Strawbs – The Magic Of It All: Album Review

Fifty years on from the peak of their success, Strawbs take a good look back and decide it was all worth it

Release Date:  14th July 2023

Label: Esoteric Records

Formats: CD, Vinyl, Download

And so, here we all are, just four weeks to go before Strawbs make their last ever live appearance at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, and Dave Cousins and Co. have provided us with a blistering new collection of songs which celebrate the (almost) 60 years of the band’s life and demonstrate that these old fellas still have a few new tricks up their collective sleeve.

Strawbs haven’t been particularly prolific of late – and there are several good reasons to explain why – but whatever they may have lacked in volume of output, they’ve surely made up for in terms of quality.  2017’s The Ferryman’s Grace was a revelation that recalled the halcyon days of Grave New World and From the Witchwood and, in these very pages, we referred to Settlement, Ferryman’s 2021 follow-up as “…Their best album for quite some time… a productive use of lockdown.”

And now, 50 years after Strawbs enjoyed their sunniest days of summer with hit singles Lay Down and Part of the Union, they’re back again, with a new album packed with great songs, and with a fascinating to story behind it, to boot.

Back in 1973, songs like the aforementioned Lay Down and Part of the Union, along with gems like New World and Bursting At The Seams were being adopted as anthems by the nascent Internal Resistance to Apartheid movement in South Africa.  The movement was a multi-racial force that combined the involvement of students and workers from all races, religions and backgrounds with the efforts of organisations like the ANC and PAC to challenge the apartheid policies of South Africa’s ruling National Party.  Progress may have felt slow, but the resistance movement made a real difference and provided one of the most vital sparks that led to the abolition of apartheid in 1991 and, ultimately, to multi-racial elections in 1994.

In recognition of Strawbs’ contribution to the Resistance movement, South African documentary maker, Niel van Deventer suggested the idea of a film that celebrated Strawbs’ influence around the world and invited Dave Cousins to write a set of new songs, whilst Neil filmed them being recorded at the Academy of Sound Engineering Studio in Cape Town.  Dave loved the idea and invited a couple of sometime-Strawbs to participate; Blue Weaver flew over to Cape Town to produce and play on the album, whilst John Ford added his own contributions in New York.

As we shall see, the eleven songs that comprise The Magic of It All are very special indeed.  Dave Cousins has taken the opportunity to look back over Strawbs’ lengthy career and take stock and, happily, whilst recognizing that there were certainly setbacks – financial insecurity, faded friendships and a plethora of duckers, divers and unremitting skivers amongst them – to deal with, he concludes that, on the whole, it’s all been worth it.  There’s also space for a few tender moments, a bit of polemic and lots and lots of fun.  The Magic of It All will be remembered as the greatest latest Strawbs album.

And the band sound great!  Dave, Blue and John are joined by a stellar cast of South African musicians – Mauritz Lotz on electric and acoustic guitars, Schalk Joubert on electric bass and double bass, Kevin Gibson on drums and percussion, Byron Abrahams on sax and Jonno Sweetman who plays drums on a couple of tracks.  A particular Ace is played by the assemblage of backing vocalists, drafted in from South Africa and the UK.  Marzia Barry, Simangele Mashazi, Luna Paige, Cathryn Craig and Nicola Tee add a colour to these tunes that raise them to a heavenly level – indeed they sound like a choir of angels when they REALLY hit the spot!

Blue Weaver, along with Engineer Peter Pearlson (who, incidentally worked with Paul Simon on his seminal Graceland album, and it shows…) have achieved a full, clean sound, evident right from the first bars of opening track Ready (Are We Ready).  Dave Cousins rolls back the years to deliver a fresh, dramatic vocal to a backing that smolders around a crisp rhythm and a solid bass, whilst Blue and Mauritz throw in some marvelously tasty licks on, respectively, organ and electric guitar.

The Magic of It All, the album’s title track, hits a particular high as Dave looks back at the triumphs and near-misses of Strawbs’ career.  The band’s ups and downs are perfectly summarized with lines like: “Now we’re making music/ For people we can trust/ We should have banked a goldmine/ But then the bank went bust/ It’s hard to see a stop sign/ Walking ten feet tall/ This has been/ The magic of it all.”  The backing vocals are as sweet as sugar and Mauritz’s slide guitar solo is divine.

