Now Be Thankful – David Swarbrick Remembered

Authored By Dale Nickey:

I am thankful. I saw David Swarbrick perform live. Twice. Both times with Martin Carthy. Both times at MaCabe’s Guitar Shop. And, it wasn’t until I heard about Swarb’s passing that the fog of years parted and I remembered that I actually spoke to the man. A brief encounter to be sure, but still I touched greatness.

 McCabe’s is an L.A. music institution that goes back decades. It sits in the ocean community of Santa Monica; a safe haven for expatriate Brits. While I’ve been alive there has always been a McCabe’s. It a woody, friendly music shop that specializes in acoustic exotica of all sorts. I bought my Mandocello there. Likewise, if you need paddle tuners for your Beach Uke, that’s where you go. They also host concerts. Their main musical affiliation is with folk and blues. They have a big room in the back with a nice stage where you can squeeze in 150-200 punters on folding chairs. I saw Elizabeth Cotton there. Jean Richie, Pentangle, June Tabor, John Renbourn and John Fahey, I even played there once myself in the folk duo Adie and Dale.

On gig night it’s usually packed out. Fresh baked cookies were offered in the front of the store. The restroom was small and you had to wait your turn. One night I bumped into Bert Jansch exiting as I was going in. I once banged shoulders with Yvonne Elliman whilst trying to navigate the crowded upstairs hallway. It was that kinda place. It might still be.

 Anyway, I went there at the dawn of the 90’s decade to watch the duo of Martin Carthy and David Swarbrick perform. I went with my friend Dominic, whom I was in a band with at the time. He was not familiar with either of the folk heavyweights we were about to see. But, because of my recommendation, he decided to check it out.

 It was an amazing show. Martin Carthy had a youthful, bouncy spirit and his chunky, finger styled guitar playing was as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. Then there was Swarbrick, he played standing for the entire hour plus set. I remember there was a very tall gooseneck microphone stand that arched far above and pointed downward towards his fiddle. He burned for the entire set. He didn’t sing, he just played. Virtuosic and effortless. My companion leaned over and offered that “The Bloke” was a real monster. – the musician’s code word for an instrumentalist of uncommon skill and virtuosity. Swarb would be bequeathed the nickname “The Bloke” for the remainder of the evening and his exploits were discussed at length on the long drive home to The Valley.

I didn’t hear Swarbrick play a bum note the entire set, and he played a lot of notes. If he did hit one, his confidence and experience probably spun it to gold somehow. There he stood, taking the occasional drag from (what looked like) a home rolled cig. He had a bowl styled Beatle haircut. Swarb got the biggest laugh of the night when McCarthy told a joke and Swarb reacted a good half minute later when a helpful audience member in the front row translated it to the diminutive fiddler. Even then, Swarb’s ear problems were legend.

During this period, the duo of Carthy and Swarbrick cranked out two fine albums; “Life and Limb” (1990) and “Skin and Bone” (1992). It was upon their return to McCabe’s to tour the second album that I saw them perform again.

This time I went with a female companion (and future ex-wife). I was sad to find Swarb playing seated for the entire set. His bearing seemed less robust than the first gig I saw. However, the playing remained the same. Flowing, effortless and perfect. My English challenged companion had never heard of these two musicians. She whispered into my ear about “The Little Guy” and how “strong” and “very correct” his playing was.

After the set we loitered at the front of the store, everybody congregated and chatted. My date held court with Billy Connelly, Maddy Prior and Martin Carthy near the repairman’s counter. She was blissfully unaware of the celebrity she was confronting. Martin Carthy laughed broadly and was animated by a sweaty post-gig buzz, Connelly seemed bemused and Maddy looked a bit put out. Meanwhile, I made my way to a hunched, solitary figure sitting at a round wooden table near the album bin. It was Swarbrick. I’m always flummoxed and shy around musicians I admire. I sheepishly told him, “great set” and offered up a rare vinyl copy of “Fairport Convention Live at Sydney Opera House” for his signature. I seemed surprised at being presented with such an artifact. He perused it and quietly mused, “I wonder if I ever got paid for this one?” He then signed, and I slowly backed away and thanked him in the manner of an acolyte retreating from the master. I told it you it was a brief encounter. But we met. I’m so glad we did.

