More than five decades after emerging as part of the progressive rock movement, The Strawbs are taking a well-deserved victory lap.
Led by founding member David Cousins, the band is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its first album with an abbreviated tour of the Northeast United States, including an April 13 stop at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair. And for Cousins, a 75-year-old, glass-half-full personality — as well as a survivor of the heyday of album-oriented rock — the shows are a surprising but welcome opportunity.
“If you asked me back then if I would still be playing in 50 years, I would have said, ‘Never in a month of Sundays,’ ” he says. “It’s only now that I’ve begun to realize what we’ve actually achieved. And it’s very curious, because I’ve always just played and moved ahead. But our last record — The Ferryman’s Curse (released in late 2017) — was the first time we had a chart record in 40 years. Now, I see there is longevity, and I want to take it forward and see how we can develop it.”
The Strawbs actually began in the U.K. as a folk and bluegrass duo in 1964, known as the Strawberry Hill Boys. Along with Tony Hooper, Cousins made the burgeoning music scene in and around London for the next few years before crossing paths with Sandy Denny, who later rose to fame as the lead singer for Fairport Convention. The group cut enough material for an album that initially made only a modest impression, but included the first version of Denny’s best-known song, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”
By 1968, though, Denny left for a brief solo career as the band, now known simply as The Strawbs, were signed to A&M records. They readied their first album with help from Tony Visconti, who worked on arrangements (and later became a major producer, best known for his work with David Bowie). Also appearing on the record was Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and session-whiz pianist Nicky Hopkins.
The self-titled debut appeared in 1969, starting a multi-year run of successful releases. Although often mentioned in the same breath as such stalwarts as The Moody Blues, King Crimson and Yes, the band occupied a unique niche within a niche, thanks to its blend of progressive folk-rock.
“We’d grown out of the English folk scene, but we never really sang English folk songs like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span,” Cousins said. “We were much more interested in what we now call Americana and bluegrass. And then we evolved. I started as a banjo player and began to write my own songs. I switched to guitar. Then (keyboardist) Rick Wakeman joined the band and we evolved to a rock-y group, but still mostly acoustic. But then (guitarist) Dave Lambert joined and we really became more a rock band.”
Like some of his progressive rock contemporaries, Cousins wrote free-floating lyrics, but occasionally offered songs with an extra jolt. An early example was “The Hangman and the Papist,” which was about conflict and divided families, sparked by the troubles in Northern Ireland. And the band’s biggest hit — the infectious and ultra-radio-friendly “Lay Down” — has a clear spiritual vibe derived from the 23rd Psalm.
Fans can expect to hear “Lay Down” on each stop of the tour, but Cousins insists the shows will mix the new with the old. “We’ve got to keep ourselves current or we become a museum piece,” he says. “The Strawbs can never stand still.”
In fact, Cousins is planning an ambitious extravaganza later this month when the band will play the Strand Center for the Arts in Lakewood over two-and-a-half days. For some numbers, they will be accompanied by a 30-piece orchestra as well as the United Nations Singers, a choir with more than two dozen members. There will also be special guests, including former members of The Strawbs, Annie Haslam of Renaissance, Richard Barone of The Bongos, and Visconti, who will conduct the orchestra on two songs for which he has written new arrangements.
“But this whole tour, not just this one show, will feature the best band The Strawbs has ever had,” Cousins said. “We’ve done previous anniversaries in the U.K., but never one in the U.S. And we’ve had many supportive fans here over all these years, so it will be nice to do this up.”
This tour, Cousins says, is particularly sweet. After The Strawbs hit their stride in the early- and mid-1970s, the band hit a rough patch. “When we had our first hit single in 1972, with ‘Lay Down,’ I realized you could make a lot of money from broadcast royalties. Before that, it was pretty hand to mouth, because we had no radio airplay.”
But things soured after the band’s management insisted on changing record labels and promotion suffered. Meanwhile, punk and disco became hot and Cousins took what he calls a 20-year sabbatical from the record business and found a career in radio, first as station program manager and, later, chief executive of a broadcast company. It wasn’t until 2000, when a few folk club dates led to a booking at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, that he contemplated a full-time return.
This kicked off a sort of second coming for the band, which subsequently released several albums and began sporadic touring again. As a result, Cousins sees himself as a kind of ambassador.
“It’s true that rock has been eclipsed, but at the same time, I see that a lot of young kids are seeking out the older music and listening to the old vinyl. Frankly, I’m not surprised. The sounds of today’s modern pop music are often written on computers and not on guitars or piano. So it sounds all processed. Very few songs stick out with wonderful melodies, which we saw a lot of in the ’60s and ’70s.
“As for us, well, there aren’t many bands that have taken a sabbatical like ours and come back. And I’m quite glad we did.”
The Strawbs will perform at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, April 13 at 8 p.m.; visit outpost.ticketleap.com.
For information about the April 26-28 Strawbs extravaganza at the Strand Center for the Arts in Lakewood, visit strand.org.
For band information, visit strawbsweb.co.uk.
For a chance to win two tickets to the Outpost in the Burbs show, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org by 10 a.m. April 12 with”Strawbs” in the subject line.