Last year, I was all about buying tickets to see bands who were on my "bucket list" -- artists I really liked who I had never seen live before. I'm still doing that to a certain extent, but this year, I've started focusing more on taking the opportunities to see bands and solo artists who I've always loved that I've seen before but might never get a chance to see again (either because of their age, or mine). This was why I sold my son's kidneys and one of my daughter's lungs to get Fleetwood Mac tickets earlier this year, and why I jumped at the chance to see Procol Harum again. So when I saw that Strawbs were playing at the Boulton Center this April, I was on it like buzzards on Justin Bieber's career.
The truth is that while Strawbs aren't part of my Top 25 list, they probably should be. As far as prog rock bands go, for me, they come right after Jethro Tull, Yes and Procol Harum. I've always kind of grouped them in my mind as part of a trio that included them, Renaissance and Peter Gabriel's Genesis, and in terms of my own personal taste, I rank them in that order. They've always had a lot going on that I like, including Dave Cousins' unique voice and distinct folk-guitar style, Dave Lambert's distinctive guitar leads, and songs that feature uncommon musical structures and fantastic lyrical themes. (Geez, when I was a teenager, what could be better than hearing Cousins' quirky voice belt out a chorus like, "May you ROT in your grave!"? It was right up there with the Procol Harum song about pissing on your door and that Jethro Tull song -- you know the one -- about "SNOT running down his nose!")
Now it's been a weird couple of weeks for me. My daughter's car got totaled in December (on the day she left her job), and the one she has now isn't that reliable. It gets her back and forth to her classes and her boyfriend's house, but I don't trust it to go much further. And because she had used up all of her jury duty postponements, this month they put her in juror's hell, otherwise known as Grand Jury Duty. So Dad has been driving her back and forth each day, and she has no idea what time she's getting out on a given day until they tell her when she goes in in the morning. (Or the afternoon. She also has no idea what time she's going in each day until the night before.)
Luckily for me, I caught a break on Friday, in that she was out that day by 11:30AM. This gave me the chance to come home and sneak in a decent-length nap before the Strawbs concert.
I left the house about 6:45 or so, and headed out to Bay Shore without a care in the world. I didn't have any particular expectations -- this was to be the first show of the American leg of Strawbs' 50 Year anniversary tour, so I wasn't able to sneak a peak at the setlists they've been playing lately -- the last full setlist that anyone posted for them on setlist.fm was from last November. So I was just hoping for a good show, and hoping they were still playing at a high level. And knowing that I was seeing them at the Boulton Center, one of my favorite venues, certainly didn't hurt my mood any.
This wasn't the first time I'd seen Strawbs live. I was lucky enough to catch them back in the early 2000's, in, of all places, the University Cafe on the grounds of Stony Brook University. (I'm pretty sure this was a show that Charlie Backfish had booked, because it was a year or two after the University had finally succeeded in hounding Godfrey Palaia out of the UCaf.) But that didn't lessen my anticipation any. To me, Strawbs has enough good material that whatever they chose to play, it was likely to be a fin night.
I arrived at the Boulton Center at about 7:15, after easily finally parking in the lot around the corner. I grabbed a copy of Good Times (the current issue for once), bought a bottle of water, and made my way to my seat.
The way the Boulton Center is structured, there are four or five rows in the front, then a break of a few feet where the audience enters before the rest of the rows begin. I had a nice aisle seat in that first row after the break. I only had the one seat tonight, but I figured it would be OK, as I had leg room in front of me and an aisle on my right side. There could have maybe been a slight problem if the person sitting to my left had a body type like mine. Luckily, the two gentlemen who wound up with the tickets for those next two seats were both of slight build, so it worked out fine.
The house was still mostly empty when I got there. The ushers chatted a bit among themselves about the resurgence in excitement for the Islanders, as they had started their playoff run on Wednesday night with a win over the Penguins.
As the crowd entered, I looked around me to see if I saw anyone I knew. I thought that perhaps John Ford and/or Jill Morrison might show up for this one. (For those who don't know him, John, a Long Island resident, is also the Strawbs' former bass player. I know he's on OK terms with them, because he's playing a special show with them in a few weeks -- more about that later.) Anyway, as it happened, I didn't see any familiar faces tonight.
Then, about five minutes before showtime, as the crowd was still trickling in, the fire alarm started going off, along with a pre-recorded voice telling people to exit the theater. Everyone looked confused, and the ushers had everyone sit for a second while they checked out whether we actually had to leave or not. There were no signs of an actual fire. I suspect Dave Cousins might have been smoking a doobie in the back. (Do people still say "smoking a doobie?" Probably not.) Actually, I think someone tried to sneak a cigarette in the bathroom, and the smoke detectors picked it up.
