The North Star Grassman and the Ravens
2-disc deluxe edition, Universal - June 20th
The North Star Grassman and the Ravens was the first in a sequence of four solo albums which represent Sandy Denny’s claim to be one of Britain’s finest singer-songwriters. Originally released in the autumn of 1971, the album is centred around Sandy’s own compositions, which are distinguished by their elusive lyrics and unexpected harmonies.
Although Sandy Denny had made solo recordings before joining Fairport Convention, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, marked her true debut as a solo artist. Sandy left Fairport Convention in 1969 after recording the influential ‘Liege & Lief’ ostensibly to develop her songwriting more fully; firstly in the short lived Fotheringay.
Her motives for disbanding Fotheringay may have been mixed but, by 1971, the concept of a solo album had clearly become a major artistic statement with Sandy Denny’s male peers such as Bert Jansch, John Martyn and Roy Harper having already paved the way. In America, female singer songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Carole King were becoming a strong commercial force.
Sandy’s fans had their first taste of her new material when she made her live debut as a solo artist at the Lincoln Folk Festival in July 1971 accompanied by Richard Thompson, Dave Pegg and Gerry Conway. North Star came out two months later in September, and built on the compositional style that she had developed on the Fotheringay album, containing all the stylistic elements that would become the hallmark of her song writing; Highlights included 'Late November', inspired by a dream and the death of Fairport band member Martin Lamble and 'Next Time Around' a cryptogram about former boyfriend Jackson C. Frank.
Today, Sandy Denny’s stock continues to rise but her artistry is well summed up here by Ashley Hutchings one of the founders of Fairport Convention: “Sandy wrote a kind of song that's very rarely written now - emotional, musically interesting, sung really, really well - serious song writing. She was head and shoulders above the rest. And she remains so.” Fellow Fairport founder and North Star co-producer Richard Thompson agrees, commenting recently that: “Many people would see Dusty Springfield as the great British female singer, and in pop/soul terms, I would agree. But I'd place Sandy higher, for her writing and her originality. She was an amazing singer, never less than passionate, who could go from very powerful to a whisper. I never heard her sing less than flawlessly."
North Star Grassman and the Ravens:
Disc One of the deluxe edition features the original 1971 album with four bonus tracks. These include a band demo of ‘Next Time Around’, an early version of the song with Andy Johns at the helm, and a duet with Richard Thompson on Ernest Tubb’s ’Walking The Floor Over You’, both of which first appeared on last year’s acclaimed limited edition 19 CD boxed set. An unreleased instrumental version of the traditional ’Lord Bateman’ (left unfinished without Sandy’s vocal) appears here for the very first time.
Disc Two brings together all the original songs on the album in an acoustic setting. Beginning with further rare demos from last year’s boxed set including: ‘The Sea Captain’, ‘The Optimist’, Wretched Wilbur’, ‘Crazy Lady Blues’ and an accappella demo of the traditional ‘Lord Bateman’, worked on during the album sessions. Also included are a further two traditional songs recorded for the BBC during this period, firstly ‘The Lowlands of Holland’ from a BBC session recorded for Bob Harris (sequenced here with another two BBC session performances of ‘Late November’ and ‘Blackwaterside’). And ‘Bruton Town’ taken from a BBC recording of Sandy ‘In Concert’, recorded at the Paris Theatre in March 1972 where the title track from the album, ’John The Gun’ and ‘Next Time Around’ are also performed.