Blues: album review – King Size Slim ‘Live At The Palace’

This review was originally published by The Stinger here

Proof, if it were needed, of what a dynamic live venue the newly-refurbished Palace in Hastings is turning out to be comes in the form of this new CD from King Size Slim.

Toby Barelli, no stranger to the Hastings live scene, has been gigging for ten years now in his King Size Slim persona. His brand of raw, heartfelt, acoustic blues has picked up many fans along the way.

After spending a couple of years as part of pioneering 2-Tone ska heroes, The Selector, Barelli switched to a rootsy, ballsy, acoustic blues boogie sound. King Size Slim was born.

Spanning ten self-composed tracks ‘Live At The Palace’ captures Toby Barelli on fire with the Hastings crowd earlier this year. A talented guitarist and a naturally charismatic performer this CD positively drips with atmosphere and groove. Playing his trademark battered Tricone Resonator guitar, for this gig he’s also joined by a full band of Rufus Stone on upright bass, and James Gulliver and George Macdonald on percussion.

Songs like ‘Dark Soul’ and ‘Monkey, Where Are You?’ are given a real added potency with the funky bass and infectious percussion. The gig, and the album, ends with a rousing, singalong, rendition of Barelli’s ‘May We Find’ – surely an anthem for these troubled times?

A brand new studio album is promised for 2018 but, in the meantime, this live CD captures the excitement and energy of a King Size Slim gig. Anyone familiar with Toby Barelli’s work will surely want to buy this – particularly if you were at The Palace on that magical night.

http://www.kingsizeslim.com/

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Review: Mearfest at the Carlisle, Hastings 9/12/17

Saturday saw Hastings’ legendary rock pub, The Carlisle, host Mearfest. Inspired by personal tragedy Claire and Brian Mear have been running their rock and metal charity events for several years now, with funds going to The Willows stillbirth charity and other local causes.

Comprising a dozen bands and one solo acoustic set, all performing original material – no tribute acts or covers bands – what struck me throughout the day was the sheer quality of the acts taking the stage.

Particular standouts for me were Southampton five-piece, Toledo Steel; ‘Now Wave Of British Heavy Metal’ act, Kaine; and NWOBHM veterans Satan’s Empire, reformed after three decades.

Powerfully majestic but hard and heavy Toledo Steel put me in mind of classic-era Dio and Rich Rutter’s vocals and Tom Potter’s and Josh Haysom’s guitars are the perfect combination for this brand of hard-hitting melodic rock metal. Toledo Steel are definitely on my list to see and hear more of and I am certainly enjoying their excellent six-track EP ‘Zero Hour’.

http://www.toledosteel.co.uk/

Kaine is a four-piece formed in 2009 and musically inspired by the late 70s/early 80s New Wave Of British Heavy Metal boom. Powerful well-written songs and powerful delivery, you can hear the influences from their musical heroes like Iron Maiden in their performance. I took a copy of their excellent album ‘The Waystone’ away which confirms why they are getting so many plaudits on the contemporary metal scene.

https://kaine-metal.com/

Satan’s Empire had a breakthrough of sorts in 1981 when their excellent single ‘Soldiers Of War’ appeared on a Neat Records compilation. Sadly, they disappeared from view but now, with the original line-up still intact, they have reformed. Their performance oozed class, stage presence and memorable songs and it’s great to see them get a second bite of the cherry. They deserve it.

https://www.facebook.com/SatansEmpireOfficial/

I’ve just pulled three acts out here that particularly inspired but in truth the quality didn’t let up throughout the day. It’s clear that organisers Brian and Claire Mear love what they are doing and, importantly, know what they are doing.

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http://www.mearfest.org/

Folk: album review – Green Matthews ‘A Christmas Carol – A Folk Opera’

This review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

Following in the footsteps of Fairport Convention’s Babbacombe Lee and Peter Bellamy’s The Transports, Green Matthews’ A Christmas Carol presents itself as a ’folk opera’. With twenty songs stretching over an hour, it retells the tale of Charles Dickens’ renowned Christmas story by putting new lyrics to well-known carols and traditional tunes.

