Fotheringay were one of the great ‘coulda, shoulda’ contenders from the golden era of folk-rock.
Formed by the redoubtable (and now very fashionable) Sandy Denny and her then-husband Trevor Lucas in 1970 immediately after Denny had left Fairport Convention, their line-up also included guitarist Jerry Donahue, drummer Gerry Conway and bassist Pat Donaldson, stellar players who between them have contributed to pretty much every classic of the genre. You couldn’t find folk who know more about folk, you might well say.
However, even though the one album released in Fotheringay’s brief lifetime has since come to be regarded as something of a classic, including several now-revered Denny originals such as Nothing More, The Sea, and The Pond and The Stream, the band quickly petered out after the self-titled disc fared far worse than anyone expected, not helped much by a few chaotically disinterested live performances. Denny died tragically, followed by Lucas some years later, so Fotheringay looked set to be little more than a footnote in rock history.
But Donahue never stopped believing and, after it had spent literally decades in limbo, managed to piece together and release what should have been their second album. That coincided with a huge upsurge in the popularity of Denny and earlier this year a box-set Nothing More: The Collected Fotheringay further revived interest in the band.
So far, so ‘Rock Family Trees’ but, with a bit of a push from a record label anxious to flog box-sets, Donahue decided to put together a touring version of Fotheringay. He himself was a given, obviously, as were the hugely respected rhythm section of Conway and Donaldson. But what to do about the deceased Denny and Lucas? Simply coming up with a couple of ringers wasn’t really practical or advisable, certainly in the case of Denny as her devoted fan-base would surely be shrill in their disapproval of any apparent disrespect. So the special guests for The Return Of Fotheringay tour which opened at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall last week include such stars in their own right as Kathryn Roberts (a BBC Folk Awards winner with her husband Sean Lakeman), Sally Barker (a well-respected folkie for years whose popularity was boosted by appearing on BBC’s The Voice) and PJ Roberts (of folk-rockers Little Johnny England and also a founder member of the Dylan Project with Steve Gibbons, Dave Pegg and Gerry Conway).
“One of my very first thoughts was that it would be good to have two girls to minimise the direct comparisons with Sandy, which were going to be inevitable however fantastic the girl might be,” Donahue says. “Kathryn Roberts was one of the first people I thought of because I’d just heard her fantastic voice singing with Sean and thought ‘I have to work with her as soon as I can’. But each of these girls have illustrious careers of their own with their own followings.”
So, how did Barnsley-born Roberts feel about singing with Fotheringay? “Of course, I’ve been a little nervous that we’re going to live up to the fans’ expectations. Sandy’s are very big shoes to fill,” she laughs. “Sean and I have loved that first Fotheringay album for years and I was excited to hear about the box set. So when Jerry rang me up out of the blue and asked me to be part of the live tour I said ‘yes’ straightaway. Of course, then I started to think ‘what have I done?’”
In the run-up to the tour she was, she reports, listening to Fotheringay material, well-known or rediscovered, almost obsessively but has so far avoided reading Mick Houghton’s excellent book about Denny, I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn.
“I remember that was one of the very first songs I ever learned to sing as a teenage girl sitting down at the piano one day was Sandy’s song Solo. I didn’t really have any clue about Sandy Denny then, she was simply somebody who’d managed to speak to me through her songs, that one particularly. Over the years, I’ve read bits and pieces but I almost don’t want to know too much and take away the mystery of this amazing woman who could write and sing so beautifully. It wouldn’t do the songs justice if you were thinking ‘I wonder how Sandy felt when she was singing or writing this?’, because then I might find myself singing like somebody else. But there’s another part of me that’s massively intrigued, so after we’ve done the tour and I’ve maybe managed to put a little bit of myself into the songs, I might feel able to read it.”
It’s surely not accidental then that Solo was just about the only non-Fotheringay song to grace the fairly remarkable set at the Bridgewater that announced The Return of Fotheringay.
The audience may have been nearly as nervous as the band – nobody wants to pay good money to see and hear their memories besmirched, the Rolling Stones tour notwithstanding – but everyone calmed down once the opener Nothing More managed to be pretty impressive, due in no small part to Barker’s commanding delivery. Roberts and PJ may initially have been slightly more diffident but they’re seasoned performers and once they too had locked in with the rock solid rhythm section and Donahue’s dazzling guitar runs, we began to see that this wasn’t just another nostalgia cash-in.
It helps, of course, when you’ve got songs as strong and well-loved as Banks of the Nile and John the Gun, let alone Gordon Lightfoot and Bob Dylan covers, but only if you manage to match and even transcend their own familiar versions, which this incarnation proved well capable of doing. There was also an agreeably relaxed 70s-esque vibe to proceedings. No sooner had the first set closed than Roberts and Barker (who both seemed to have brought their handbags on stage – how non-corporate-rock, is that?) were themselves selling merchandise at a brisk pace at the back of the hall. By the time everyone was back in the hall or on-stage (no-one had got round to calling them apparently – again very old-school) any tension there might have been had long-since evaporated. Songs like an intelligently rethought Winter Winds were sending shivers down many a spine, while Peace In The End and Too Much Of Nothing were joyful romps where you could really start to see them having fun with the songs.
“We’ll be touring again at the end of the year, the next time we could actually get everyone together again, and recording a live album then,” Donahue told me. “If it continues to work, we’ll also be looking, I’m sure, at writing and recording new material.”
Is there any more unreleased material from the original band still to come out? “Well, you remember when Sean Connery as James Bond said ‘Never say never…’.”
Be that as it may, for the time being The Return of Fotheringay is proving something of a triumph.
By Kevin Bourke