Since 1964, almost 30 musicians have passed through The Strawbs’ various lineups.
Many have gone on to greater notoriety after leaving the English folk rockers, including folksinger Sandy Denny; keyboardist Rick Wakeman (who went on to play with Yes); and keyboardist Blue Weaver (later of The Bee Gees).
With many bands, such a long list of former members is often a sign of an acrimonious past. Not so with The Strawbs, insists vocalist, guitarist and longtime leader Dave Cousins.
“The Strawbs is rather like a family — people come and people go,” Cousins said from his home in Gillian Kent, England. “We always move on, but because we’re such a family, people enjoy playing with us, they enjoy the camaraderie and they keep coming back. We’re fighting them off at the moment; it’s rather nice.”
Huge family gathering
When the progressive folk rockers celebrated their 40th anniversary in September of last year with a performance in London, it was something of a family reunion.
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: The Eighth Step, GE Theatre at Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
How Much: $25, $15
“Rick Wakeman, [drummer] Richard Hudson, [bassist] John Ford, Blue Weaver came back — most of the old members of the band came back and played,” Cousins said. “Unfortunately, we’ve lost one or two of them along the way, but by and large it was one huge family gathering, one very happy event.”
Today, the band splits the difference between its acoustic roots and the electric rock it became known for. The full-band version of The Strawbs features Cousins, bassist and guitarist Chas Cronk, guitarist Dave Lambert, drummer Rod Coombes and keyboardist John Hawken, the 1974 lineup of the band that reunited in 2004. Cousins, Cronk and Lambert, the “frontline of the band from 1974,” as Cousins puts it, also tour together as The Acoustic Strawbs, re-creating the band’s music in a stripped-down setting.
Click here for The Eighth Step's schedule.
The acoustic trio will be opening up The Eighth Step’s 43rd season (and fourth in residency at Proctors) tonight with a performance at the GE Theatre co-sponsored by Proctors itself. It will be The Strawbs’ first appearance, in any format, not only at Eighth Step but in Schenectady. The show comes at the tail end of the acoustic lineup’s September tour of North America, after which the full electric band will make the rounds in Canada before heading back to the U.K.
Revving things up
The Acoustic Strawbs kick off an Eighth Step season filled with old favorites and new surprises. After having to scale back on performances last year because of director Margie Rosenkranz’s family issues, the historic folk venue has revved things up with more than 20 concerts booked so far in both the GE Theatre and the new Underground stage, just off the Arcade near the Muddy Cup.
This year’s season will also include a new indie rock series, Indie 8th Step, curated by Rosenkranz’s daughter, Rebecca, and co-sponsored by 97.7, WEXT-FM. The first band to play that series, Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Lost in the Trees, performs Friday night in the GE Theatre.
“We’ve always been the venue that — we’ve been trying to sustain a stable gig for traveling performers who are primarily singer-songwriters, original singer-songwriters of all stripes,” Rosenkranz said. “And it’s interesting, because a lot of those instruments you consider folk are popping up all over this indie [rock] scene. Like, you’ll hear a banjo or a different instrument in the music, too. So to us, it’s a natural kind of evolution of what we’ve been doing for all these years.”
Among the returnees from past years are Tom Rush, who performs late in the season on Saturday, April 9, and Greg Brown, who plays Saturday, Dec. 4. Brown is a longtime favorite of The Eighth Step, having played at the venue’s Albany location in the First Presbytarian Church in the 1980s.
“Greg Brown played in our basement for over a decade,” Rosenkranz said. “He was there every year and had kind of mediocre audiences, and then he took a year off, and all of a sudden he just exploded on the scene.”
The Strawbs’ progressive rock leanings, evidenced on such albums from the ’70s as “Hero and Heroine” up to the most recent, last year’s “Dancing to the Devil’s Beat,” makes the band seem like an odd fit in The Eighth Step’s programming. But back in 1964, when the group first formed, they were a more-or-less straight bluegrass group, and The Acoustic Strawbs’ performances bring the band back full circle.
Surprisingly, the acoustic version of the band may actually have more power than the fully-amplified version, according to Cousins.
“In the electric band, the drums and bass tend to overpower the sound of the group, and I have to strain to get my voice out over the top of the heavyweight electronics of the whole thing,” Cousins said. “With the three acoustic guitars we always play in different tunings, with different inversions up the fingerboard, so it doesn’t sound like three guitars; it sounds like nine guitars playing. We make a big noise.”
The acoustic setup also allows Cousins to tell some of the stories behind the group’s songs, which in turn creates a more intimate experience. It’s one of the reasons he prefers it over the electric Strawbs.
“It’s much more personal — I can talk about the songs, discuss where they came from,” Cousins said. “It makes me happier — well, not happier. I just enjoy the acoustic experience more. I can be closer and more intimate with the audience. The electric band makes a heck of a noise — it’s a very loud band, but I enjoy it. But it’s far more taxing physically. The two bands are totally different animals, despite the fact that the material is the same.”
The electric Strawbs aren’t being ignored — in fact, Cousins calls it a “very exciting time for the Strawbs at the moment.” Along with “Dancing to the Devil’s Beat,” the band has just reissued “All Our Own Work,” which was originally released in 1973 but was actually the first Strawbs album to be recorded, back in 1967, and the only one to feature Denny.
“That was the very first album we made, a year before Sandy joined Fairport Convention,” Cousins said. “The reviews have been absolutely remarkable [for the reissue] — I’ve never seen reviews like it for any Strawbs album. The sound hasn’t dated. . . . It’s one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever listened to.”
Other projects in the pipeline include a double-CD compilation of The Strawbs’ 40th anniversary concert due out in October, and a book of Cousins’ lyrics, “Secrets, Stories and Songs,” will be released in the U.S. in November. Although the Acoustic Strawbs are primarily focused on re-creating Strawbs songs in the live setting, Cousins is open to the idea of recording an all-new studio album with that group, as well. In the past, the acoustic band has rerecorded Strawbs classics, but has never tackled new material.
“I think it’s the next challenge we need to do,” Cousins said. “We do need to make another acoustic album, but we won’t do that until, at the earliest, the end of next year. . . . When we do play the acoustic songs, some magic moments occur.”