Green Matthews are Chris Green, (vocals, guitar, mandocello, piano, accordion, bass guitar and drums) and Sophie Matthews (vocals, flute and English border bagpipes). For this album they are also joined by Pilgrims’ Way’s Jude Rees who joins the duo on melodeon and oboe.

Musically, the album brings to mind some of the much-celebrated Christmas albums by Maddy Prior and The Carnival Band, with their inventive arrangements of well-known carols and their vast array of different instruments. However, the latter have often spiced up their traditional Christmas fare by delving back in time and unearthing one or two obscure but captivating tunes to accompany the more familiar ones.

Although Green Matthews offer us beautiful, luscious arrangements of well-known tunes, it would perhaps have been nice to have heard a few less familiar ones, as well. One cannot fault the musicianship, however, and it is lovely to hear such tunes played so beautifully on such a well-produced album.

Lyrically, apart from a couple of clumsy lines here and there, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge is translated into song in a thoroughly engaging and entertaining way. Vocally, the duo have sought to avoid the twin clichés of the “finger-in-the-ear folk voice” on the one hand and “musical theatre camp” on the other, we are assured in the album’s accompanying publicity. This they certainly achieve and the songs are delivered with sincerity and passion and a complete lack of affectation.

For those looking to expand their festive folk selections this year and wanting something a little different from the plethora of carol anthologies and traditional Christmas songs, this brand new folk opera based on Charles Dickens’ finest may well just do the trick – a worthy addition to any collection.

Released: November 2017

http://www.greenmatthews.co.uk/

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Folk/rock/renaissance: album review – Blackmore’s Night ‘Winter Carols’

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

Ritchie Blackmore’s move from the hard rock of Rainbow and Deep Purple to the renaissance folk of Blackmore’s Night, with his wife Candice, has always been controversial among rock fans,

When I reviewed the Blackmore’s Night compilation ‘To The Moon And Back’ for Get Ready To ROCK! back in the summer I concluded that in spite of there being much to like in their music I just wished they would exercise a bit more quality control on some of their more obvious material.

For the most part, this CD (a remastering of their 2006 2-CD Christmas album with three additional bonus tracks) definitely falls into that latter category. Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas and in spite of not having a religious bone in my body I do actually enjoy hearing Christmas carols. But when a musician of the calibre of Blackmore puts out an album of Christmas songs I expect him to push the boat out a bit creatively.

Maddy Prior and early music specialists The Carnival Band, for example, have put out some fabulous albums of Christmas music over the years, unearthing obscure 16th century carols or putting together fascinating arrangements of more familiar ones as well as introducing an even more fascinating array of centuries-old instruments.

Most of the arrangements on ‘Winter Carols’, however, are a predictable mix of treacly AOR meets twee medievalism. There are some stand-outs. ‘Wish You Were Here’ (not the Pink Floyd track but a cover of a song by Swedish band Rednex) has Blackmore picking up his electric guitar and beautifully executing some typically Blackmore-esque solos.

There’s also some lovely live versions of ‘Emmanuel’ and ‘We Three Kings’ which work really well but for the most part, I’m afraid, I found this album a bit too twee and a bit too predictable.

Released October 2017

http://www.blackmoresnight.com/

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Related reviews:
Blackmore’s Night – To The Moon & Back
Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow – live in Birmingham

Review: Mike Garson performs Aladdin Sane at Birmingham O2 Institute 25/11/17

Lovers of 70s-era David Bowie have been in for a real treat this year. Not only have we had Tony Visconti and original Spider from Mars, Woody Woodmansey, touring the Ziggy Stardust album in full, we now have virtuoso Bowie pianist, Mike Garson touring the Aladdin Sane album in full.

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Joining Garson on this tour are former Bowie guitarist, Kevin Armstrong; award-winning vocalist Gaby Moreno, Terry Edwards (PJ Harvey band) on sax and guitar; along with the current Iggy Pop rhythm section of Ben Ellis and Mat Hector. It’s a stunningly good band. From a fabulously groovy ‘What’s That Man’ through to a poignantly dramatic ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ they bring to life the full Bowie masterpiece in all its glory.

