To begin at the beginning: it is a Spring, moonlit night in the small town of Mahgnidda, starless and bible-black, the streets silent and the hunched, milky wood limping invisible down to the slow, black, rustling river. On such a night did the Swan Acoustic Session faithful foregather, determined as always to air and exchange song and music. Ah, such tales that are to be unfolded
Several luminaries were missing: Brian and Kath were off performing somewhere else, and there was no Frances White or Julian Hyde or Steve Fenton or Gloria - names I draw from the hat containing hundreds of people who were not there, simply because they all - quite apart from their other qualities - provide musical relief (harp, accordion, fiddle and flute respectively) from the ubiquitous guitars. Tonight, it was guitars only. And men only, I have to say. A night of MAMWIGS.
But no shortage of interest or quality. After the usual reverse horse-trading in the allocation of blogging and opening responsibilities, we began with Barry Lane, sporting a guitar festooned with mother-of-pearl inlays. He opened with "Little Maggie", a "White Blues" song originating from the Appalachians in the late 18th century. He followed this with "The Less that I Drink" by Charlie Sizemore, a Bluegrass artist from Kentucky, from the 70s. The song tells of how sobriety can led to greater clarity in human relationships - in unexpected ways. Removal of my beer goggles helps me realise that, actually, I don't like you very much.
This was followed by a newcomer to the SAS - Colin Quinny. I hope I've got that right - he left before the end, in the middle of a song (he wasn't singing it himself, you understand) so I wasn't able to check. His guitar sported a virulent yellow strap, which he wore over his shoulder even though the end of it was not attached to the guitar. He gave us a number: "Don't Close Your Eyes" which he attributed to Willie Nelson - though I couldn't find it in Nelson's 78-album discography. There is a song of this name written by Bob McDill and first recorded by Bluegrasser Keith Whitley; but I am not sure if that was it either. Colin followed this with "My Lady D'Arbanville", written by Cat Stevens (as he then was). There's an interesting back-story about the role of this song in the break-up between Stevens and his then girlfriend ... but Colin didn't go into that, so neither shall I. You've all got Googles at home.
Onwards to Andy Brown, lately returned from nearly unseating Sir Bufton Tufton from Craven District Council (or some such) in the Green interest. He gave us "Budapest" by George Ezra - a new song (well, 2014) by a young British singer-songwriter; co-written by Joel Pott. The connection between Ezra, the song and the actual city of Budapest is obscure, but involves a bottle of rum. The song reached the Charts in various European countries, though not Hungary. Andy followed this with "I Can See Clearly Now" by Johnny Nash (Nash, not Cash) which has been covered by numerous artists since its release in 1972; and most notably became part of the soundtrack for "Cool Running", the film about the Jamaican bobsleigh team. Andy didn't mention any of this, so I am not sure why I am doing so.
Next was John Waller, on his first visit to the SAS for almost a year. He hinted darkly about changed familial responsibilities taking out every Tuesday, and he'd driven straight from York to make an appearance. He gave us his latest self-penned song "Arbiskögerl", about skiing down Alpine mountains in near darkness - not an experience shared by the audience, but never mind. He followed this with "Swiss Cottage Manoeuvres" by Al Stewart, being a cautionary tale of the pitfalls in picking up random girls in London bookshops. Not that tonight's audience members still indulged in that activity either. It contained the line "You can't make people be what you want them to be", which has a truth and relevance far beyond young ladies in bookshops.
Graeme Morrell also hinted at changed domestic arrangements that were preventing him from ever practising his guitar. He then proceeded to give us such dazzling displays of fret-work that other performers present were moved to wonder whether, if they also ceased to practice, their guitar-playing could reach such heights. He first gave us "Talking Pop Art Blues" by Tom Paxton, being a wry take on what Andy Warhol's use of cans of beans as artwork might mean for the mid-western grocery trade. He followed with "That Time of Night", a Michael Chapman song, wistfully examining the time when relationships can most come under scrutiny. News of Graeme's lack-of-practice guitar wizardry has, apparently, reached the far-flung shores of Rickmansworth, where he is shortly journeying to Open for none other than Julie Felix. (Other cat foods are available.)
