VARIOUS ARTISTS – Deep In The Woods: Pastoral Psychedelia & Funky Folk 1968-1975

Subtitled ‘Pastoral Psychedelia & Funky Folk’, this three disc anthology from Strawberry Records delves deeply into an era where folk music adopted a more progressive approach, and prog/psych bands weren’t afraid to get whimsical. Although the music within isn’t always easily pigeonholed, the bands and artists featured cross genres and moods freely, in a way that captures a period like no other, mixing folk narratives and very English tones with the worldly haze of a prog rock experimentation and a love of jazz. Without these genre-bending pioneers, John Martyn’s ‘Solid Air’ mightn’t be the much loved masterpiece that it is, and Al Stewart might’ve been forever stuck in a Dylan-esque narrative rut. And that’s just scratching the surface.

The fifty three track journey takes in the familiar (Kevin Coyne, Bill Nelson, Trader Horne), the cult (Jade Warrior, Bridget St. John) and the largely unknown (Knocker Jungle), but at no point feels elitist. At the more familiar end of the wedge, ‘Murdoch’ by Trees (from their brilliant ‘On The Shore’ album) serves up some fantastic folk rock. From its opening chords, played in a heavy strum in timeless style, the richness within the sound from this short-lived band is clear, and as Celia Humphries starts to sing, it presents a core sound that could easily rival Fairport Convention, Pentangle and the scene’s bigger players. It isn’t long before Trees’ own twists begin to present themselves, either: in this case, a heavy guitar adds an unexpected Shadows-like twang, giving the track a much darker root, and eventually, a harmony vocal takes everything more in the direction of Mellow Candle’s psych-folk. Mellow Candle, too, are represented in fine form via ‘Silver Song’, taken from their sole LP ‘Swaddling Songs’. It’s a number that shows off the band’s more maudlin side when a Maggie Reilly influenced melody soars above a backdrop of an aching rock ballad, but there’s a richness in the performance that continually draws in the listener. A deep bass anchors a slow groove, over which a dual vocal weaves a haunting sound – very much typical of the band’s other works – but the melodic highlights come from a sparsely arranged piano and strings. Occasionally threatening to drop into the descending melody from Spirit’s ‘Taurus’, there’s often more of an accent on moody rock than folk, but with the vocals carrying a definite folk trill throughout, it’s always clear that this underrated band had a foot in both camps. [Any budding rock historians should take note that vocalist Clodagh Simonds contributed vocals to the Thin Lizzy debut the same year; a job that would retrospectively place her in more record collections than her own band, even though her name remained unfamiliar to most.]

After the break up of her excellent prog/jazz rock band Affinity, Linda Hoyle embarked on an equally short and woefully overlooked solo career. 1971’s ‘Pieces of Me’ is very much a mixed bag, pitting Affinity like tracks (‘Black Crow’, ‘Journey’s End’) against torch ballads (‘For My Darling’) and even Laura Nyro inspired singer songwriter sounds (‘Lonely Women’), but it all sort of works, despite itself. ‘Hymn To Valerie Solanas’ has been chosen to represent Linda’s varied talents within this set, and it isn’t hard to see why. Although the number has a very strong jazz core adding to a 70s groove, it effortlessly presents a moment when 70s rock was unafraid to cross boundaries, and very much represents the “funky folk” remit here. Some may hear traces of another largely forgotten act, Stoneground, within the hard bass sounds, bluesy harmonica and busy arrangement; others will certainly recognise callbacks to Affinity – with good reason – but whichever direction the music takes, Hoyle remains absolutely captivating as she belts out a massive melody. At the point the track fades, it certainly feels as if it has much more to give. The premature finish and its anti-climactic approach will stand a good chance of sending listeners in search of Linda’s other works – the primary role of a superb compilation fulfilled.