Fast forward to the new century. I was pleased when David Swarbrick accepted me as a Facebook friend. Oh, me and lot of people. I’m sure he would not have remembered my name, we only exchanged the odd thumbs up and the occasional pithy aside in the comments section. But I valued the connection none the less. It’s one of the few upsides to this digital media world that David Swarbrick could still remain present and connected with fans and friends the world over despite his restricted mobility. Think about all the musical giants of the previous century who lived out their winter years with only a rotary phone and a black and white television as their links to the outside world. Forgotten and sad.

I’m at that age now. I’m surrounded by so many friendly ghosts and people preparing for the great transition. I’ve been lucky so far but I am nervously clutching my ticket number dreading my turn to be called. Swarb did alright in the life sweepstakes. He made it to 75 with loads of memories, accomplishments and a loving family at the end. He laughed in the face of death twice. He was a one-off. It seems like this year more than any other, the great upward migration has begun. RIP Swarb.

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Rare Birds – Top Five Pioneers of “Rock Violin” …# 2

Number 2…

David Swarbrick – Fairport Convention

click here for #’s 3 4 5

David LaFlamme was America’s electric violin pioneer during the late sixties. In Britain, it was David Swarbrick.  ‘Swarb’ was already folk royalty in Britain when the call came to join Fairport Convention in their desperate attempt to retool and recover after a road accident that claimed the life of drummer Martin Lamble. Swarbrick took the gig just in time to feature on the band’s 1969 masterpiece, “Liege And Lief”. Suffering and conquering the agonies of stone-age electric violin technology, Swarbrick found his inner rocker and became a star attraction in the band. He even multi-tasked as Fairport’s lead singer after the departure of Sandy Denny. Eventually, ear problems and other health issues forced his retirement from the band and active touring. He’s cheated death twice. Once after a premature obituary was published in the “The Daily Telegraph” in 1999; and again after a risky, but successful double lung transplant in 2004.  A living legend and a huge influence on British music. 

For a brief time during the late sixties and early seventies, British Folk-Rock threatened to make a big splash on both sides of the Atlantic. It was old music played by young guns at high volume. This outdoor perfomance from 1971 is a period curio that captures the genre and Swarbrick at their peak.  This performace could also well be the precise time and place where the spirit of the sixties died…..

Rare Birds- Top Five Pioneers of “Rock Violin”….. # 5

NUMBER ……5

 David LaFlamme –  It’s A Beautiful Day

Epic Track – “White Bird”

David LaFlamme was born to a Mormon mother and was a classically trained violinist. He formed the band “It’s A Beautiful Day” with his wife Linda LaFlamme. They were contemporaries of Santana, Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead during the 1960’s “Summer of Love” but failed to achieve their deserved level of popularity due to terrible management. They did manage one classic song, “White Bird”. LaFlamme’s soaring violin lines and vocals were vital to the drama and beauty of this epic track. For many rock fans “White Bird” was their first exposure to the electric violin as a viable rock music instrument. Ironically, LaFlamme is now best known as the obnoxious, overbearing restaurant violinist on the T.V. show Frasier.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Posted by Dale Nickey

Before “Riverdance”“The Celtic Women” and the ardent mass media embrace of all things boggy and soggy, there was British Folk-Rock. Groups like Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span were all making commercial inroads during the late 60’s and early 70’s by playing traditional jigs, ballads and folk tunes in an extremely novel and up to date style using electric instruments and modern recording techniques. These musical pioneers sold quite a few albums and made a splash with discerning rock music fans world wide. It was even hoped the genre could grow into the British equivalent of America’s Country Rock phenomenon. The nuclear winter of British Punk nearly extinguished the species. Moreover, without the promotional wiz bang of today’s trend machine, the music dried on the vine and was demoted to the purgatory of collectable vinyl, clubs, and regional folk festivals. Still it survives….

Here then is a Consumer Guide to the best the British Isles had to offer in the genre that dared not speak its name.

Incredible String Band – Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968): Not for the faint hearted listener. Try to imagine Syd Barrett kitted out in Court Jester drag whilst locked in a studio full of acoustic exotica and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Nice to know that in a forgotten land, far, far away; major labels actually underwrote this kind of lysergic tomfoolery. Oh yes…I forgot, they also played Woodstock.

