Almost 40 years ago, the band--originally named the Strawberry Hill Boys for the Leicester, England, neighborhood where it formed--grew out of the same country-squire English folk music scene that gave birth to such like-minded acts as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. The great singer Sandy Denny even recorded with the Strawbs before joining Fairport.
But the Strawbs' music was (and continues to be) equally informed by early rock 'n' roll, American country, blues and bluegrass and classical bombast. Some observers have even gone so far as to call Dave Cousins, the band's singer-songwriter and primary visionary, the English Bob Dylan.
Supporting musicians in the late 1960s and early '70s included such players as future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, jazzman Lindsay Cooper and pianist Nicky Hopkins, long a Rolling Stones mainstay. The group recorded with such producers as Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti, known for pivotal work with Elton John and David Bowie, respectively.
Rock critic extraordinaire Dave Marsh wrote in 1979 that "... it is Cousins' range of interests, from classical to folk to art rock, that makes the Strawbs one of the more interesting--if least commercially viable--folk-rock groups of the Seventies."
It's true that the Strawbs' confluence of sounds also helped inspire, for better or worse, the ambitious British "art-rock" movement of the 1970s. Keyboardist Rick Wakeman left the Strawbs in 1971 to join Yes, and his son, Adam Wakeman, has for the past few years played keys regularly with the band. In its full-blown electric manifestation, that is.
Although some 30 musicians have been Strawbs members at one time or another, in recent years, the Strawbs often have toured as an acoustic trio and enjoyed considerable success at it, no doubt owing as much to the mellower temperaments of the band and its aging-boomer fans as to the portability of its instrumentation.
So it'll be the "Acoustic Strawbs" that perform this week at Old Town Artisans. Good thing, too, as there wouldn't be enough space in the cozy El Presidio-district venue for the full-blown electric lineup, much less an audience.
(Bandleader Cousins was not available for an interview, although he and I played some unproductive phone tag last weekend as the band toured up and down California, playing a series of gigs in coastline towns. At one point, in a voice mail message, he said he was looking forward to playing in Tucson.)
The Strawbs recorded regularly from 1969 to 1979, at which point an untidy break-up and shifting trends in music led the band into early, albeit temporary, retirement. By the late 1980s, Strawbs faithful on both sides of the Atlantic had revived interest in their heroes, leading to a thriving second-wind of a career.
The "unplugged" version of the Strawbs was officially documented on the 2001 album Baroque & Roll, which features a surprisingly vital-sounding Cousins, Dave Lambert and Brian Willoughby.
The lineup playing Tucson this week will be Cousins and guitarists Dave Lambert and Chas Cronk, who recently returned to the group when Willoughby left to pursue a duo project with vocalist Cathryn Craig.
Strawbs fans will likely delight in the fact that both Lambert and Cronk played with the band during its heyday of international stardom in the mid-1970s, when its fan base essentially shifted from the British pop buyers to the folk-obsessed progressive rock fans of North America.
The trio will no doubt perform such Strawbs classics as "A Glimpse of Heaven," "Witchwood," "Down by the Sea," "Shine On Silver Sun," "Lemon Pie," "Tears and Pavan," "New World," "Ghosts," "Hero and Heroine" and "The Song of a Sad Little Girl." Maybe, if you ask nicely, they might do more obscure stuff such as "The Hangman and the Papist."
But, wait: That's not all. The Strawbs are no oldies act cashing in on past success. Cousins continues to write new songs, as is evidenced on the excellent recent recordings Blue Angel (2003) and the just-released Déjà Fou, both on band's label, Witchwood Records.
Déjà Fou, by the way, is a mostly dazzling set of new compositions that trace Cousins' musical history all the way back to early skiffle groups of the 1950s to his clear influences on the complex jams produced by such art-rock acts as Emerson, Lake and Palmer and King Crimson.