When Sandy Denny pitched downstairs and sustained a fatal head injury in 1978, she was just 31. But her best years might already have been behind her. Feted as the lead singer of Fairport Convention, she had visibly lost confidence throughout her subsequent solo career, camouflaging herself behind overwrought arrangements even as her personal life spiralled downwards. But this tour comfortably sold out the Barbican.
In these 25 songs, it was striking how often Denny was drawn to the theme of the sea. There were sailors, November skies; even a nautical gypsy: “the ocean’s been good to me/she ain’t no gaoler”. She was similarly shifting, mercurial; balmy and stormy in the same song. She contained multitudes, and it took multitudes to represent her on stage.
Lavinia Blackwall, normally the operatic singer of the centrifugally turbulent Trembling Bells, embarked on “A Sailor’s Life”, Fairport’s first foray into traditional material, helming the tune trimly through its opening shoals and then into the clearer waters where its sails were filled by tomtoms and guitars. Dave Swarbrick recreated his original violin solo from 1968, while Blackwall carried on joyfully into “Late November”, one of Denny’s most tempestuous melodies.
An array of singers fronted the back half of Bellowhead, which, like Fairport before it, contains too much talent to be accommodated comfortably in one group. The guests covered many generations. Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span was an exact contemporary, and Jerry Donahue and Swarbrick both played with Denny. Younger singers included Blackwall, a tough, gutsy Sam Carter, Blair Dunlop, Ben Nicholls (romping basso profundo through “Matty Groves”) and Thea Gilmore.
Gilmore, at the request of Denny’s estate, recently set to music some of her unpublished lyrics. “Glistening Bay” was a slow march, dotted with piano notes like flowers on a hillside. Pain ran through “Long Time Gone”: the final chorus ran from a keening explosion down to a whisper. And “Don’t Stop Singing” was a joyful country trot, with Gilmore’s five-year-old son playing cool violin.
Guests from outside the folk tradition opened up new views of Denny. Joan Wasser (Joan As Police Woman) found the missing link between Denny and Laura Nyro, switching from electric guitar to piano. Green Gartside’s brittle agit-pop from Scritti Politti might have seemed a remove too far, but his magpie flutter of a voice lit up “Stranger To Himself”.
Last up was PP Arnold, essaying “I’m A Dreamer”. Twice she sang the opening line – “You make me nervous, when I see you”, and twice she baulked at the next. The third time, she surged through – “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you ... ” – and from then on it was a flawless soul performance.
Tour continues until May 28
This article has been corrected since original publication to reflect the fact that Denny died from a head injury rather than a broken neck