Although known for their heavy blues and deep psych sounds, Zior occasionally had a lighter side, and that comes through on ‘Time Is The Reason’ an occultish, folky piece that’s big on acoustic guitars and bongos. More Incredible String Band than ‘Led Zeppelin III’, it’ll be an acquired taste for many, but in some ways, it’s great to hear something cool from the lesser explored corners of 70s rock. Likewise, a brief spotlight cast upon Mighty Baby provides a welcome reminder of a band with a huge talent, when their six minute ‘Jug of Love’ mixes elements of blues, rock and wavering vocals to convey a strange soft drugs haze that sounds like a forerunner to the more sedate material from The Stones’ classic ‘Goat’s Head Soup’. This recording features some great guitar work throughout, using a jazzy tone to weave light psychedelic and almost Cajun elements into an otherwise very accessible roots rocker. By the time the chorus lazily rolls around with its Grateful Dead styled harmonies, it sounds even more like a lost classic. Yvonne Elliman, meanwhile, adds some huge vocals on ‘Hawaii’ (a great cut from her 1973 LP ‘Food of Love’) which goes some way to showing why she’d be a great addition to Clapton’s band the following year. Although this recording is light on guitars, it really shows off her range and vocal force, and elements of the arrangement have faint future echoes of her soon to be popular live renditions of ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’. Although included here as interesting filler – it’s neither especially funky or especially folky – it’s a welcome reminder of another solid LP lurking within the Cherry Red catalogue; a record worth checking out for her sassy rendition of The Who’s ‘I Can’t Explain’.

Formed by Noel Redding after his departure from The Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968, Fat Mattress released two albums in 1969 and 1970 respectively, and ‘Leafy Lanes’ (taken from ‘Fat Mattress II’) features a Traffic-esque sound where soft guitar lines weave between a folky vocal that would’ve certainly suited Dave Mason at the time. Its pastoral feel and hazy chorus vocals feel like a much delayed overhang from the psych era, but at the same time, it can be seen to prefigure the mid 70s soft rock boom. It’s pleasant without being earth shattering in any way. Far superior, the rarely heard recording of ‘Wooden Ships’ by Chris Harwood takes the Crosby, Stills & Nash classic and reworks it as a hard edged, funk driven piece where jazz organ battles for your attention against strange, dark psychedelic strings. It’s immediately the kind of recording that’ll make you sit up and listen, but the extended keyboard solo and choir of vocals that venture into the realms of Affinity rank among some of the era’s very best. It’s a must hear, as is her version of Traffic’s ‘Crying To Be Heard’ which is reworked in a similarly haunting manner, placing a world of saxophones at the forefront, before working another huge chorale trick for the chorus. Harwood’s sole album, ‘Nice To Meet Miss Christine’ wasn’t a commercial success in 1970, but with contributions from King Crimson’s Ian McDonald, Strawbs’ Dave Lambert and original Yes guitarist Peter Banks, it’s a record ripe for reappraisal.

Another instantly likeable tune, Sunforest’s ‘Magician In The Mountain’ falls squarely between Affinity (jazzy brass, chopping blues/jazz guitar) and Mellow Candle (haunting vocal passages), servicing a late 60s/early 70s sound brilliantly. There’s nothing about this that those other bands couldn’t do better, since the vocals are sometimes a little flatter than this kind of tune deserves, but between some great bass work and a bigger commitment to a groove, this has a strong potential to find a place within the hearts of many a psych/blues fan. Taking a more purist approach to folk, ‘The Death of Don Quixote’ by Principal Edwards Magic Theatre stretches a thirteen minute narrative over acoustic based sounds that are obviously inspired by early Fairport, Pentangle and their ilk, and show off a natural ability to conjure an atmosphere. Naturally, there’s nothing immediate about this track and is best approached as part of a huge folk-rock deep dive, but for those able to spend the time, it is something of a lost classic. It has an unfortunate effect in towering over a few things on the set’s second disc, though; in terms of sequencing, it probably would have been best placed at the end of disc three as an epic closer, but it’s a minor point. Keith Christmas is on hand with a weird yet strangely alluring slab of acid folk, and his ‘Foothills’ sounds like a track from Tim Buckley’s ‘Blue Afternoon’ reworked by a man with a fascination for the keyboard sound from Schools and Colleges programmes. It’s probably aimed squarely at genre fans and no-one else, but at the tail end when the rhythms pick up, there are faint echoes of late 60s fare like Sweetwater and Affinity to help it become more palatable.

