Plainsong – Following Amelia, the 1972 recordings and more: Boxset Review

A trawl through the years and archives, hoovering up, enjoyably, all things Earhart and beyond. How was it not seen how good this band was back then?

Release date:  30th September 2022

Label:  Lemon (Cherry Red)

Format:  6CD box set


Every day’s a school day, as they say, and this amounted to near full term, given my near absolute ignorance about the history of Plainsong, thinking they were little more than just one of many iterations of Iain Matthews’ long post-Fairport career. Which is true, sort of, but what I didn’t know, being aware of (much) later incarnations of that band name, was that there was initially only ever one release by the original band, that being In Search of Amelia Earhart, in 1972. This 6 disc set celebrates that sole release by putting it in tandem with the projected follow-up, Now We Are III, aka Plainsong III, which lay shelved for nigh on 37 years, together with the numerous live outings of the songs, too good to lie dormant. Plainsong ultimately reformed, in 1990, with various line-ups, but always with the hard core of Matthews and his partner in crime, Andy Roberts, finding the songs from 1972 all still to the fore of their live shows.

I won’t here recount the tale of bold Amelia, suffice to say there is a good deal more than brave airwoman going down over the Pacific, there being also distinct flavours of derring-do, spying on the pre-Pearl Harbor Japanese fleet the crux of it, with capture being the calamity. At least twice in these discs, the real story is explained, via not just the songs, but also in the pre-song patter. Is it thus a concept album? Well, no, not really, beyond the plucky aviator featuring across a number of the songs, amongst others bearing no relation at all.

Nominally a quartet, the original Plainsong comprised the aforementioned Matthews and Roberts, along with David Richards and Bobby Ronga. Matthews was already twice a star, via Fairport Convention and his own Matthews Southern Comfort, the latter with their worldwide success, covering Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. Roberts, a multi-instrumentalist, competent on just about anything with strings, had been with the Liverpool Scene. Each could sing, Matthews like a lonesome angel, Roberts with a slightly more acerbic timbre. Richards added bass and keyboards, Ronga further guitar. For the purposes of Amelia, it was felt necessary to add some drums, these coming courtesy Timi Donald and, for a couple of tracks, Dave Mattacks.

Opening with one of Matthews own songs, the exquisitely sad For The Second Time, a beautiful lament that shows off quite why Matthews is perceived as one of the most emotive interpreters in modern song, his keening alto up there with the best. Roberts follows with the somewhat nonsense of Yo Yo Man, a song that may have you in mind, melody wise, of Jed Clampett and the Beverley Hillbillies. It isn’t great, but, believe me, it will grow on you. Already there is a clear brief to the fact that any influences are broadly from the other side of the ocean, in a style yet to be called Americana, yet neither fully country-rock. This is exemplified by the Paul Siebel song, Louise, perhaps better known from Bonnie Raitt’s version, and here a prime slice of plaintive and wistful regret. Call The Tune, another by Matthews, follows, and is more a throwback to the style of his first band, easily imaginable in Sandy Denny’s voice, before the straight bluegrass of Diesel On My Tail, a truck driving song, and not their last. Martin Jenkins adds his fiddle to try and up the ante, the vocal delivery perhaps a little too home counties, Roberts perhaps yet to find his true voice.

As was side one closes with the first Amelia song, actually a period piece, dating from when she went missing, and is a teasing introduction to what comes later, as well as being an attractive tune, with fabulous stringbender guitar play from, I guess, Roberts, who also takes the vocal. He then picks up the dulcimer, as the quartet croon through the gospel of I’ll Fly Away, it becoming apparent quite how versatile were this band. This now leaves Matthews to recount the True Story Of Amelia Earhart. Again a song you will get to know very well by the end of this box, this original iteration, whilst fine, tries to gild too much lily, and could do with more less. Even The Guiding Light Of Day, seemingly written as a direct response to Meet On The Ledge, yes, that one, a Byrdsy rocker with jangle aplenty in this version. Side Roads has a touch more subtlety, a gentle song that maxes up Matthew’s world-weariness. Closing track, Raider, reprises the appearance of Jenkins, and is firmly back into folk rock, with echoes of the old band and almost the tune of Black Jack Davy, and comes as a slight surprise.

Bonus tracks start with Along Came Mary, a clunky rocker possibly best left off the original release, however good, and it is, the prominent bass is. A Roberts-helmed Guiding Light Of Day then provides contrast, his voice, oddly making it even more Fairport-y, or possibly Lindisfarne-like. Seven songs from BBC2’s In Concert series, in 1973, then follow. Roger Swallow is now present, briefly, on drums, ahead of  he and Bobby Ronga being dismissed. It is notable in including a version of Richard Thompson’s Poor Ditching Boy, another Paul Siebel song, one by Nils Lofgren and Bill Halley’s 1932 smash for Jimmie Rodgers, Miss The Mississippi And You, a song they would frequently return to. Incidentally, following the sacking of Ronga, Paul Siebel had been in the running as a touted replacement.