In any event, a moment later, Michelle, the Boulton Center's Director, entered and told everyone that we would, in fact, have to evacuate until the fire marshal cleared us to return. She was apologetic, but reminded us that the quicker we got out, the quicker we'd be likely to get back in so the show could start. So we all filed outside and waited for the fire department to show up.
Before long, the fire department arrived. Shortly thereafter, we were permitted to re-enter. In all, the whole process had only taken about 15 minutes, a much shorter time than I expected.
As soon as we were seated, the lights went down, and Cousins and company took the stage. I was a little disappointed to see that the show wasn't a sellout -- there were still about four or five rows in the back that hadn't been sold. But the crowd that was there was quite enthusiastic. They gave the band a nice reception, and over the course of the night, rewarded them with at least four or five standing ovations.
Strawbs these days consists of Cousins on rhythm guitar and most of the lead vocals, Dave Lambert on lead guitar and a few of the lead vocals, Chas Cronk on bass and backup vocals, and Tony Fernandez on drums (all of whom recorded and toured together in the seventies), plus Dave Bainbridge, one of the founding members of the Celtic band Iona, on keyboards.
They began with "The Nails From the Hands of Christ" from their most recent album, 2017's The Ferryman's Curse, as I began to assess the state of the band. What I learned was that this is a band that is still capable of playing at a very high level. Cousins (much like Jon Anderson of Yes) looks rather Hobbit-like these days, and he's gotten a bit mumbly -- there were times it was a little hard to understand him, both when he was speaking and when he was singing. However, all things considered, the quality of his voice has held up pretty nicely. Much like Annie Haslam when I saw her with Renaissance a few months back, he's at his strongest in his high range -- his voice is a little less controlled in this lower range. But like Haslam, and like Gary Brooker when I saw him in February, he still sounds better that he probably has any right to at 74 years old.
As for Lambert, I found his vocals to be a little shakier (although they got stronger as the night went on). His guitar playing, however, is still spot on. On certain songs, such as "The River/Down by the Sea", with which they closed the first set, his playing was absolutely riveting.
The rest of the band were no slouches either. Fernandez banged away throughout the night, making madman faces (primarily for his own amusement, I think), Cronk provided a strong bottom end, and Bainbridge, who spent the night looking into the crowd and grinning happily, had some lovely moments on the keyboard (especially in the second set, during the Hero and Heroine suite).
I had some small disappointments with their choice of material, but with 50 years' worth of songs to choose from, this wasn't surprising. They did play my favorite Strawbs number, "New World", which was a definite highlight of the show. And there were a number of tracks that I'd have loved to have heard, but knew were unlikely, including "Witchwood", "Blue Angel", "Part of the Union" (which I knew they'd never play without Ford), and the ridiculous but highly enjoyable "Lemon Pie". The one I was shocked that they skipped, though, was "Benedictus". I'd have thought that along with "Lay Down" (which they did as an encore), this was a must. (I certainly wouldn't have minded "Tears and Pavan" either, although this is another one I wasn't really expecting.)
I did enjoy the hell out of "Round and Round", "Autumn" and "Down by the Sea", though. And while I wasn't blown away by some of the newer material, they had a really nice moment during "The Familiarity of Old Lovers" where Bainbridge stepped out from behind his keyboard, grabbed an electric guitar, and then had a bit of a guitar duel with Lambert that merged into a really tasty instrumental duet (while Cousins took over the keyboard). It was pretty cool.
I didn't check my watch like I usually do (which is a sign in and of itself that I was having a good time), but I'd say they played for over an hour and a half, and did fifteen or so songs (some of which were fairly long). And as I said, the crowd gave them a number of standing o's. So by any almost every measure, the show was definitely a success.
Strawbs is doing a strange tour right now. Most of it seems to be taking place in the Tri-State area ("Tri" if you threw out Connecticut and substituted Pennsylvania, anyway) over the next two weeks. It all culminates on the last weekend in April with a 3-day anniversary celebration in Lakewood, New Jersey. These shows will feature a 30-piece orchestra, and a number of special guest stars, including John Ford (who will no doubt play "Part of the Union" with his John Ford band), and Annie Haslam, who will be joining the Acoustic Strawbs and performing all of the old parts that were originally sung by Sandy Denny. It sounds like an incredible weekend.
As for the Boulton Center, I know they had Iron Butterfly playing there tonight ("In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, baby!") And while I won't be able to make it this time, Martin Barre is doing a show highlighting Jethro Tull music, featuring former Tull band members Clive Bunker and Jonathan Noyce, on April 26. Wishbone Ash is also playing there the following night, on April 27.
As for me, I've got a little musical theater to report on for you coming up in the next week or so. So I guess we're all keeping busy, huh?
The setlist for this show can be found at www.that5thsongwasnotthepromisedlandyoulyingpieceofshit.com. Anyway, cheers, folks.