The Incredible String Band never had the monopoly on tuneless tat and, regrettably, The Occasional Word lower the tone with a dirgy, mumbly, half stoned ramble where bad vocals make a lack of melody seem even worse, and the only highlight is a brief burst of hastily applied slide guitar. Obviously, with compilations such as this, there are bound to be a few weak tracks scattered about, but this is particularly nasty. A pair of numbers by Alan James Eastwood (‘Crystal Blue’ and ‘Lotus Child’) give a platform to a singer songwriter who captures the essence of Cat Stevens and is able to apply a natural vocal to some well arranged folk rock. Nothing about his work is striking when heard decades after the event, but there’s a natural warmth that makes his wares pleasant enough, and pleasant enough is certainly preferable to Knocker Jungle’s work. There’s a reason why some bands seem consigned to the dustbin of history: KJ’s recordings are a little above demo quality, sounding like they’ve been sourced from a third generation cassette. That makes the finer points of their music hard to appreciate, and as such ‘Not Even a Letter’ sounds like a man strumming an acoustic in a rudimentary way and wailing, whilst his mate parps on a penny whistle. Like a drunken Pentangle, this number is average at best, and listening decades later, it’s hard to believe that the almost inaudible rhythm section was the legendary duo of Daves – Pegg and Mattacks!

Another highlight, ‘I Wanna Stay Here’ by Ray Fenwick places hard strummed electric guitar lines beneath a groove laden bass during a very strong intro, before moving through a couple of different moods and culminating in a world of broad harmony vocals. In lesser hands, it might be a mess, but Fenwick’s confidence leads to something of a “lost classic”. The track’s verses opt for a spacious sound where the vocal dominates, before coming together on a chorus that sounds like a deep cut from Humble Pie, presenting the work of a tight band. Fenwick’s talents were always broad – during his best known jobs, he was able to tackle the jazz rock of the Ian Gillan Band and the melodic pop rock of Spencer Davis Group with equal greatness, but as Cherry Red’s three disc anthology showed, he wasn’t afraid of blues, folk, bluegrass or weird pop experiments, and this vaguely psych tinged track shows yet more of his once very malleable musical skills. Also waiting to be discovered among a whole world of brilliant material, Dando Shaft’s ‘Rain’ supplies six minutes’ worth of British folk rock goodness. Opening with a blend of acoustic guitar and upright bass that’s a dead ringer for early Pentangle, it wins over the folk fan with immediate effect, and even when the track branches out into a few heaver strums and unleashes a slightly flat vocal, there’s still enough finger pickin’ gold and a wavering sense of melody to keep up the momentum.

For those really adventurous listeners, ‘Yorric’ by Meic Stevens will be another genuine stand out. A trippy nine minute workout that combines classic folk rock acoustic guitar lines with a heavy use of sitar, this kind of dabbling was hardly unusual in the late 60s, but Meic does it better than most. The instrumental parts of the track where flutes dance above a busy tabla are terrific, and even some limited vocal skills can’t keep down the strong yet wandering melody. This is how this kind of thing should be handled; it really shows up The Incredible String Band for the tuneless embarrassment they often were – and, thankfully, aside from a cursory mention or two within the booklet – listeners are spared them this time around, despite this being very much the kind of box set they’d usually be found loitering within! The Woods Band’s ‘Noisey Johnny’ [sic] should be another overlooked gem with its heavy leaning on a strong folk rock melody and some finely arranged guitars, but it’s eternally spoilt by a man who croons his way through the lyric in a manner that suggests he was fairly wazzed at the time. Terry Woods (ex-Steeleye Span) honestly makes Dave Cousins sound like David Crosby in terms of talent, but if you can get past that, there’s a great female harmony courtesy of his wife Gay that really ought to have been the lead in this instance. However, no matter how many times you’ll approach this with open ears and lesser expectations, it’d be unlikely to appeal to anyone but the most committed folk fan.

By bringing together a selection of great tracks, but not feeling any necessity to weight things down with too many under par unreleased “gems”, this is a release that’s surprisingly accessible for the more casual listener. For those who might be unfamiliar with the featured bands broader catalogues in any great detail, this certainly removes the potential drudgery of wading through a world of obscure early 70s tat, panning for musical gold. Most importantly, it plays well for the bigger 60s and 70s folk/rock fan too, a lengthy reminder of times past, and of the post-Woodstock/pre-punk landscape where album based experimentation was king. Even though you’ll find a few dodgy tracks, as a document of a time when musical moods shifted with the seasons and so many labels valued art over financial gain, this compilation is certainly recommended listening.

Buy the box set: Deep In The Woods

September/October 2022