Disc 2 is that lost album, and the plan to recruit Siebel fell asunder, the residual trio agreeing to make it as a trio, hence the III title. A slightly odd collection of songs sit awkwardly together, a mix of originals and favourite covers, including that Mississippi song, that lack of cohesion maybe contributing to it getting no further than a test pressing. However, it was more that Matthews was having increasing pressure placed upon him to go it alone, which he could not afford to refuse. It was thus only ever available online to hardcore fans, a version, endorsed by Matthews, having snuck out, until it came as a two-fer, with the debut, on a 2005 re-release.

I like the stripped-down ambience without drums, it giving more focus to Richards’ punchy bass, rising high in the mix. It tends, also, despite the provenance of much of the material, to give it often an integrally “folkier” feel, this characterised especially well in the traditional (American) of Old Man At The Mill. Roberts’ Urban Cowboy is then a flip back to the more overt country of the first record, with B.J. Cole adding additional pedal steel. Strangely, saxophone then graces The Fault, a Matthews song that drifts neither to one side or the other. Merle Haggard’s Swinging Doors then goes the full Burrito, ahead of the kitchen sink being thrown at Keep On Sailing, with both sax and steel. Miss The Mississippi is also a little over-embellished, the piano of Richards a little obtrusive, but consider it a work in progress. That feel of underfinished spills further onto the flip, with more Matthews songs, a couple by John Hartford and one by Utah Phillips. Hartford’s First Girl I Loved has a string-drenched arrangement that isn’t unpleasant, but the lyrics grate, fifty years further on. The same author’s Nobody Eats At Linebaugh’s Anymore is similarly a bit twee, if clearly a song Matthews and Roberts enjoyed to play. Steve Ashley’s harmonica graces Phillips’ The Goodnight Loving Trail and it is one of the highlights. Much as I admire Andy Roberts, his All Around My Grandmother’s Floor is not.

A couple of bonuses, that hadn’t even made the test pressing, are inserted, of which Bold Marauder is the most striking. This song, which sounds for all the world like an undiscovered gem from the Childe ballads, is actually by Richard Farina, perhaps the beginning of the Plainsong passion for his writing; 2015 saw a version of the band put out a disc, Reinventing Richard, solely in tribute to his songwriting. The darkness of the lyrical thrust is daunting and the style even further at odds with the schizophrenic feel elsewhere on this disc. Six songs get reprises, as a hot potch of individual live sessions, either Plainsong or just plain Matthews, spread between 1998 and 2016. Of these, the 2016 version of Marauder is the diamond, and displays a newer different arrangement, less folk-rock welly, the fingerpicking making for a more chilling presentation, that may have served the studio version better, allowing it to have been included after all.

I guess this is the main meat of the set, as the remaining three discs are collected sessions and shows from over the years. Not without merit or worth, but, similarly, maybe more for the dedicated collector more than the casual listener. Nonetheless, a fair few surprises lurk amongst the reruns, showing what else was being played on the tour bus.

The importance and influence of John Peel and Bob Harris get due recognition across discs 3 and 4, with two Peel sessions, 24/1/72 and 24/4/72, and a later dated Sounds On Sunday session from late December, comprising the first. The earlier Peel session predates Amelia, and is comprised covers they liked, and the title track from Matthews’ Tigers Will Survive solo recording. My surprise was to hear the Commander Cody staple, Down To Seeds And Stems (Again). By April some of the Earhart album was gelling, with the two songs about her included, with Yo Yo Man and I’ll Fly Away, showing the drum-free sound as originally envisaged. Another Cody favourite, Truck Drivin’ Man gets a go as well, although it is the version by Ricky Nelson that is acknowledged as the inspiration. The Sounds On Sunday show captures the band at the junction of implosion, down to the III three-piece. Of the eight songs, only two hail from the second album and none from the first. A languidly spirited version of I Don’t Want To Talk About It perhaps sums up the mood, but the version of Miss The Mississippi manages to trump the versions included here already. An honourable mention, too, for Nils Lofgren’s Take You To The Movies.

