Artist of the Month: Sandy Denny


Sandy Denny: An Appreciation





I heard some good new music this month, but nothing blew me away. It’s an opportunity to crawl into the Way Back Machine for my artist of the month: Sandy Denny. Sandy is my favorite female vocalist of all time. Was she the best ever? That question, surely, covers too many genres and too many personal tastes. I will say, though, that her “Who Knows Where the TimeGoes?” is my favorite song and is surely one of the greatest folk songs ever pressed onto vinyl. (I can't hear it without tearing up.)


Denny (1947-78) gets labeled a “forgotten” singer. That’s not accurate, but it is true that she was better known in the UK than in North America. For rock fans, hers is the voice dueling with Robert Plant on the Led Zeppelin song “The Battle of Evermore” and, for once, Plant met his equal. Sandy was better known, though, as a pioneer of folk rock.


She didn’t invent it–the label was first used in 1965 to describe The Byrds–but Denny was one of the first to update “traditional” music, not just singer/songwriter compositions. She made her first two recordings for the Saga label in 1967 before joining the rock band The Strawbs. With them, she began performing “Who Knows Where the Times Goes.” Judy Collins heard a demo tape and covered it, which helped propel Denny’s career. The Strawbs, though, were basically a second-tier band–its best player was/is guitarist Dave Cousins–that wanted to rock out. Remember Joni Mitchell’s line “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone?” Sandy and The Strawbs parted ways over creative differences and Sandy went in search of simpatico musicians.

Check out the guy on the right!

She landed in Fairport Convention, which needed a new lead singer. Denny might have passed on them, had they not hired a teenaged guitarist whose talents Sandy thought were equal to her own. Arrogant? What if I tell you that guitarist’s name is Richard Thompson? She joined a lineup that included Thompson, Iain Matthews, Ashley Hutchings, and Simon Nicol, a veritable supergroup. Between 1968-70, Denny was on three Fairport albums. The first was slightly tentative, but included a wonderful original titled “Fotheringay” and a terrific remake of “She Moves Through the Fair.”


Fairport hit their stride with the next album, Unhalfbricking, which included “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” “A Sailor’s Life,” and Thompson’s “Genesis Hall.” Then came Liege and Leaf. If you don’t know this record, there’s an Alaska-sized hole in your musical education. Sandy’s take on "Reynardine” “Matty Groves," and "Tam Lin" are both definitive and unparalleled. She proved that songs whose origins might go back as far as the Middle Ages could become rock songs. She also defined Thompson’s “Crazy Man Michael” and originals such as “Come All Ye.” To get a sense of how she and Thompson meshed, listen to “Tam Lin.” It’s a good Halloween song, as it tells of how the faeries kidnap knights, but paraded them on October 30. Anyone–young Janet in the song–who can grab on to a knight and maintain their grip as the knight shape shifts through monstrous forms redeems that knight. It is seven plus minutes of spooky mystery and joy.


In 1970, Sandy left Fairport to form Fotheringay with future husband Trevor Lucas because she wanted to do more original songs. Five of the nine tracks on their one album were from her pen, my favorites of which are “Winter Winds” and “Nothing More.” Ironically, though, the standout track is another traditional, “Banks of the Nile.


This lineup was sunk by a dispute with notoriously controlling producer Joe Boyd. She formed a new band–that included Thompson, Conway, and Dave Richards–and, in 1971, released what is arguably her best “solo” album: The North Star Grassman and the Ravens. It had seven originals, my favorites of which are the title track, “John the Gun,” and “Late November,” but again it was her reimagining of a traditional that stands out: “Blackwaterside,” a song some might know from the Irish band Altan. She also rescued an old Brenda Lee hit “Jump the Broomstick.”


She followed with Sandy in 1972, a nice record, but somewhat subdued. I recommend “Sweet Rosemary” and “It Will Take a LongTime” from that one. The heavily airbrushed cover, though, presaged a major misstep. In 1973, Lucas produced Like an Old Fashioned Waltz that found Denny in a standards moods, even though she wrote six of the eight tracks. The song “Solo” is considered the best, but the album is marred by mawkish orchestral strings, plus who wants to hear Denny sing Fats Waller? Lucas dropped the production ball.


Denny rejoined Fairport in 1974, left again, burt reunited with several members, including Thompson, for two records that came out in 1977: Rendezvous and Gold Dust, the second of which is most of the material from the first, plus eight other originals, a live recording of what turned out to be Sandy’s last concert. Standout tracks include Denny kicking it in high gear to cover Thompson’s “I Wish I was a FoolFor You” and “Gold Dust,” the latter of which she sounds a lot like Grace Slick. The concert recording features her in a full rock n’ roll mode. She was good at it, but she was better at folk rock.


Alas, Sandy was also spiraling out of control by then. She had given birth to her only child, Georgia, but her marriage was tumultuous, she was depressed, her health was fragile, and she drank heavily. By all accounts, she was not a good drunk. She unraveled when Lucas took Georgia and moved to his native Australia without telling her. She died on April 21, 1978, from brain trauma resulting from a fall down a set of stairs. That was 43 years ago. Indeed, who knows where they times goes?


