PLAINSONG – Following Amelia: The 1972 Recordings & More

In the minds of most people, Iain Matthews will always be best known as an early member of Fairport Convention, and for fronting his own folk rock band Matthews’ Southern Comfort in the early 1970s. His career stretches way beyond that, though, and is home to some much bigger musical treats.

Following the split of MSC, Matthews traded in folk rock for country rock, and then later sidelined that for a brilliantly smooth “yacht rock” sound. On albums like ‘Hit ‘n’ Run’ (1976) and ‘Stealin’ Home’ (1978), Iain’s sheen and perfection is every bit the match for Marc Jordan, and can even be seen as a forerunner to Christopher Cross. What’s more, he displayed a talent for the style that was every bit as natural as any of his previous musical ventures. By the 80s, he found himself dabbling in new wave and synth pop – styles a world away from covering Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’ in the vein of Crosby, Stills & Nash – and yet, once again, his natural abilities shone through. Iain’s catalogue is one that’s rich and varied, and one that supplies something interesting wherever you drop in. It’s no wonder, then, that he’s been genuinely championed by Cherry Red Records, who went to the effort of sharing a selection of his demos and off-cuts in the brilliant ‘Orphans & Outcasts’ anthology in 2019, and highlighting some of more overlooked 70s and 80s work in an excellent six disc box set (2022’s ‘The Rockburgh Years’), before setting about revisiting other bits of his past.

Somewhere between the hit making years and the US-centric yacht rock brilliance of ‘Stealin’ Home’, Iain was also leader of folk rock/country rock band Plainsong, whose debut LP ‘In Search of Amelia Earhart’ quickly became as elusive as Earhart herself. For it’s fiftieth anniversary, ‘Following Amelia’ finally tells the complete story of the album and its long unreleased follow up – the similarly elusive ‘Now We Are 3’ (recorded in 1972, eventually released in 2005) – by pairing the original studio recordings with a wealth of live takes and unreleased material. For the fan, it’s a treasure trove, and for the novice, it’s an easy crash course in Plainsong’s brilliant country/folk rock cool.

Obviously, the average Plainsong fan will need no introduction to a lot of the original studio recordings, but in terms of highlights, there are many to be found. ‘Amelia’s opening number ‘For The Second Time’ works a warm bass and strident piano like a proto Jackson Browne, and the way Matthews uses his soulful voice against such a stately backdrop quickly invites further comparisons with the Laurel Canyon set, and when taking this further towards country – almost early Eagles style – Plainsong sound equally at ease. On the gentle and brooding ‘Call The Tune’, in particular, the lead vocal cry blends with a perfect harmony is just lovely. A tastefully applied steel guitar results in one of the era’s most perfect country rock workouts, and across four minutes the band are an equal match for any of the scene’s more immediate names. The same gentle demeanour and warm bass makes the soft ‘Keep On Sailing’ (from the second album sessions) a standout, where Plainsong’s distinctive, easy listening sound is effortlessly augmented by saxophonist Ray Warleigh and the legendary BJ Cole on steel guitar. In some ways, although it isn’t greatly different from, say, ‘For The Second Time’, it has a definite richness that’s a cut above, making it rather odd that it would have sat in the vault for so many years.

Equally cool, ‘True Story of Amelia Earhart’ plays more sedately, but between absolutely perfect harmonies, some great story telling, and a broad chorus where soft singer-songwriter vibes blossom into something a little more aching, the track boasts an easy mix of Gordon Lightfoot-esque narrative drive and a Sutherland Brothers-ish adult pop/rock heart. …And if ‘…Amelia’ promised vaguely Sutherland-like undercurrents, those become hugely obvious on the following ‘Even The Guiding Light’ – the archetypal early 70s pop-rocker – and ‘Save Your Sorrows’, another number from the ‘Now We Are 3’ sessions where dual acoustics come together for a heavy strum that’s as bright and flawless as the smooth vocal that gives the number its obvious strength.

