The Strawbs Still Shine at B.B. King’s
Four songs into their set Tuesday night at B.B. King’s, Strawbs frontman David Cousins brought out the heavy artillery. Bassist Chas Cronk held down a tensely swaying pulse and added an extra layer of ominous ambience with his footpedals as Cousins and lead player David Lambert built a richly overcast, menacing backdrop with their acoustic guitars. Cousins had explained that the song, New World – the centerpiece of the band’s iconic 1972 album Grave New World – was inspired by the Bloody Sunday massacre in Ireland earlier that year. This time out, he dedicated it to the victims of 9/11, which had special resonance since this was the eleventh anniversary of that particular massacre. And he held nothing back. When he hit the second chorus, his face twisted into a venomous grimace. “May you rot, MAY YOU ROT, in your grave new world!” he snarled, evoking as much outraged horror as murderously vengeful intent. In a year full of amazing concert moments in this city, it was arguably the most intense. From beginning to end, this veteran group put to shame bands a third their age with the majesty of their arrangements, the craftsmanship of their tunes and their lyrics, which remain as socially relevant as they were decades ago.
The band’s vocal harmonies at this stage of their career are tighter and soar higher than anything Crosby, Stills and Nash ever did, their guitar chops are still tight, and so is their songwriting. Even in his youth, Cousins always had the voice of a man in his fifties; in the forty years since Grave New World, it’s barely changed, and it suits him even better than it did then. He’s grown into himself.
In the years that have passed since the band was playing stadiums, the songs have aged just as well. Their tunesmithing seems even more remarkable in this era of samples and machine-tooled melodies. They began their mostly acoustic trio show with their very first single, the wryly aphoristic, Jethro Tull-like Man Who Called Himself Jesus, following with the even more telling, metaphorically-charged, gorgeously harmony-driven Weary Song, from their 1970 Dragonfly album. A similarly lush, wistful new song from a forthcoming album due out early next year paid homage to Sandy Denny, their singer who abruptly left for Fairport Convention after recording a Strawbs album in Denmark that didn’t see a release until over twenty years later.
After the fireworks of Grave New World, they took a slow, psychedelic detour through Oh How She Changed, another 1968 track that made use of the alternate guitar tunings from ancient British folk music that have served this band so well over the decades. Cousins returned to righteous rage with the epic The Hangman and the Papist, a track that seemed somewhat obvious when it came out in 1971 but has taken on greater significance in this age of renewed religious hatred. Then he reached to his side for an electric dulcimer and launched into a rousing, well-applauded verison of Benedictus, the big, Byrdsy FM radio hit from Grave New World with inscrutable lyrics taken from the Chinese Book of the Dead.
From there they went into an unexpectedly fiery version of the art-rock mini-suite Ghosts, Cousins taking a tastily bluesy, incisive solo over the insistent jangle of the guitars. Likewise, a raw, unapologetically High Romantic version of the Autumn Suite – a song that Cousins said had become a soundtrack to hundreds of weddings since the band released it on the Hero and Heroine album in 1974 – redeemed it from the overproduction of the studio version. Volume-wise, the high point of the evening was Cold Steel, a richly anthemic 2004 kiss-off anthem sung vigorously by Lambert, Cousins’ biting banjo work adding an extra edge to the overtones ringing from Cronk’s twelve-string guitar. The nostalgic You and I When We Were Young and a hypnotic take on an unexpected 1975 ballad, Shine On Silver Sun, came toward the end of the set. The trio closed and then encored with a couple of British folk standards, coming full circle with the music that has inspired them from the very beginning.