Winterland, San Francisco
May 24, 1973
Photos by Dan Cuny
Text by Michael Collins Morton
Strawbs were first known as The Strawberry Hill Boys, three British musicians who played bluegrass in London during the first years of the 1960s. Dave Cousins (vocals, guitar, banjo) and Tony Hooper (vocals, guitar) were the founders of the band, which became known as Strawbs in 1967, with Dave Cousins remaining the only constant member up to the current day. Sandy Denny also belonged to the band for a brief period in the late 1960s, before she moved on and achieved lasting fame with Fairport Convention.
Dave Lambert, John Ford
In 1969, Strawbs released their first album, Strawbs. With Gus Dudgeon (later to become well-known as a result of his extensive work with Elton John) as producer, it offered a thoughtful collection of sophisticated songs, mostly written by Dave Cousins and including two early compositions that are among his finest, "The Man Who Called Himself Jesus" and "Where Is This Dream of Your Youth?" Strawbs was not a strong seller, but it did succeed in making a favorable impression on those who heard it.
The second album by Strawbs, Dragonfly, was released in February, 1970. Tony Visconti (an American who gained renown for his production on albums by David Bowie) had stepped in as producer, and his sharp approach brought out the best in the songs written by Dave Cousins, particularly "The Weary Song" and "I Turned My Face into the Wind." Shortly after the release of Dragonfly, Dave Cousins brought Rick Wakeman, a young keyboardist and a former student at the Royal College of Music, into the band.
When they came on stage, I was surprised to see that Dave Cousins no longer had his usual beard. He was very trim, and dressed very casually in jeans and black T-shirt. Richard Hudson was on drums, so I never saw much of him from my position. John Ford stood in the background and occasionally contributed vocals. Dave Lambert was giving it his all, while Dave Cousins stood in the forefront, but never acknowledged the others. I definitely got the feeling that the band was playing together only to fulfill a contractual agreement.
It was sad to see a favorite band dissolving right in front of me, but it also made for a very emotional concert. Listening to Dave Cousins singing, I could feel what he must have felt. He had lost both Sandy Denny and Rick Wakeman to other bands, then Tony Hooper departed, and now Hudson and Ford were ready to leave, just as the band had reached a level of success that had taken years to achieve. I felt that Dave Cousins was pouring his heart out with every song. Looking at Dan's photos of him, I can see it in his face.
As it turned out, Richard Hudson and John Ford did leave Strawbs shortly after we saw them, and formed their own band, Hudson-Ford. I saw Strawbs one more time, thirteen months later at the Cow Palace. Dave Cousins and Dave Lambert were the only ones left from the old lineup. Dave Cousins was dressed in a white suit, and the music had more synthesizer and lacked the emotion of the previous show. I felt very lucky to have seen them the first time.
Bursting at the Seams by Strawbs is an amazing record, and the ones before it, Grave New World and From the Witchwood, as well as the first two albums, all were masterpieces. Dave Cousins was (and is) a powerful songwriter, more unrecognized than he should be. The band, with Richard Hudson and John Ford manning the drums and bass (as well as writing songs themselves), was brought to great heights by Blue Weaver, a masterful keyboard player, and Dave Lambert, who added a Who-style power electric guitar influence to the acoustic approach of Dave Cousins, who was grounded in bluegrass and folk music. With all these strong musicians with different styles, I guess it was inevitable that there would be clashes, and this performance was driven by personality tensions that made the music all the more fragile and beautiful.
I remember Dave Cousins barely looking at Hudson and Ford (who soon after left Strawbs to form their own band), and sarcastic comments occasionally erupting between songs. Dave Lambert delivered a powerful rock performance, savagely attacking the strings of his guitar (accompanied by tense facial expressions), and the rhythm section was very solid. Blue Weaver was showcased with his multiple keyboard technique which rivaled Rick Wakeman's, and was very strong on piano and mellotron. The arrangements of "Down by the Sea," "The River," and "Tears and Pavan" (a real favorite of mine, with its two opposing parts with harpsichord break), made this a spectacular performance.
The music was very precise throughout. With the acoustic element being pierced by Dave Lambert's electric guitar, and Blue Weaver's mellotron soaring to the heavens, braced back on earth by John Ford's subtle bass playing and galloping thuds from Richard Hudson's drums, this configuration of Strawbs was an amazing thing to witness. Dave Cousins sang in a voice that ranged from lullaby soft to a growling, razor-edged outpouring of emotion, showing him to be a true force of nature. There is no one else quite like him.
I can very distinctly remember Dave Cousins, with his curly hair, playing acoustic guitar and dressed in plain T-shirt and jeans, while Dave Lambert, who was right in front of me, was dressed in much more flashy attire, like a typical member of a British band. Dave Cousins had a vocal style that was smooth and soothing. Dave Lambert's guitar gave the band more of an edge, as his guitar licks were very precise and much more "rock" than had been heard on past albums by the band.
The set list is vague to me, but I do remember them playing "The Hangman and the Papist," as well as "Sheep," which made me very happy. I also remember them playing "Lay Down" from Bursting at the Seams, which I bought soon after the show. I also remember watching Blue Weaver on keyboards, especially on "Sheep" when he was really getting into playing the organ, bringing the eeriness of the song to life. A great performance, from a great band.
Michael: It was an absolute thrill to see Strawbs at Winterland. I had a high regard for Strawbs and their beautiful songs, which were full of earnest thoughts and honest feelings. It was clear that they took great care in creating their music. I was extremely impressed by Bursting at the Seams, which was their current album at the time, and I knew that seeing them perform would be a special treat.
I was particularly excited at having a chance to see and hear Dave Cousins, someone who I viewed as being more than merely a singer and a musician. To me, he had the rare talent of a true poet, the ability to perceive and express the deepest elements of human experience. His songs had a spiritual quality that was unusual in rock'n'roll. It seemed that many of his songs came directly from his own life, and he sang them as if he meant every word. I remember that his rendering of "Tears and Pavan" was quite affecting.
Dave Cousins may have been the leader and the main songwriter of the band, but it was Dave Lambert who showed himself to be an out-and-out rocker. He certainly had the look of a star, with his eye-catching outfit (white shirt and white trousers, under a long robe of red and gold) and his perfect hair, and he knew how to wield his guitar to advantage. In the middle of "Lay Down," he fell to one knee for a moment, right at the front edge of the stage, and let loose with a roaring riff, much to the delight of those of us who were standing there and looking up at him.
Next: Rick Wakeman