In a throwback to Iain’s formative years with Fairport, tracks like ‘Yo-Yo Man’ and ‘Old Man At The Mill’ aren’t shy in latching onto folk driven stomps that are brilliantly played. ‘Old Man At The Mill’ is cast from the purest trad folk, falling somewhere between classic Fairport and the works of Sandra Kerr & John Faulkner, showcasing some taut dulcimer beneath a choir of vocals. For lovers of the style, it’s a must hear, and even if the fans of Plainsong’s richer sounds find this difficult at first, it captures such a strong core melody, it’s hard to imagine it not becoming an earworm in time. ‘Yo-Yo Man’, although not quite as sharp, is potentially more interesting. By mixing an English trad-folk core and by mixing that with a pinch of bluegrass, it more than shows Plainsong’s desire to cross not only musical boundaries but also geographical ones.

When tapping into a little old style country, Plainsong sometimes fare a little less well, but from a critical ear, even these ventures into the realms of Flying Burrito Brothers are fine for what they are. Those keen to uncover a couple of country rock’s deeper cuts will certainly find some interest in the old time waltzes ‘Urban Cowboy’ and ‘The Goodnight Lonesome Trail’, and during ‘Louise’, a close ear will pick up on Bob Ronga dropping some finely tuned acoustic work. There’s a little bluegrass too, with ‘Diesel On My Tail’ throwing some massive banjo sounds against a fast two-step bassline, almost as if the band had grown up solely in Kentucky and the surrounding states.

The long unreleased ‘Now We Are 3’ isn’t always as sharp as ‘In Search of Amelia Earhart’, but it certainly isn’t without great moments, and the opportunity to explore the album here as part of a larger body of work just makes its great moments seem greater. Bring unreleased for decades and with the reissue being elusive, it’s even possible that some fans will discover those tracks for the first time here. That’s a great thought, but where ‘Finding Amelia’ comes into its own is through its obsessively compiled bonus materials.

Two discs’ worth of BBC recordings, including several unreleased cuts, are this set’s genuine highlight. A first session for the John Peel show in 1972 yields a superb version of Iain’s ‘Tigers Will Survive’ absolutely loaded with close harmonies, and a take of ‘Seeds & Stems (Again)’ that presents itself as a proto-Eagles, tempered with some really tight acoustic lead work. A second session from later the same year captures Plainsong in far more of a country vibe, with ‘Truck Driving Man’ resplendent with some unashamed Burrito Brothers twang, and ‘Yo-Yo Man’ demonstrating how tightly the band could replicate their bluegrass side in the live setting. The recordings aren’t always so different from their studio counterparts, but fans might spot a little more immediacy. Most importantly, all nine tracks are presented in a beautiful quality, straight from the master tapes. With so many BBC sessions from the early 70s utilising fan recorded off-airs due to the BBC’s own tapes having been lost/wiped, this is a great piece of history.

The previously unreleased 1972 session for ‘Sounds On Sunday’ has been sourced from fan recorded tapes, and is far from ideal. The sound wavers, occasionally sounding as if underwater, but for those familiar with the source material, it still provides a reasonable bootleg experience. The country folk of ‘Save Your Sorrows’ still shines despite some very audible hiss, and the recording captures some cool harmonies against a walking bassline, which, even in these less than ideal circumstances sounds like peak Plainsong. Unfortunately, ‘Take You To The Movies’ and ‘Any Day Woman’ – tunes with an even more sedate nature – sound a little too much like a gurgly mess, but even then, the lead vocal cuts through in a way that’s just about strong enough to allow the listener to understand how brilliant this session would have been on original transmission. Takes of ‘Take You To The Movies’ and ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ fare best, but in the case of the latter, it’s a travesty it doesn’t exist in a much better source, as the harmonies sound gorgeous, and Iain’s soft voice brings out the pain in the lyric far better than most who’ve tackled the number since. [A slightly different studio recording eventually appeared in 1974 on Iain’s solo release ‘Some Days You Eat The Bear…’]