The lively, jazzy All Along the Bay is the first of Blue’s three co-writes on the album.  Dave speaks the lyrics and the song bursts into glorious technicolour each time the backing choir kicks in, whilst Byron fills in any gaps that might have remained with some lovely sax.  Acoustic guitars and some nice piano from Blue set the scene for the introspective Everybody Means Something to Someone.  There’s a worldly, wise, weariness to Dave’s lyrics and even an oblique Led Zeppelin reference buried along the way…

The ladies take the spotlight for the delightful Our World, the first of John Ford’s two co-compositions.  Their delicious harmony vocals provide the perfect counterpoint to Dave’s quiet introspection.  In complete contrast, The Time Has Come (For Giving Back) is a full-bore rocker that hits out forcefully at the political corruption that seems to surround us all.  Mauritz sets the pace with his subtle chiming guitar, before letting rip in the song’s coda and the backing vocals are, again, fantastic on the “Fight for what is right…” chorus.

Schalk’s looping, swooping bass, Byron’s jazzy sax, Blue’s Cajun accordion and Jonno’s choppy drums combine wonderfully to give Slackjaw Alice a genuine South African feel.  Dave’s vocal is camp and lively and the whole thing amounts to three minutes of great fun.  Accordion and double bass add an authentic Parisian vibe to Paris Nights, a simple, sincere love song, before we return to Dave’s autobiographical reminiscences with the excellent Wiser Now.  It’s a gentle acoustic number, enlivened by more of Mauritz’s sublime slide guitar.

If you plump for the vinyl version of The Magic of It All, Wiser Now will be your (highly worthy) closing track.  CD purchasers get to enjoy a further couple of songs, starting with Lady of the Night, Dave’s “Light-hearted letter to Strawbs fans – an ode to a musical legacy shared with his audience for more than 50 years.”  A cracking, semi-serious appraisal of a tiring, frustrating, unpredictable, yet ultimately rewarding life, it’s a funky chunk of Jit-jive, propelled along remorselessly by Schalk’s bass, with a half-spoken, half-sung vocal from Dave and yet more of those irresistable harmony vocals.  Dave even signs off his letter: “I remain, Ever yours truly.”

The press release to The Magic of It All refers to closing track, Christmas Ghosts, as “…the ‘Abracadabra’ track [that] sums up the album as a set of magic tracks” and that’s one way of putting it.  The song is a co-write with John Ford, who takes the lead vocal; it’s a poppy, light-hearted, optimistic whizz forward to Christmas, laced with sleighbells and, although The Magic of It All sees light of day in July, Christmas Ghosts might just be my outside bet for a surprise Christmas Number One.  And wouldn’t THAT be a nice ending to the Story of Strawbs?

Strawbs clearly had great fun creating and recording The Magic of It All.  As Blue Weaver says: “It really was ‘Magic’ working in Cape Town, especially having such great musicians and an Engineer who made my job very easy.  It was wonderful to see how the students [The Academy of Sound Engineering is also a college for training young audio engineers] reacted to our ways of recording live in the studio and to answer their questions.  I’m looking forward to seeing the documentary, especially the ‘fly on the wall’ video recordings that were made during the sessions.”  Hmmm – me too!

And so, to Cropredy.  As I’ve already mentioned (and most of you already know) Strawbs’ Cropredy performance will be the band’s final official gig – the conclusion to a live career that started way back in 1964.  Strawbs will be sadly missed but, as a wise young lady who once graced the band’s ranks once said: “Who knows where time goes?”  Dave Cousins has spent much of the past couple of years recovering from an intrusive cancer procedure and his tribulations have left him with a severely compromised immune system.  Dave isn’t looking for sympathy and thanks all his fans and supporters for the good times and the memories – and he’ll leave the Cropredy stage with a strand of hope for us all… He intends to continue writing and recording songs.  We haven’t heard the last of Dave Cousins or Strawbs just yet.

Head back fifty years and watch Strawbs perform their first big hit – Lay Down – here:

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