The Conway Hall, charming headquarters of the South Place Ethical Society and oasis of sanity and reason in an increasingly mad world, sits quietly at the hidden end of a leafy Holborn square. Over the years it has hosted some singular events; Ken Kesey and Ken Babbs’ multi-media invocation of their adventures with the Merry Pranksters, and an evening of spoken word featuring Nick Cave and Ken Campbell, remain vividly memorable. To these we now add the two Winterludes, organised by Raz and Scotty from The Betsey Trotwood.
Situated a brief walk away from Red Lion Square, down in Farringdon Road, The Betsey has, in a few short years, achieved an impressive status. It now serves as the heart and refuge of the musicians and fans frequenting not just its own events, such as Clerkenville West and The Lantern Society, but also The Tapestry Club (whose festival it provided the bar for), Come Down And Meet The Folks, and The Easy Come. At the two Winterludes (thus far) it has celebrated that status in presenting impressive line-ups drawn from its habitués.
Thus one element of Winterlude is a bit of a gathering of the clans, but that in itself wouldn’t fill a 500-plus capacity hall, and would be far too smugly up its own arse as well. So on both occasions a wider audience is deliberately aimed for, making the bills a pleasing mix of local heroes and renowned crowd-pleasers. In 2008 The Magic Numbers were the star attractions and played a magical set; this year John Otway signed up, along with Camden country icons The Rockingbirds, and Danny And The Champions Of The World.
Arriving out of the late afternoon drizzle it was good to come into the inviting foyer and be immediately greeted by music; the interludes between the acts in the main hall being enlivened by a series of soloists and ensembles. There were also the redoubtable Rawlings Cakes and Betsey Pies to be discovered in the same locale. The hall itself was already well-populated and ready for The Cedars; they made for a gentle opening on a stage arrayed as a front room. Following them was Benjamin Folke Thomas and his band, in whom we must confess an interest. In a set of eight songs Ben took full advantage of playing on a proper stage, seizing his material by the scruff of its neck, and resolutely projecting himself; though the excursion into the audience which ended with an undignified clamber was perhaps unwise. Paul Cuddeford alternating between lap steel and electric guitar continually put his effective mark on the material, and Graham Knight and Steve Brookes proved yet again the utterly dependable rhythm section they are. Fine readings of ‘Dreams Of High Quality Truth’ and ‘Paradise Lost (Heaven Found)’ opened the set and the benchmark thus laid down was adhered to throughout.
Following Ben were The Treetop Flyers. My pal Karl in Hamburg has been going on about these since he saw them at the Reeperbahn Festival last September, to the extent of threatening to fly to London just to catch them again, and seeing what their twin guitarists got up to I can appreciate why. Note to self: dig out that recording he sent.
Then John Otway! What do you say about this man? The Great English Eccentrics’ Great English Eccentric of choice. It’s a mighty long way down rock’n’roll since he played in Aylesbury Town Square with Kris Needs on bongos, and a good long time since ‘Really Free’ first charted, and you can do nothing but commend his survival and continuing successful self-publicity. This was a thoroughly entertaining set. We got ‘Really Free’, and ‘Beware Of The Flowers Cause I'm Sure They're Going To Get You Yeah’, along with the forward rolls, the headbanging, and the theremin, plus versions of ‘Crazy Horses’, ‘House Of The Rising Sun’ and ‘Two Little Boys’. However by far the best song he sang was ‘Josephine’ which showed he can really write good songs and sing with real emotion, and I’ll tell you what, I’d have swopped the lot for ‘Geneva’.
The arrival of The Rockingbirds cranked the evening up another notch. The Betsey’s good ales were doing their work, and this is the band everybody loves, the band who bought country rock back to Camden, and through Alan Tyler (and, of course, Big Steve) in Come Down And Meet The Folks provided it with a home. Their return was the secret wish that everyone on that scene carried all through those years and now it’s happened. So this couldn’t help being something of a homecoming with an audience determined to enjoy themselves. Well into the groove on their third show in three nights this was a cracker of a set; a lot of new songs (an album on the way seemingly) along with the favourites like ‘Jonathan, Jonathan’ and ‘Gradually Learning’, finishing off with ‘Time Drives A Truck. Happily for me, unlike the previous evening in Leigh, I got the whole of ‘Till Something Better Comes Along’, which is Tyler’s finest song since ‘Ladder Of Years’.
And thus to Danny & The Champions Of The World whose set, even a couple of days after, still has something of the quality of a dream to it; a very good dream, naturally, and one that you sorely want to retain as much as possible of. As the show played out I had reaffirmed for me the very reason why I’m still in this game. For kids who grew up in the 60s week in, week out, you heard new and amazing and magical music that pulled you up and shook you, and the buzz from that is the jones that we still want satisfying.
First up was the shock of the new Champs; three very familiar faces in Paul Lush on guitar, Chris Clarke on bass, and Steve Brookes on drums, then Rosalie Deighton on guitar and support vocals, and a keyboard and sax player only identified thus far as ‘Free Jazz’ Geoff. Quickly followed by the sound and the swagger. The body of the set is all new songs taking off where ‘Follow The River’ from Streets Of Our Time left off, losing the banjos and mandolins and very much adopting the electric thrust of those Hawkish Champs who backed up Fionn Regan last spring. Unsurprisingly there’s a lot of New Jersey in it plus the dynamics of late 70s/early 80s stadium rock; did I hear Boston and Journey?
Looking around me there are people simultaneously gob-smacked and beatific; you can hear their immediate responses on some of the videos already posted. The songs really rush by; marvellous moments of guitar and sax interplay, and a great extended intro from Paul Lush; and snippets of lyrics stick. And particularly there's ‘Every Beat Of My Heart’; a celebration of the musical milieu Dan grew up in and which formed him it name-checks Big Steve, Alan Tyler, and the Borderline, along with a certain magazine. It’s set to be the first track of the new record, produced with the help of Tony Poole, and currently being mastered, and, did such things still exist, has all the makings of a classic radio hit.
Here’s an (informed) stab at the set list:
‘Ghosts In The Wire’
‘Heart And Arrow’
‘Every Beat Of My Heart’
‘Soul In The City’
‘On The Street’
‘Colonel And The King’
‘Brothers In The Night’
‘Can’t Hold Back The Hands Of Time’
The event thus drawing to its close there was little left to do but make that brief walk down to Farringdon Road, where long and hard, almost inevitably too hard, another splendid day in the life was celebrated to its conclusion.