For ‘The Jean Genie’ we get an extra treat. Deep Purple’s Roger Glover (whose talented daughter Gillian Glover is providing backing vocals tonight as well as being the solo support act) is taking a night off from the Purple tour and takes the stage to play bass for this song. Sadly, I never got to see Trevor Bolder doing the bass-line of ‘The Jean Genie’ but seeing Roger Glover doing it has got to be the next best thing. We even get a cheeky snatch of Purple’s ‘Black Night’ at the end!

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After a magnificent performance of Aladdin Sane, Garson introduces a second set of other Bowie favourites, kicking off with a stunning Space Oddity. Then it’s on to ‘Life On Mars’.The piano is as prominent on ‘Hunky Dory’ as it is on ‘Aladdin Sane’, albeit in a very different style. But after the jazz-infused piano of ‘Aladdin Sane’ Garson moves on to deliver a truly majestic version of ‘Life On Mars’ that even manages to out-Wakeman Rick Wakeman. An extremely gifted composer and musician it’s nothing less than an absolute pleasure to see the great Mike Garson in action this evening.

Another treat is seeing Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel fame take the stage to guest on vocals for a few numbers, including a superb ‘Changes’ and a wonderfully frenetic ‘Absolute Beginners’ as well as two of Harley’s own songs ‘A Friend For Life’ and ‘Sebastian’.

Like all great art the songs celebrated tonight will live on long after the demise of their original creator. They will undoubtedly carry on being performed many years into the future. Inevitably, there will come a day when no-one who actually performed alongside Bowie is around any more. For now, though, let’s be thankful that people like Mike Garson and Kevin Armstrong are celebrating his legacy and the unmistakable part they played in it.

Set-list:

First Set – Aladdin Sane album in full:
Watch That Man
Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?)
Drive-In Saturday
Panic in Detroit
Cracked Actor
Time
The Prettiest Star
Let’s Spend the Night Together
The Jean Genie
Lady Grinning Soul

Second Set – Bowie Favourites:
Space Oddity
Life on Mars?
Changes
A Friend for Life
Absolute Beginners
Sebastian
Rock’n’Roll Suicide
Five Years
Wild Is the Wind
Ziggy Stardust
Under Pressure
Let’s Dance

http://www.mikegarson.com/

Related posts:

Holy Holy perform Ziggy Stardust in full
The riff in Blockbuster and Jean Genie – origins and influences

Live review: Fisherman’s Friends at St Mary in the Castle, Hastings 12/11/17

“I quite like hearing the odd sea shanty – but I’m not sure I could manage a whole evening of it,” announces a long-time friend and my gig partner for the evening, seconds before Fisherman’s Friends are about to take the stage. Ah… hmmm. Perhaps I should have explained a little more when I first suggested going to see Fisherman’s Friends. I hope she’s not going to be too disappointed, I think to myself.

For the uninitiated, the Cornish singing group from Port Isaac have been making a huge impact in recent years singing traditional songs of the sea that have handed down to them over generations. They became the first traditional folk act to land a UK top ten album. Unsurprisingly, the group are clearly going to receive an enthusiastic welcome in a traditional fishing town like Hastings.

While there are enthusiastically-sung shanties galore tonight, it soon becomes clear that, wonderful though these are, Fisherman’s Friends’ repertoire expands much wider than that. An Americana-infused riverboat song, traditional songs of a non-seafaring nature, a Show Of Hands cover and the sea shanty ‘sub-genre’ of whaling songs all nestle with the anticipated shanties in the set tonight. Although many of the songs are delivered acapello showcasing the rich range of voices from the seven men on stage, there is also some nicely played guitar and accordion thrown into the mix at times, too.

