Published in City Newspaper (Rochester) November 12, 2003

Making Music from Barroom Funks

by Bill Chaisson

A recent phone call to West London finds David Cousins, the leader of the Strawbs, in a good mood.  A new album, Blue Angel, has just been released and Cousins, Dave Lambert and Brian Willoughby are set to depart the next day to begin their second US tour this year.  Since they were here this past April they have toured in Canada and the UK every month except August.  This has been the rhythm and content of Cousinsí life for upwards of 35 years.

In the mid-1960s Cousins got hold of a recording of the Newport Folk Festival and heard Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs for the first time.  Slowing the LP down to 16 rpm, he taught himself the bluegrass banjo by listening to Scruggsí frailing at half speed.  At a time when many of his peers were addicted to the blues, Cousins and a few friends were instead spinning and playing the Foggy Bottom Boys and the Rocky Mountain Boys.  When they decided to put together a band, they adopted one more bluegrass idea and became the Strawberry Hill Boys, naming themselves for a West London knoll.  The bluegrass incarnation lasted for about a year and the bandís name was shortened to the Strawbs in even less time.

The band members began writing their own songs and their English folk roots reasserted themselves.  But this was London in the late 1960s and all manner of music could be heard.  The Strawbs first album in 1969 might almost be considered ìworld musicî now, so laden is it with influences from North Africa to the Appalachians.  And Cousins was transferring the modal tunings associated with the banjo to the guitar, adding to the Strawbsí distinctive sound.

By the early 70s their live shows had become spectacles that featured, in addition to the music, ballet dancers, films projected on a screen behind the stage and Ö mimes.  They were part of an ìunderground sceneî that included Pink Floyd, the Incredible String Band and T. Rex.  This 

experimental period produced From the Witchwood (1971), Grave New World (1972) and Bursting At the Seams (1973).

Cousins believes quite firmly that pop music should be slightly larger than normal life.  ìPeople donít want to hear about their everyday lives,î he said emphatically, and cited as an example a song from a forthcoming album called ìFace Down In the Wellî, which he wrote in a state of consciousness somewhat altered by medication received as a hypodermic needle in the stomach after a particularly nasty insect bite.  It is about finding a dead body at the bottom of a well and wondering where it came from.  He played the song for one of his Bordeaux neighbors and was informed that exactly such a thing had occurred in the area a few years before Cousins had moved in.

I brought up the epic title track that opens up the new album and asked him if he was being deliberately anti-commercial.  This elicited a sharp laugh and ìI wish someone would play it on the radio.î  Cousins had been sitting in a country pub lapsing into a funk while he watched a man with an artificial leg dance with a woman.  Someone had brought up the subject of tarantulas mounted on pins and destined for the British Museum.  From a melancholy sight, an esoteric conversation and a lousy mood Cousins produced an 11-minute song in three parts.  Most of us would have simply have had a bad dream and a hang-over.

The Strawbs have lately incorporated and negotiated a distribution deal with A&M Records, and have consequently been able to digitally re-master their back catalog.  Their complex, multi-layered arrangements are benefiting from the increased dynamic range and clarity of the new technology and resulting CDs, with extra never-before-heard tracks, are winning gold records all over again.  This exploration of their own past has also produced acoustic arrangements of originally electric songs.  Some of these are presented on last yearís Baroque & Roll, and even more of them will be heard from the stage at Milestones on Thursday evening.

Hibernian Weather Channel Productions

Last revised:  May 3, 2005