Fairport Convention – Liege And Leif (1969): Generally accepted as the greatest British Folk Rock album of all time. It started the whole movement. It was a worthy soul mate to the Band’s “Music from Big Pink”. Fairport had just experienced a traumatizing road accident that killed their drummer Martin Lamble and the girlfriend of band leader, Richard Thompson. Their collective group therapy consisted of renting a big 19th century house in the English countryside where they proceeded to live and rehearse inside each others undergarments. They recruited folk icon Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and crack session drummer Dave Mattacks for the journey. The result was this unqualified masterpiece that ironically sowed the seeds for the band’s disintegration. Liege and Leif is a regular fixture in every music rag that indulges in the tiresome “Greatest Albums of All Time” lists. Liege & Leif rocks, sooths and conjures spells with liberal helpings of poignancy and pathos courtesy of Sandy Denny’s miraculous voice and Thompson’s world class song craft.

Pentangle – Basket of Light: (1969) : This release was top 10 in the U.K. and was a common sighting in many record collections stateside. The acoustic interplay between guitar masters Renbourn and Jansch is rich and complex. The standup bass of Danny Thompson hits the spot and pushes the envelope. Jackie McShee’s vocals soar. “Lyke Wake Dirge” is an a capella tour de force of divine depression. The current New Celtic style tends toward uplift and studio rich melancholy. This was a group that was unafraid to evoke their gloomy beauty unplugged. Their prior release Sweet Child (1968) is also a towering achievement and one of the era’s few successful double LP’s; though decidedly more jazzy and bluesy.

Bert Jansch – Rosemary Lane (1971): Before there was Nick Drake and Pink Moon, there was Bert and Rosemary Lane. Nick would have sounded very different without this indigo masterpiece of undiluted voice and guitar as a template. Indeed, Nick’s bootleg recordings are strewn with Bert Jansch covers. Rosemary Lane is a dry cocktail mix of traditional folk songs, original tunes, and classical set pieces. It was recorded up close and personal on reel to reel analog.  Bert’s own album notes are the perfect road map into the soul of this music. This album is best enjoyed on vinyl with some smoke and wine on a cold blustery night.

Steeleye Span: Please To See The King: (1971) : Early incarnation of Steeleye Span before their popularity crested. English Folk heavyweight, Martin Carthy tries his hand at electric guitar, Ashley Hutchings continued the work he started in Fairport as Britain’s foremost (and possibly only) Bass playing ethnomusicologist. The lead track, “The Blacksmith” is a period stunner. The whole album drips with field recording authenticity. Even the album cover looks and feels like it’s made from a swath of gunnysack. PTSTK is as far away from the lush textures of Clannad as you can get while still inhabiting the same island.

STEELEYE CLIP>>>> CLICK HEREI

Steeleye Span – Below the Salt: (1972):  Steeleye Span were “The Beatles” of the genre.  Whereas Fairport Convention were Stonesy,  jammy and occasionally too loose for comfort; Steeleye’s productions were always meticulously detailed, precise and daring. This album was one of the great 60’s albums…. (1660’s, that is). Folk diva Maddy Prior was their clarion voice and heart. “Gaudette” is a masterful 5 part a capella workout (in Latin no less!!). Closing tune “Saucy Sailor” boasts the most beautiful guitar arpeggio on record drenched in the palpable fog of dockside reverb. The playing and arrangements are eclectic, electric and wonderfully indifferent to “trad” orthodoxy. Their follow up album “Parcel Of Rogues” is no less stunning or innovative.

Celtic Heartbeat – Van Morrison and The Chieftains (1988): The British Folk Rock fad had long faded and the New Celtic boom was a faint dot on the horizon when Van and the Chiefs locked sheep horns on this movable feast of an album. Van’s mass popularity had waned and the Cheiftains were on a holding pattern as an Irish music niche’ institution. “Lagan Love” is transformed by Morrison’s Delta grunts and growls into an epic primal wail of lost love. The evergreen standard, “She Moved Through The Fair” lurches and reels under the intoxicating powers of the female object of the tune. The title track is a tear jerking, strength to strength merger of Van’s pop smarts and the Chieftain’s magisterial way with a good melody. Irish Heartbeat brought the word Celtic back into the vernacular and the music back onto the billboard charts. A textbook lost classic.

Honorable mentions: Many jumped on the Folk Rock bandwagon with varying degrees of success. Best among them are:

TREES – Polly On The Shore (1970): Album cut “Murdoch” shines.

The Strawbs – Grave New World (1971): Not traditional per say, but has the gestalt and the tunes.

Fotheringay (1970): Sandy Denny’s “Banks Of The Nile” is worth the price of admission. Special bonus: Telecaster Master Jerry Donohue on guitar.