Fotheringay ‘Nothing More: The Collected Fotheringay’ (Universal)
Though shining for only the briefest of moments in the early 70s, the venerated, and rightly so, cult folk rock band Fotheringay managed to record an enviable collection of earnest, toiled and perfectly pitched songs. Due to the tragic circumstances of the band’s leading lady and ethereal siren Sandy Denny and her untimely death in 1978 at the age of 31, the group’s songbook has been attached with certain poignancy and resonates deeply amongst those fans that still hold a candle to the band’s bright but all-too-soon extinguished flame. Despite leaving an indelible mark in the folk rock and acid country community and winning the Melody Maker awards in the same year for best vocalist, Denny’s ennui ambitions to break free just before each project took off – both artistically and in some cases commercially too –made it difficult for the band to continue, as she left just before their second album Fotheringay 2 was finished – performing a farewell concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the end of January 1971. Denny had form of course, leaving British folk institution Fairport Convention on the eve of their landmark album, Liege & Lief, to form Fotheringay – the name borrowed from the 1968 Fairport song; itself a reference lament to the castle Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned – with her then partner/band mate and future husband Trevor Lucas. Citing ambitions to go solo, Denny would carve out a celebrated, but cultish, career releasing a series of iconic, diaphanous and atavistically roots-y folk albums (her last, Rendezvous, selling so poorly she was dropped by the label) before once again returning to the Fairport fold in 1974 – leaving again the following year.
Such were Denny’s and Lucas’ standing, anticipation for their post Fairport project was so overwhelming that they were booked up for live performances and requests before they’d even recorded a single note. However, concomitantly continuing to plow a similar rich musical furrow, taking in ancestral traditional “fayre” and Dylan covers with liberal servings of their own compositions they didn’t waste anytime in recording the debut album (produced over seven sessions between 18th February and 18th April 1970) and setting off on a tour (March 1970). An unequivocal success, with modest sales, that debut, with its depiction of a minstrel troupe lifted straight from a Tudor tapestry artwork, would be enough to cement the band’s legacy. So much in fact, that the abandoned follow-up LP, succinctly entitled 2, was eventually finished three decades by the surviving members and released in 2008 around a hive of renowned adulation: a number of tracks penned by Denny would appear on her first solo LP, The North Star Grassman And The Ravens in 1971, whilst the odd nugget would make it onto later samplers and compilations.
Though of course there was far more to the Forthingay sound than just – as stirring and eloquently masterful as they were; delivered straight from parchment – Denny and Lucas’ impressive vocals, the rest of the band were every bit as integral: reflected in the balance of instruments, sounds and musicianship of drummer Gerry Conway, bassist Pat Donaldson and guitarist Jerry Donahue, with every member of the band both the sum of their individually adroit parts and as a whole.
For those either in admiration for such a fleeting existence and for those new to the cause, the new Nothing More complete collection attempts to piece together the most comprehensive story of the band yet; told over a triumvirate of CDs, a special DVD live performance and accompanying hardcover book – which features a new essay from Denny biographer Mick Houghton. Beginning with their stunning debut oeuvre, the first of the CD trio, features the original running order and a number of both demos and alternative takes. The opening grand piano gushing, burnished drums and expressive guitar, Tudor intrigue through contemporary eyes imbued lament Nothing More alone proves the band’s worth, without the castaways in the middle of a most sublime unsteady tide of emotions, The Sea. Or indeed the Dylan epochs of John Wesley Harding crossed with Pat Garrett and Billy The Kidd style, Lucas-penned outback-western goer The Ballad Of Ned Kelly; a moiety to the actual Dylan Too Much Of Nothing cover the band perform later on, led by a soothing Lucas on vocals and a backing that evokes the great bards most important sparring partners and backing group, The Band. Subtly stripped down versions of that album’s pinning Canterbury tale, Winter Winds, The Pond And The Stream are accompanied by a gentler, more lilting alternative version (far less lumbering and exhaustive) of the traditional soldier’s lament Banks Of The Nile.
The second disc runs through the, left dormant and unfinished until more recent times, follow-up 2. Much the same stylistically but with a more pastoral feel, and dash of Celtic and Gypsy folk rock; closer to Pentangle and Fleetwood Mac than Dylan, even though an obligatory cover of his is included, the intoxicated love hang-over I Don’t Believe You, and the Lucas/Pete Roach Knights Of The Road rolls on down the great juggernaut travelling highway in a fairly free and laid-back country rock manner. A bonus selection of treats await, with a number of mixes by the American producer/writer and man-on-the-scene at a litany of iconic developments and moments in folk rock – notably when Dylan went “electric” – history, Joe Boyd – nuanced and delicately subtle, Boyd adds a certain trebly warmth to the Arcadian Denny anthem Late November.
There’s an alternative version from 2004 of the Jack Rhodes/Dick Reynolds original Silver Threads And Golden Needles – first recorded by Wanda Jackson in 1956 – and two versions of the wayfarers folk tale Burton Town that never made either album – one a rehearsal take that despite the sometimes gargling wear and tear on the tapes vocals and scratches sounds breathtaking, and a 2015 version that feature the original Denny vocals but with a new lighter backing.
Not entirely exclusive but nonetheless gathered together for the first time in one place, the third disc features nine live tracks from their 1970 Rotterdam concert. Of these, there is the previously unreleased Gordon Lightfoot cover The Way I Feel from their debut LP, performed with a real intensity and energy, Too Much Of Anything and The Ballad Of Ned Kelly. Even if you have managed to acquire a copy, the concert is an intimate window on a band at their peak; emerging from the omnipresent shadow of their previous band, Fairport Convention. Denny herself sounds in fine fettle, surreptitiously moving across the stage from leading or harmonizing on vocals to tentatively playing the piano – of which she references as she makes herself comfortable before launching into Nothing More. It shouldn’t sound too surprisingly but the concert material ends on a swinging, chugging version of Chuck Berry’s Memphis, Tennessee, Denny proving she has the rock’n’roll chops. The rest of the live oeuvre is taken from various appearances on the Beeb; a previously unreleased collection of performances that includes The Lowlands Of Holland from BBC Folk On One, Bold Jack Donahue from BBC Sounds Of The 70s and a brief interview with a upbeat Denny followed by a rousing version of The Sea, from BBC Top Gear. But for the true “holy grail”, as it’s billed in the PR notes, is the previously unreleased footage from the German – equivalent to our very own Ready Steady Go! – 60/70s music show, the Beat Club. Originally held back from broadcast, versions of Nothing More and John The Gun now join Gypsy Davey and Too Much Of Nothing for the first time: a nice little complete set.
Grounding to an abrupt end, the breakup of Fotheringay was sad but it hardly hurt the careers of everyone who was apart of it. Lucas would produce some of Denny’s best solo work, before the pair once again joined the ranks of Fairport along with Jerry Donahue. For such a brief, almost passing fancy, the band leaves an incredible, enduring legacy and receives an honorable tribute with this, most comprehensive of collections.
Words: Dominic Valvona