And to finish the first half, we had stalwart James Porter, proudly drinking something pale and uninteresting-looking- but crucially non-alcoholic. Over a month now, he told us. He gave us a Joni Mitchell classic "Woodstock". There is a back story here too - Joni wrote the song as she watched the iconic Festival on TV, having been prevented by her agent from attending herself, in favour of appearing on some TV show. Most people who did attend Woodstock agreed that she had captured the essence of the event better than anyone who was actually there. "Strawberry Fields" was written by John Lennon, but is credited to the "Lennon-McCartney" tag, as were all Paul McCartney's songs. Though most people can tell instantly whether a Beatles song is primarily John or Paul.
And so after a rapid beer and facilities break, we are back into the fray. Barry provided us with a rendition of "That's the Way Love Goes" by Merle Haggard- one of several musicos to die this year, aged 79; in his case, after a very troubled early life. He followed this with a song by another songwriter with a troubled early life - Gram Parsons (one time of the Byrds) - "In My Hour of Darkness". Gram actually died at age 26, of alcoholism and drug abuse. Is Barry trying to tell us something through his choice of troubled songs by troubled artists?
Colin returned us to the land of living artists with a song by Adele, "Someone Like You" from her 21 album. Adele often has a co-writer on her songs, and Colin airily claimed it was him on this one. But it does seem to spring from Adele's personal experience so we'll leave it at that. He followed that with "My Sweet Lady", a John Denver song which is Denver's. Of course, through this song, Colin also led us back to the realms of musicians who died young.
Andy then gave us the classic "Last Thing on my Mind" by Tom Paxton, who is still with us. And followed this with a song by Etta James, another troubled US singer, who isn't: "I'd Rather go Blind". Title says it all really.
John returned with two Al Stewart songs. First, "Last Day of June 1934", about the assassination of Ernst Röhm on that day, an act that cleared Hitler's unchallenged rise to complete power - or more accurately, about various Europeans going about their normal lives, oblivious to how their future was being shaped elsewhere. Second, "A Long Way Down From Stephanie", a florid John Dowlandesque lament for the loss of his first girlfriend - a six year-old kindergarten classmate.
Graeme brought us bang up-to-date with a Sam Smith song, "Stay With Me"; and followed that with his own venture into the Al Stewart canon, with a flawless rendition of "Almost Lucy" - about a young female artist very much only on the fringes of success; but who survives. Al Stewart is still with us, if you were wondering. Living in LA, but still touring extensively.
James finished the second tranche with "Way Over Yonder" by Carole King, a song which seems to suggest the grass is always greener some mythical place somewhere else. Could be the motto for Brexiters. Not that James himself made such claims. He followed that with a Sam Cooke (died 1964) classic "Bring it on Home to Me" - which, it turns out, was actually based on an earlier Gospel song by one Charles Brown. Never mind, this was a rousing rendition, much appreciated by all.
And we had time left for a quick-fire round of singles. Colin, who needed to go, started off with an Irish song by John McDermott "The Old Man", about a son's feelings of loss at his father's funeral. Barry weighed in with a song by Tony Rice (still with us), "Carolina Star" about another struggling absentee musician. Andy returned to Sam Cooke with "A Change has Gotta Come" about someone else going through a troubled early life.
John returned with another self-penned song "Tapestry", about how (or whether) your life choices affect the way your life turns out. Graeme with Tom Petty's (or is it John Mayer's?) "Free Falling" about the irresponsibility of young men, and James closed out the night with "The Spider and the Fly", by Jagger and Richards, which was the original B side of "Satisfaction".
Thus endeth a night predominantly of Americana, particularly bluegrass and country and fusions thereof, written by often troubled artists tackling troubled themes. Some good songs, many with interesting back-stories. Thanks to all who came, as always. Bit of a break until 07/06 John Waller
Apologies for no pics, this is due to a formatting issue which I am striving to resolve BCW