“Yesterday I wore no shoes and I walked down leafy lanes…” It’s the first line of the first song on Cherry Red’s new four-hour, 3CD set of late ‘60s / early ‘70s folk rock, Deep In The Woods, and it sums up the whole aesthetic perfectly, a veritable feast of peace, love, beads and sandals – the summer of love had passed, but its memory was still clearly vivid. It’s strange, but had I been asked to volunteer the names of all the era’s folky bands, I would have been struggling to get past Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull and Steeleye Span; maybe Fotheringay and Pentangle if I had really thought about it. But even though this set comprises 54 tracks by no less than 47 different acts, none of those four bands are even represented, although various members pop on various songs. That gives an indication of just what a gloriously rich seam it was; acoustic guitars, bongos and congas abound, and hardly is a group to be found without a flautist or a maestro on the recorder. It’s an overwhelmingly UK-based compilation; the few US acts who show up had a strong British connection in any case.
That first song is Leafy Lane by Fat Mattress, the side-project formed by Jimi Hendrix’s bassist Noel Redding while he was still playing with the Experience. There follows an avalanche of ghostly and obscure names: Duffy Power, Mike Hurst, Ray Fenwick, Dando Shaft, Meic Stevens et al, even a British band called Nirvana, formed over 20 years before the outfit from Seattle, and who are still going apparently. The CD set is subtitled Pastoral Psychedelia And Funky Folk in an effort to find an umbrella name that covers the whole set, and it’s a pretty decent attempt, although folk rock would probably have done just as well. There is little or no purist folk going on here, but by the same token, nothing that doesn’t have at least one foot in that camp; some songs are purely acoustic, but most of the bands are sporting some electric instruments, especially a bass at least. The bubbling maelstrom of creativity that was the early seventies throws up a wonderful Mike Piggott gypsy violin solo from on Paul Brett’s Motherless Child On A Merry-Go-Round, some jazzy polyrhythms in Arrival’s La Virra, some beautiful Crosby, Stills and Nash-style vocal harmonies from Jade Warrior, and frequent sitar incursions.
I would have to say that CD 2 is my favourite, largely because it features a song titled Murdoch by the bucolically-named combo Trees, featuring the silky tonsils of singer Celia Humphris. The song is a dead ringer for Fairport Convention in their Liege And Lief era, especially their version of Tam Lin; so much so that I wonder why Fairport and Sandy Denny are household names, while Trees and Celia have passed me by completely – perhaps because Fairport’s album was ahead of Trees by a year or so. Murdoch is followed by Foothills from Essex act Keith Christmas, which is similar enough in style to have been by the same band, male vocals aside, and then the next track Morning Way could have been the two of them are singing a duet, although this is a different band again, Trader Horne, featuring the glorious voice of Judy Dyble, an ex-member of Fairport.
This is just a personal opinion, but for my money the female-fronted bands make the best sound; it’s a middle-of-the-road style, and women just seem to do it better – the beautiful ballad Silver Coin from Bridget St. John and the funk soul of Reach For The Truth by Linda Lewis are two more highlights from the collection. And it’s almost a relief to find a name I recognise without having to look it up; Honolulu-born singer Yvonne Elliman of Jesus Christ Superstar fame pops up with her entry Hawaii, a nice, middle-of-the-road acoustic-backed song reminiscent of The Mamas & The Papas. Of course, there is a helping of protest songs as well; the anthemic Mother Earth from Donovan’s backing band Open Road is perhaps the prime example. With prog entering its heyday, a fantastical element is never far away; Sunforest’s laid-back and groovy jazz-fusion number The Magician In The Mountain kicks off CD 3, but arguably the highlight of that disc is the epic poem The Death Of Don Quixote by Principal Edwards Magic Theatre, an arts collective from Exeter. It’s a work of genius from 1969, making it one of the oldest songs on the set; a 13-minute description of a dystopian carnival bearing some resemblance to John Bunyan’s Vanity Fair, inhabited by exploited performers and self-centred spectators. It is held together by a stunning vocal performance from Vivienne McAuliffe and a complex acoustic guitar arrangement from Root Cartwright. Sundry other instruments weave their way in and out of the plot, including the best bongo work on the album.
As with all of Cherry Red’s carefully-researched compilations, obscurities and rareties sit alongside some vital and influential entries. The whole offering is beautifully packaged in a four-leaved Digipak with an absolutely spectacular fantastical forest cover design, and a 28-page booklet containing a ton of photos and some extensive notes from the album’s compiler Richard Norris. It’s a beguiling compilation, and a really enjoyable listen. In fact, I will go further than that; this is my favourite Cherry Red compilation so far! Keep ‘em coming lads.