Fisherman’s Friends are brothers and lobster fishermen John and Jeremy Brown, writer Jon Cleave, potter Billy Hawkins, smallholder John Lethbridge, builder John McDonnell, fisherman Jason Nicholas and film maker Toby Lobb. However, due to other commitments founder member John Brown is taking some time out on this tour and has been temporarily replaced by Jon Darley from upcoming, Bristol-based sea shanty group The Longest Johns. In a stage act that is never short of banter, much is made of the imposing hunk-like presence of the handsome young Darley joining the predominantly silver-haired Fisherman’s Friends on stage. As well as the body, however, Darley has a superb voice and takes the lead on a handful of songs tonight, including a gloriously rousing ‘Drunken Sailor’ for the encore. In fact, it would be good to see the Longest Johns doing a gig in their own right here in Hastings – someone book them!

Highlights in the set for me tonight include ‘Leaving Of Liverpool’ (a song which I think must have been compulsory learning for every primary school class in mid-1970s Lancashire and one where I know every word), ‘Cousin Jack’ (a spirited cover of the Show Of Hands favourite) and a rousing ‘The Union Of Different Kinds’ (definitely an anthem for these divided times).

Fisherman’s Friends certainly deserved the thunderous encore they got tonight. And my friend? She loved it, including all the shanties, Phew!

https://thefishermansfriends.com/

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Related review:
Album review – The Longest Johns

Folk: EP review – MacQuarrie and Toms ‘Granite’

This review was originally published by Bright You Folk here

Celtic-Cornish folk duo MacQuarrie and Toms, who have been performing together since 2014, arrive with their second EP Granite. Featuring two songs and four instrumentals it showcases the combined talents of Stuart MacQuarrie on fiddle and Jamie Toms on acoustic guitar.

Sweet Nightingale is a charming rendition of a traditional Cornish folk song. Granite is the Hardest Stone, meanwhile, is the duo’s interpretation of a song by Chris Lethbridge, who wrote a number of songs inspired by the Isles of Scilly.

Dark and brooding, it tells the story of the Scilly naval disaster when four warships and 1,550 sailors lives were lost in a catastrophic night at sea back in 1707. The drone-like tones of an Indian Shruti Box, the beautiful haunting fiddle-playing, and the dark mournful vocals make this the definitive stand-out track.

With the tunes the duo take an inventive and engaging approach, both with their own material like Toms’ Clutterbuck and MacQuarrie’s Bunch of Fives, as well as with their own interpretations of other writers.

The sleeve-notes relate what happened when they approached Will Coleman for permission to use one of his tunes on the EP, We ’ent Goin’ Far. Coleman’s amusingly philosophical response was, “Writing tunes is like having kids – they fly off into the world and have a life of their own (and you just sit at home waiting for the phone call from the police/ambulance/DNA expert).”

Listeners can be reassured that the tunes, whether composed by Coleman or others, do indeed take on a life of their own on Granite but they are far from any sort of disaster.

Inventive musicians with an imaginative and well-chosen set of songs and tunes, there is plenty to like about this EP.

Released Summer 2017

http://www.macquarrieandtoms.com/

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Review: For One Night Only – Jim Lea at the Robin 2, Bilston 5/11/17

Back in 2002 Slade’s Jim Lea performed a unique one-off solo gig at Bilston’s Robin 2 venue, the only solo gig of his entire career. Now, some fifteen years later, Jim was to take to the stage at the Robin once again for a Q and A session for fans that would immediately follow an official first screening of the new live DVD from that gig.

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Today’s event was not going to be a live performance we were all warned when we booked: “Unfortunately due to Jim’s illness he will be unable to perform musically at this event.” That was fine I thought to myself. It will still be something special, a unique Slade event, a chance to hear directly from Jim and, for me, an opportunity to see him up on a stage for the first time since I saw Slade on the My Oh My tour when I was still at sixth form.

The film itself is a nice memento. It’s fan-shot footage from the audience rather than a professional film but the quality is considerably better than the average blurry, wonky you-tube concert video and, coupled with the official CD soundtrack of the concert and some brand new interview segments with Jim as he reflects back on that night, it’s definitely a must-have for fans.