Rob Weir


Discover Nikolai Astrup at the Clark



Clark Museum of Art, Williamstown, MA

Through September 19, 2021.




Scandinavians are often the forgotten artists of Western Europe. Could you come up with a Norwegian artist not named Edvard Munch? Within Norway, Nikolai Astrup is ranked just below Munch, and you might detect a splash of Munch in the way Astrup deals with reflected moonlight, as seen in the woodcut “The Moon in May.” 


Funeral Day
Funeral Day


Astrup (1880-1928) did some traveling in his short life–he died of pneumonia at age 47–but he did most of his 210 paintings and 48 woodcuts in a single region, Western Norway, and largely in two places, near and in his childhood village in Jølster and in Sandalstrand (now called Astruptunet). (Ironically, one of his earliest paintings was titled “Funeral Day in Jølster.”) He also often depicted the same features repeatedly, a time-honored practice among painters; think Claude Monet and Rouen Cathedral, for example. Astrup was particularly fond of a mountain that loomed over a small fjord and experimented with coloring, moods, and perspectives. 




His early life was like something from a Norwegian Gothic novel. In his youth, Norway was ruled by Denmark. That suited his father just fine, but Nikolai tended towards nationalism. He also wanted little to do with his father’s austere faith–he was a Lutheran priest at Ålthus church in the Jølster village of Sogn og Fjordane. You might have thought that Christian Astrup was Catholic; he sired 14 children, of which Nikolai was the eldest. He disappointed his father, who expected Nikolai to become a priest as well. 




Nikolai’s church was the landscape, both the sod-roofed built environment and the features and light nature provided. One of his largest oils, “Clear Night in June” features all three, with swamp irises forming a perfect V-shape in front of a village tucked below a snow-topped mountainside and a fading orange-yellow sky. If you wonder about the snow and the light, remember that this is Norway, a land where many hills wear a frosty crown for most of the year and the summer sun dims rather than sets. His “Night in August” shows an analogous setting. The flowers have changed, but the snow remains. 




In 1907, Nikolai married Engel Bunde (1892-1966), who bore him eight children and still managed to become a respected textile artist in her own right. A photo of the couple perhaps explodes your view of what a paint-flecked artist looks like. With his wavy over-the-ear hair and wire-rimmed glasses he looks like he could be either a school teacher or John Lennon’s grandfather. He was devoted to Engel and often depicted her working in their Sandalstrand garden, the latter of which he also repeatedly painted. The close up posted here shows Engel harvesting rhubarb. She is also one of the figures in the enigmatically brooding “By the Open Door.”




Astrup also drew upon Norwegian folktales and, in what must have horrified his dogmatic father and younger brothers who also became Lutheran priests, pagan rituals. He did several paintings and woodcuts of Midsummer bonfires and rituals, the latter pre-Christian solstice gatherings in which faeries were allegedly active and needed to be appeased. (Christians appropriated it as the Feast of John the Baptist.) He also used nature to give a nod to other pagan legends. The woodcut “Spring and Desire” transforms a hillside into a nude woman’s body, a reminder that May Day was once a fertility celebration that involved active carnality. “Spring and Willow” sports an eerie-looking tree that looks supernatural because its inspiration was the Ice/Snow Queen, an ogress. 




It should be noted that Astrup’s use of wood block prints was actually unusual in Norway. Because he was working outside of tradition, Astrup was unrestrained in his use of textures and colors. Personally, I prefer his starker black and white prints to brightly colored works such as “Milling Weather,” which skirts the boundary of garishness, but I admire Astrup's willingness to experiment. 




A few of his late works, notably “White Horse” in spring show him taking tentative steps away from representationalism. For me, there is a Marc Chagall-like quality to this work. It also tells us another thing about Nikolai Astrup. He was an artist active in and between several artistic traditions: impressionism, expressionism, primitivism, and modernism. 




It’s always a joy to be astonished by lesser-known artists. You have a few months left to catch this show–and you should.


Rob Weir


July 2021 Angela Autumn, Annabelle Chovstek, Sol y canto, Surrender Hill and more


Angela Autumn
hails from the small borough of Zelienople, Pennsylvania, which is a bit west of the Allegheny ridge, but you wouldn’t be wrong to think that she’s been baptized in Appalachian streams.  You need but hear a few bars of “Old Time Lovers” to imagine bluegrass stains on the back of her guitar. There is that plaintive voice, the small catches, and the woo-hoos coming at you like a muddy creek. The foot-stompin’ and fiddle-supplemented good ‘ole girl vibe of “Sowin’ Seeds,” the two-step pacing of “God’s Green Earth,” the plucked banjo and lonesome tones of “Western Skies,” and rolling melody of “Back in Line” all owe more to hardscrabble mount than the lights of Nashville, where she now lives. Her idea of a change of pace is to mix a tiny Dylan vibe into “Shooter” or sing about “Texas Blue Jeans.” To be sure, she’s a young singer who could use a tad more variety in her repertoire and depth to her vocals, but you surely can’t go wrong by giving a serious listen to her new LP Frontiers Woman.


