what had been a quintet.) Most of the setlist, however, draws on previously unrecorded material and on earlier albums such as 1972’s Below the Salt (“Royal Forester,” “Gaudette,” “John Barleycorn,” “Saucy Sailor”) and 1973’s Parcel of Rogues (“On One Misty Morning,” “Alison Gross,” “Robbery with Violins,” “Cam Ye O’er Frae France”).

Eric Brace & Thomm Jutz, Simple Motion. Eric Brace, Thomm Jutz, and Peter Cooper made five folk albums together, including 2019’s excellent Riverland, a concept LP about Mississippi. But Cooper—who was also a producer, journalist, and music industry executive—died in December 2022 at age 52 after falling and suffering head injuries. Here, Brace and Jutz carry on as a duo, though on most tracks they augment their vocals and acoustic guitar with contributions from other musicians who play such instruments as bass, drums, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, dobro, accordion, and tin whistle.

The album, which the pair have dedicated to Cooper, is loaded with lilting, emotional songs, all written or co-written by Brace, Jutz, or both. While the album hangs together well musically, the pensive lyrics cover wide territory. “Frost on the South Side,” for example, concerns a farm worker about a century ago whose job was made obsolete by the invention of the combine harvester; “Nashville in the Morning,” meanwhile, is about that city’s changing face; and a storm that canceled travel plans inspired “Can’t Change the Weather,” which really concerns all the things we can’t control.

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains half a century's worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

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