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Fotheringay
Nothing More: The Collected Fotheringay Mick Middles , May 13th, 2015 09:23

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While a misty fondness was never in doubt, especially amongst more silvered nostalgics, the current hunger for Fotheringay seems unlikely to say the least. There is even a forthcoming tour – 'The Return Of Fotheringay – featuring an ersatz band where originals Jerry Donahue, Pat Donaldson and Gerry Conway are augmented by, amongst others, vocalists Sally Barker and Kathryn Roberts, and will be playing sizeable venues too. Only last week, in Manchester, I overhead an exasperated enthusiast incredulously stating, "...what Fotheringay? At The Bridgewater Hall? How can that happen?"

It's a good question, and without Sandy Denny and Trevor Lucas, the couple around whom the band were formed, it does appear to be a somewhat courageous move. However, as Denny's cult status continues to deepen, her songs seem to transcend the decades. (Two immense biographies now exist, with Clinton Heylin's mercurial No More Sad Refrains recently galvanised by the arrival of Mick Houghton's sweeping 'I've Always Kept A Unicorn').

Then there is this. The entire band's history captured by three CDs and an intriguing, if short – four songs – performance DVD, taken from the band's set at the Beat Club in Bremen in 1970. Two of the performances have never been broadcast.  

The title succinctly explains the package. Fotheringay's body of work is famously tiny, for they existed for barely more than a year and, by all accounts, spent much of that time drinking through a £30,000 record company advance when not bickering with producer/manager, Joe Boyd. (They also spent a  vast amount of money on a gargantuan PA named 'Stonehenge', which apparently didn't work). It was the well reported folly of Fotheringay. How a band with such promise, crumble to dust?

Nevertheless, band survivors often speak of a certain 'warmth' within the band and it certainly does seem that the comfortable bonhomie has filtered through the music, and apparently remains in place.

The roots of Fotheringay stretch into Fairport history, arguably to the hinge point of the tragic motorway crash that took the life of drummer Martin Lamble and Richard Thompson's girlfriend, Jeannie Frankly. Denny's song, 'Nothing More', which opens this collection, relates to Thompson's open struggle to come to terms with the tragedy. While Denny wasn't in the van on that occasion, she too, seemed deeply affected. In spite of a statement of unity from the band camped in Denny and Lucas' flat in Parsons Green, it soon became clear that a further wedge had been driven into the artistic divide.

As the band retreated to more traditional areas during the recording of the mighty 'Liege And Lief', Denny's artistic frustration began to bubble. Within six months of the crash, Denny and Ashley Hutchings had left the band. News of the split hit the music press ten days prior to the release of 'Liege And Lief.'

Beyond that frustration, there were other factors involved in the split. The rigours of touring with the prodigious Fairports had started to take its toll on Denny. Then, perhaps most important of all, was Denny's relationship with Trevor Lucas, which had already started to gain artistic qualities. As Richard Thompson noted – to Denny biographer Mick Hougton in the sleeve-notes - "I could always see her and Trevor getting together in a musical partnership." With Denny the hedonist balancing the bombastic Lucas. It was never going to be an easy ride. However, the couple seemed keen not to hog the limelight and – image wise at least – settled neatly into the new band dynamic.

The first Fotheringay album emerged sweetly, with its lovely cartoon Tudor imagery emerging via the covers of Island sampler albums and music press advertising. It was instantly intriguing and didn't disappoint either. Denny's supernatural voice spread fully through a slightly controversial blend, which twisted folk roots through country leanings. It was almost designed to specifically oppose the traditional glories of the new Fairport.

It is all here of course, with highlights including the haunting 'The Sea', which thrillingly tells of an apocalyptic London, to 'The Pond And The Stream' which sees Denny, the true urbanite, pining for lush pastures and trees. It's rather like Escape To The Country, set to a flowing early 70s folk rock scenario. Best of all, and arguably the greatest performance of Denny's career, the album concluded with 'Banks Of The Nile', a  sweeping 'traditional arranged Denny' masterpiece that, here, now, appears twice on disc one, with an alternative take clipped to a mere 7:46 mins. It seems odd to discover that they apparent camaraderie that fired this first album hid an undertone with Boyd constantly attempting to prise Denny away from the group and into a solo career. Boyd and Lucas were certainly ying and yang, laid back and measured producer clashing with wildly enthusiastic if not-always-grounded Lucas. You can sense both sides of this story. Denny might have seemed a dead cert for solo stardom and yet, on the accompanying DVD here, she seems uncomfortable in the limelight and positively shrinks behind the piano. (As Boyd also had the painful shyness of Nick Drake to contend with, one feels more than a shred of sympathy). There is an obvious love element throughout. Denny was wholly, massively, swamped by a love for Lucas. One can only guess how that affected the dynamic although drummer Gerry Conway recently noted, "There wasn't going to be anything deep and meaningful going on. We all got swept along on that sort of vibe."

The second album, abandoned it its day, also appears expanded here although, and perhaps not surprisingly, it never quite matches the sheer charm of its predecessor. Joe Boyd's well intentioned meddling on alternative versions of 'Gypsy Davey' - somewhat over-represented here as the song insists on returning five times, if one counts the live DVD – and 'Late November' certainly suggests a little in-studio angst.

It is disc three, where this collection truly holds the intrigue. Denny's gloriously rounded vocals on Gordon Lightfoot's 'The Way I Feel' certainly appear to be directed at Lucas. The fact that these confident vocals hide a singer crumbling with insecurity – for her love with Lucas and the unsteady nature of her career only adds to the poignancy. This is the first of nine previously unreleased songs recorded 'Live In Rotterdam', which is pretty much a heartfelt run through of Fotheringay's most celebrated moments. 'Banks Of The Nile', 'The Ballad Of Ned Kelly' and 'Nothing More' seem particularly evocative. Crowding the back end of disc three lie seven BBC from 'Folk On One', 'Sounds Of The 70s' and a Brian Matthew interview from Top Gear which precedes 'The Sea'.

All this is indicative of just how much media attention Fotheringay received during their shambolic and all-too-brief lifespan at the birth of the 70s. Their history remains shrouded in controversy and, within folk circles at least, this is one band who continually divide opinion. But this gate-folded collection, which is not quite granted box set status, does at least re-cast the band as a more productive unit than previously suggested. More than that, with interest in Denny as high as ever, the poignancy is only amplified by hindsight. Her finest work may lie on these discs. Who would have thought?

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May 18, 2015 12:20pm

Throbbing good review! I lost my virginity to Planxty too, true story, it was at folk camp on the heather...

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