Listening to Annabelle Chvostek is like discovering a retro gypsy musician melded with a carefree, bilingual, quirky chanteuse. Sporting a steampunk-inspired album cover, the album title is a throwback: String of Pearls. (For you young’uns, that was the name of a massive 1944 hit for the Glenn Miller Orchestra.) Chovstek is a vet of the Canadian folk- and folk-rock scenes. Though she’s a Toronto native, she attended Concordia University in Montreal and is comfortable enough in French that a quarter of her 12-track recording are sung en français. Chvostek has always been a bit on the cheeky side of things and her cover of the title track is a jumpy little number evocative of how Django Reinhardt might have approached it. Chovstek goes into a jazzy Edith Piaf mode on “Je T’ai Vue HeirSoir,” complete with plinky keys and guitar, and maniacal fiddling. She’s a few shades more serious on “Walls,” a song about who we are and what we leave behind. She gives it an orchestral treatment and ices it with lyrics such as: I'm a holy fool/And a killer too/And I leave it all with you/The light's an open palm/And the branches keep us calm/We don't leave today/But when we do/We won't be gone…. But don’t worry, Chvostek mostly keeps the mood lighter. Check out her live take on “The Fool,” which is like being at a carnival from the comfort of your office chair.


Some recordings review themselves. In 1994, Brian Amador and his Puerto Rican/Argentine wife Rosi formed the Cambridge, MA-based Sol y canto, which is a spinoff of an ensemble they created a decade earlier, Flor de caña. They have been making pan-Latin music since the days when it was niche music that was yet to live up to Sol y canto’s mission: to make music accessible to both Spanish- and non-Spanish-speaking audiences. These days their daughter Alicia often joins them on stage to create glorious three-part harmonies. She’s on the band’s fifth release, En vivo, en familia (Live, as a family). “Amaras” is typical of what Sol y canto does. It’s mostly just Spanish guitar, bongos, and three voices. They sing with sunny joy, even on songs such as “Epidemia de soledad (Epidemic of Loneliness)”. By keeping things simple, our minds can travel to the marketplace to take in “Olor de chiles (Smell of Chilis),” though it’s a rare song in which other things (flute, bass) are as close as the trio gets to being slick. There are even touches for gringos, as in “En vivo (Home Again),” which is in English. As legions already know, Sol y canto’s power comes from being true the music, their hearts, and spirits.


I’ve previously railed against the “Civil Wars Syndrome,” the tendency to compare every energetic country/folk duo to the long-disbanded Grammy Award-winning partnership of Joy Williams and John Paul White. Don’t do that with Surrender Hill, the husband/wife collaboration between Robin Dean Salmon and Afton Seekins Salmon. First of all, Robin was born in South Africa before he surrendered to wanderlust and made numerous ports of call, played in a punk rock band, and eventually drifted to Arizona. For her part, Afton is an Alaskan who studied dance in New York City before landing in the Grand Canyon State. Their latest project, A Whole Lot of Freedom, opens with the title track, a quick nod to Robin’s punk rock days before turning country: Got a little country in my soul/little bit of rock and roll/got a lot of whiskey in my blood. Robin handles most of the lead vocals, but Ashton provides tight harmonies that are really evident in quieter acoustic-led pieces such as “Healing Song” and “Beautiful Wren,the latter which is about their daughter. They draw on a lot of inspirations, including outlaw country, family tales, life experiences, and their “road-dog status.” You’ll hear echoes of Guy Clark on “Turn This Train Around,” but don’t be deceived by the title “Badge of a Punk Rock Band;” if you can believe it, it was inspired by a bad trade of a saddle, an electric guitar, and car restoration! I’d like to hear more Afton leads on an 18-track album that sometimes feels like Robin is trying too hard to sound like the boy from Texas he isn’t, but this is a very solid country album that takes interesting turns. 


Jazz lovers will appreciate Refuges Mouvant by rising Québéçeois star Mireille Boily. Her new project is a collection of cool jazz song, poetry, and spoken word that pays homage to signs of heaven and earth. It is combo jazz in which she’s accompanied by saxophone, piano, standup bass, and percussion. She is a gifted songstress though, to be honest, this genre of music simply doesn’t move me. This, of course, is a personal statement and not a critique of Boily’s obvious gifts. Try tracks such as “Crépuscule” or “Nouvelle Lune,” as she might be your cup of tea. 


If I could give young singers one piece of advice, it would be: We want don’t want to hear anything else until we’ve heard you. I think that Sarah Cicero has a nice voice, but her EP Cold Immaculate Opposite doesn’t let me know for certain. PR material describes her voice as “incandescent,” but the thing about light-emitting rays is that they are encased in a shell. There are so many layers and drifting departures that Cicero only emerges as refracted light. The overproduction is such that a rough video of her singing “Atticus” while sitting on stairs warbling against street noise is better than the studio version. The same issues turn her single “Letter to the Editor” into something approaching aural wallpaper. Cicero should simplify and add where needed, not just because she can.


Rob Weir