The DVD screening is then followed by a short warm-up from poet, Paul Cookson. Dubbed Slade’s official Poet Laureate by Noddy Holder, Cookson delivers two wonderfully affectionate Slade-themed poems, including one written especially for today. And then it’s time for the main event. Jim Lea takes the stage to warm applause as he begins his Q&A session with local BBC radio presenter, Paul Franks.

While there are many oft-repeated Slade anecdotes that fans, and many chat-show viewers, will have heard many, many times before from his less publicity-shy erstwhile band-mates, Jim delves deep with his recollections today. Fascinating insights emerge: such as his wife Louise being an uncredited co-writer of Slade’s 1974 hit Everyday; about the piano refrain in How Does It Feel being the very first thing he ever composed; about how the violin solo in the band’s first number one Coz I Luv You originally emerged out of his regular dressing room jamming sessions with Noddy Holder when they were channelling the spirit of Django Reinhardt. And for this famously private musician who has studiously eschewed the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle he also told us a lot about himself today. “Why now?” he was asked. “Well I realised I was no longer shy any more!” he confided. Sharing with the audience that he now understands he is probably autistic (although he’s never had any formal diagnosis) he suggests that this has likely been a key factor in both his levels of creativity and his introspection.

Always the most thoughtful, the most creative and the most fascinating member of Slade, notwithstanding that all four members played an irreplaceable part, Jim Lea was the genuine musical genius of the band. In the DVD he recollects the time he was asked by late manager, Chas Chandler, why he became a bass player when, like Hendrix, he was such an instinctive natural on lead guitar. “I didn’t want to get noticed,” Jim replied.

And so, as the Q&A draws to a close, I start thinking what a special day today has been: getting to pose with Jim’s bass in the morning after much, much queuing, seeing the inaugural screening of Jim’s DVD on the very stage where it was originally filmed, hearing Jim share his fascinating insights into the band and, of course, getting to meet lots of fellow Slade fans.

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And then it all started to get ever so slightly odd on stage. Jim went off stage to get something. Something about some notes for the final question host, Paul Franks, said. But then microphone stands start appearing. Surely he can’t be? He can’t be playing for us can he? Oh my God, there he is back on stage with his guitar. Is he really going to do this?

He’d not got a full band he confessed but he had recorded some backing tapes to play along to and he wanted to do something special to finish the session, he said. And he did. Launching into a blistering version of Cum On Feel The Noize, he rocked out on lead guitar and sang for all he was worth in his first public performance since that last Robin gig fifteen years ago. Gudbuy T Jane and We’ll Bring The House Down quickly followed and, with an ecstatic demand for an encore, he finishes by giving the emotional crowd of Slade fans Mamma Weer All Crazee Now.

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We had been warned not to expect a live performance. But he certainly gave us one, and not some gentle, reflective, soul-searching, acoustic reinterpretation but a full-on, amped-up, raucous rock performance that so perfectly captured the spirit of Slade.

The man who didn’t want to get noticed certainly got noticed today.

Thank you Jim for what you did for us today. We wish you the best of health in your ongoing treatment and we thank you for all the music you gave us in the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band the world has ever known.

http://www.jimleamusic.com/

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Related posts:
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Slade at White Rock Theatre, Hastings
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Michael Schenker Fest at Shepherds Bush Empire 2/11/17

Michael Schenker’s career, as well as his personal life, went through an increasingly erratic period a decade or so ago. Having seen Schenker a couple of times in recent years with his Temple Of Rock project, however, it was clear that he has absolutely, undisputably got his shit together again. If more proof was needed, tonight’s gig provides overwhelming evidence of that.

Tonight’s gig, dubbed Michael Schenker Fest, features all three vocalists from the three key eras of MSG: Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet and Robin McAuley. Barden is first up. While I won’t say he is the strongest of the three vocalists who will appear on stage tonight this is undeniably my favourite era of the band and the classic songs come thick and fast, transporting me back to my teenage rock fan years: Victim Of Illusion, Cry For The Nations, Armed And Ready….

Schenker is on stunningly good form with some stunningly good guitar work coming from his signature Flying V. On stage there’s other familiar faces from the old MSG days, too: Chris Glenn on bass, Ted McKenna on drums and Steve Mann on keyboards.