A session recorded for ‘Sounds of The Seventies’ showcases pretty much every aspect of Plainsong during an eleven song set, beginning with ‘That’s All It Could Amount To’, a close harmony piece that blends folk strains with traditional hymnal tones, before working through a storming cover of The Byrds’ ‘Time Between’, which mixes country rock and folky guitar with ease. In the hands of Plainsong, it actually sounds more like one of Richie Furay’s contributions to Buffalo Springfield, which suits Matthews and bandmate Andy Roberts incredibly well. The smoother ‘Call The Tune’ sounds much richer than the original studio take, and it really casts a light on some great harmonies, which is a great testament to the Maida Vale studio and its engineers, as much as the band themselves.

As before, this longer session isn’t shy of experimenting with a few more country tunes, and ‘Louise’ is presented pretty much in the same way as the studio cut, but a warm bass gives the tune a genuine lift, and the old waltz of ‘Carolina Moon’ includes some strong harmonies throughout, as well as a very natural piano sound. The session could probably have done without the band lumbering through the old chestnut ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, but if nothing else, it’s a reminder of how much belief they still had in a traditional country sound.

Two audio recordings from the Old Grey Whistle Test archive (‘Even The Guiding Light’ and ‘Bold Marauder’, both previously unreleased in this format) sound absolutely beautiful – almost as if they were recorded yesterday – and an eight song set for Radio 1’s ‘In Concert’ is similarly clear. Although it’s great to finally have this previously unreleased set, the choice of material is a little more marginal. By often switching between pure country (Miss The Mississippi & You’, ‘The Goodnight Loving Trail’) and trad folk (‘The Old Man At The Mill’, ‘Bold Marauder’, ‘Charlie’), it doesn’t leave as much room to show off Plainsong’s westcoast, harmony driven folk rock, but a lovely version of ‘First Girl I Ever Loved’ sounds especially Furay-esque, and a strong take of ‘Home’ presents some superb acoustic work against a brilliant vocal, providing an important balance.

A selection of later live recordings from a reformed Plainsong in 1993 don’t quite convey the same sense of vintage cool, but it’s clear that both Matthews and Roberts retained brilliant vocal tones. For those interested in the nostalgia of a reunion, the recording taken from their first comeback gig will be invaluable, with takes on classics ‘Louise’ and ‘Call The Tune’, joined by strong renditions of ‘Raider’ and ‘True Story…’. A slightly later set recorded for Dutch radio in 1997 is potentially superior, since the very intimate setting feels like a callback to the BBC In Concert shows of the early 70s. With a lot of between song chatter, the recording also feels very personal, and its clear that the traditional heart of ‘Old Man At The Mill’ and ‘Yo Yo Man’ still beats strongly. A lengthy tape of band rehearsals for the 1993 show are definitely for huge fans only, but those who have the patience to wade through the nuts and bolts and off the cuff chatter might find it an enlightening experience. Rounding out the set, a handful of recordings from 2020 revisit a few Plainsong classics, and as shown by the newer takes of ‘Diesel On My Tail’, ‘Even The Guiding Light’ and ‘Louise’, especially, the now aging musicians still retain their spark, as well as a boundless love for the material, at this point reaching for its half century.

Those who’ve treasured ‘Amelia’ for half a century will definitely find some of the extra material here a welcome find from within the archives, and although those approaching Plainsong for the very first time could find six discs’ worth of music a little daunting, in time, this will open up a whole world of musical wonder. Hopefully, it will inspire the new or more casual fan to explore not only other avenues of country rock, but to also look ahead within the Matthews catalogue and find love for those Rockburgh albums, Iain’s collaboration with BJ Baartmans, or superb archive live recordings with The Polaroids. In terms of reissues, this set’s exhaustive approach puts many anthologies in the shade. In some ways, it even offers a little too much, but by supplying pretty much every alternate and live take alongside two fully formed studio discs, it ensures that almost nobody will come away disappointed.

Buy the box set here: PLAINSONG – Finding Amelia Box Set

August 2022