Bob Harris time now, with four sessions from 1972, again encompassing 1972. a decent version of Tme Between graces the first, which sounds even Byrdsier than the Byrds. Raider is the highlight of the April slot, also better than its studio twin, with other unexpected joys coming from a worthy cover of I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. A better version again of Mississippi follows, Richards back on bass, rather than the piano of the last. There is also a wonderful instrumental romp through the traditional Old Kent Road. The third session, just two songs, carries a Bold Marauder in a halfway house between those heard thus far, perhaps the strongest. Another peri-bustup session, from December ’72 again, has a fair mix of songs from both albums, and is really quite solid, with added beef in the vocals, from Rab Noakes and Robin McKidd, the support act, for The Goodnight Loving Trail. Finally, on this Whispering Bob-themed selection, come two Andy and Iain versions of True Story Of AE and Yo-Yo Man, dating  from a 2011 programme to commemorate 40 years of Whistle Test. Their voices have become more similar with the passage of time, but Mathews still has that unmistakable bend in his diction, maximising the emotional heft of the lyrics.

The fifth disc celebrates the return, from 1992, of Plainsong, the band, for an extended run of new recordings, with Mark Griffith, ex-Matthews Southern Comfort and, initially, Julian Dawson. When Dawson took a break, Any Trouble man, Clive Gregson, stepped in, ahead then of Dawson returning. On the road, the demand for Amelia was still large, and they took pleasure in revisiting most of the songs aired thus far.The first ten come from their debut after the break, with a set compiled mainly of those favourites, the main change being how much more like a band they sound, it all seeming more cohesive. Dawson’s harmonica adds considerable grace to many of the tunes, as an extra colour on the palette. in fact, I’d go further and say these are the most polished versions, provided here, of these songs, with a Raider that is exemplary. Five years later, with Gregson, from a less well captured radio show, it is slightly more ragged, and difficult to catch much of Gregson in the vocals, beyond a slightly greater depth in the harmonies. 2012 catches the band’s farewell tour, Dawson again back in the saddle. I will confess the onslaught of the same songs, again and again, to have become a little wearing, such is the nature of these catch-all and catch-up projects, but one later constant is the attachment of a third Amelia song, a Matthews/Roberts co-write, Sweet Amelia. acting as a coda to the True Story song, this acting as a pleasant digestif to the story, with it appearing three times on this disc.

Finally, disc 6, which tries to square the circle, drawing in any remaining loose ends. The first three are songs the band played, during 1972, never then making it to either record, popping up later on solo recordings by one or other of the integral duo. So the Roberts song, Radio Lady and a Bobby Darin song, Me And Mr Hohner, that Mathews only eventually cut and released in 2017. More interesting is his own song, Poison Apple Lady, which he later released in 1973, on Urban Cowboy, featuring the original augmented line-up from the first Plainsong album, together with Gerry Conway on additional tambourine. Good songs all, more like this might have added greater variety, but I guess it defines how or what you define a Plainsong song. Eleven songs, from a 1972 after-gig show, follow, from the intriguingly entitled Folk Fairport Club in Amsterdam, named after the owner’s love of the band of that name. almost an ad-hoc appearance, and performed without amplification. The band seem in high spirits and offer a mix of material. Let’s say you probably had to be there to show much love. Finally, coming as near to the present as we can, a final six songs, just Roberts and Mathews, in the latter’s Brighton home studio, from the summer of 2020.

Made during lockdown, the plan had been to cut some material to go with Ian Clayton’s book, In Search of Plainsong, but time and circumstance meant the pair only got as far as these demos. Whilst undeniably a little raw and unadorned, they make a charming endpiece to this project. Robert’s has now a more weathered voice, which is all the more effective, with Mathews still in astonishing grasp of his range, even if pitched down, one suspects, just a tad. Penultimate song, Louise, could be the most affecting version of this song here and might have better closed the box over the last version of Amelia Earhart’s Last Voyage, which has some slightly odd tribal backing vocals. But never heed my quibbles, it all proves how much these songs have been given an evolution rather than just duplication.
For hardcore aficionados, this box will be essential. For those of a lesser obsession, it becomes more difficult, as there is always something to treasure on each disc, even if, variations apart, the sense of repetition becomes eventually overbearing. I guess most would cherry-pick different selections, as would I, and different again, even, on different days. Maybe, it does need to be the whole box, damn you, Cherry Red(!)

As ever, it is all put together attractively, with a detailed booklet going into all the necessary detail: I have never needed to use wiki for a review less!! With comments from the main duo throughout, it could sit on any shelf of the lovers of  early America, plus those who just adore anything with any link to the family Fairport. (As in, how many links can you find in this review?) Mention has been made of Ian Clayton’s book, and it would certainly be easy to find the need for both that and this set.

Here’s the track that opens both the Amelia Earhart album, and so this box, but also the first of the 2020 demos, from the last disc, a full 48 years later. This is that opening version. Not Amelia Earhart related, per se, but the finest showcase of Mathews’ extraordinary voice.

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3 replies »

  1. Thank you for this considered and considerate review Seuras. Thanks also for the mention of my book ‘In Search of Plainsong.’ Ian Clayton

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