Next up is Graham Bonnet and while I have heard him struggle a bit at times during previous gigs he is definitely on form tonight. Originally recording one excellent album with MSG and playing just one disastrous gig where he drunkenly flashed the audience and promptly got sacked, much water has passed under the bridge since then. It feels a privilege to witness Bonnet perform Dancer and Assault Attack with Schenker and properly celebrate the part he played in MSG’s legacy. Even the sound system crashing in the early part of Bonnet’s set didn’t dampen the mood (and allowed me a much-needed loo break!)

Then it is the turn of the third of tonight’s vocalists. Robin McCauley is easily the strongest of the three singers tonight. Although set-wise, the earlier songs probably have far more resonance for me than the McAuley Schenker era, he certainly doesn’t disappoint tonight. To end the set he delivers a brilliant rendition of Rock Bottom from Schenker’s UFO days.

That sets the tone for a brilliant out-of-this-world encore which becomes a complete and utter UFO-fest. McCauley, Bonnet and Barden all come back on stage for Doctor Doctor, followed by Shoot Shoot, Natural Thing (with Schenker’s son Tyson joining his father on guitar) and, finally, Lights Out.

Three great vocalists, a brilliant gifted guitarist, some top class musicians and song after song of unforgettable rock classics, this was definitely one of the best hard rock gigs of 2017.

Set-list:

Searching for Freedom
Into the Arena
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
Victim of Illusion
Cry for the Nations
Attack of the Mad Axeman
Armed and Ready
Coast to Coast
Desert Song
Dancer
Assault Attack
Captain Nemo
No Time for Losers
Save Yourself
Bad Boys
Love Is Not a Game
Rock Bottom
Doctor Doctor
Shoot Shoot
Natural Thing
Lights Out

http://www.michaelschenkerhimself.com/home.php

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Strawbs at Under The Bridge, London 29/10/17

This review was also published by Get Ready To Rock here

As a kid in the 70s I do recall frequent radio plays of the Strawbs novelty hit ‘Part Of The Union’ in what was that fractious decade for industrial relations. And as an adult and Sandy Denny fanatic, the latter’s brilliant pop-folk album with the Strawbs is frequently in my CD player. However, those two brief snapshots in time can hardly be said to represent the prog-leaning rock outfit that has been the mainstay of much of the band’s output these past forty-odd years. For the most part though it has, until tonight, lain largely off my radar.

Strawbs are still going strong, still gigging and touring. And tonight we are here at Chelsea’s Under The Bridge venue to witness the formal launch of the band’s first new album of all original material in eight years: The Ferryman’s Curse.

The two sets the band perform tonight are a mixture of songs from the new album and those from earlier in their career. As I am unfamiliar with any of the material tonight there appears to be no letting up in the quality of the songs in my view, the new material standing up well against what were clearly crowd favourites from past decades.

Dave Cousins’ vocal delivery is something of an acquired taste I find (and, to be honest I prefer it when long-time band-mate, Dave Lambert, takes the lead vocals for a handful of songs). That does not, however, mean that there is not some stunning musicianship in this band and some extremely well-crafted songs which definitely ensure tonight’s show is an enjoyable one. Lambert delivers some fine lead guitar throughout and the keyboards are equally stunning. Multi-instrumentalist, Dave Bainbridge, surrenders his keyboard to Cousins at one point and joins Lambert in some exquisite twin-lead soloing.

The band work extremely well together on stage, perhaps a sign of how long most of them have worked with on another. Although, there have been numerous personnel changes over the years it’s not simply a case of one original member with a load of random new boys, as is the reality with a number of vintage rock acts these days. Guitarist Dave Lambert, bass player Chas Cronk and drummer Tony Fernandez have been playing with Cousins on and off since the 1970s – and it shows. This is a band in the genuine sense of the word.

An enjoyable gig from a band I finally can now say I know a little bit more about, besides that novelty hit and their brief flirtation with Sandy Denny. Thank you Strawbs.

http://www.strawbsweb.co.uk/

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