Friday, October 2, 2020


Writing this on a windy, wet and bleak day in Shropshire, exhausted from a ramble around the Wrekin. Exactly the mood to bring on an attack of the folk-rock itch, todays scratch coming from the exquisite store cupboard of Gay and Terry Woods. And it set me a'thinking, not least of the back of the rereleased Richard and Linda Thompson catalogue, what if? OK, don't mistake me, I love RT and all of his oeuvre, but, coming out at much the same time and on the same record label, to say nothing of, broadly, the same musicians, how are we now not celebrating this other couple also? After all, what did they have in common? Talented instrumentalist and songwriter? Yup. Consummate singer of said songs? Yup. A sense of overarching melancholy? Yup, yup, yup. (To be fair, like the Thompsons, both could sing, if Terry, like Richard, was a more acquired taste. Plus their material was decidedly co-written between them.)

Empty Rooms is a classic of the early to mid seventies folk rock style. One of the finest tracks on their second album in their joint name, The Time Is Right, from 1976, I surprised to see it actually came out on the Polydor label and was not produced by John Wood, so indelibly is it stamped with the aura and ambience of the pink Island label. The slow build, the soaring vocals, initially Gay alone, autoharp and harmonium providing a desolate backing over picked guitar. Gay then harmonises with herself, with distinct echoes of, yes, Linda Thompson, but also of the lodestone of this genre, Sandy Denny. Indeed, the melody and mood is very redolent of Denny's own solo work. Finally a coda kicks in, with the Fairport rhythm section, Island records own house band for everyone at that time, the Dave's Pegg and Mattacks, accompanying Terry Wood's guitar, adding plangent chords as it fades to the end. Exquisite. As is the song below, Back to You.

But the time, sadly, wasn't right, they failing to make any great breakthrough, breaking up both as an act and a partnership after a third album. But that wasn't the end of either of them. Mind you, they had paid their dues, neither here today and gone tomorrow flitterbegibbets. Teenage sweethearts, they had grown up, in Dublin, as near neighbours, both drawn by their mutual love of music, performing together as early as 1963, mainly a mix of country, blues and a little Irish. It is hard to believe how unpopular the traditional Irish tradition was at that time. Perhaps the first group to give that tradition a good kicking was Sweeney's Men, as Johnny Moynihan, Andy Irvine and, initially, Joe Dolan transplanted Irish idioms onto a transatlantic hillbilly base. When Dolan left, Terry Woods interrupted the initial iteration of the Woods band, he and Gay, to become an integral part of the line-up. 

Meanwhile, over in England, a certain Ashley Hutchings was tinkering with the formation of a group to take the folkier leanings of his then band, Fairport Convention, further and deeper into that tradition. So having invented folk-rock with Liege and Lief, he left, an original plan being that he and Sweeney's Men would combine, bringing in Gay Woods as a female voice. Neither Irvine nor Moynihan were up for it, so Hutchings pitched the idea to some others in the same field. So, Hutchings and the Woods, in 1970, combined with the duo of Tim Hart and Maddy Pryor, to form Steeleye Span, this grouping responsible for the first record by this band, Hark the Village Wait. Less austere than later line ups, this is almost a transition, bridging the styles of Fairport and the Woods, retaining drums as an integral part of the sound if not officially of the band. But Terry Woods and Tim Hart had distinctly different opinions as to, well, just about everything, and, for the good of the band, Hutchings enlisted Martin Carthy and dumped the Woods.

There then came a brief joint membership with Ireland's answer to the Incredible String Band, Dr Strangely Strange, who were, perhaps unsurprisingly, much as the name might suggest. Even when featuring a young Gary Moore on electric guitar, they couldn't quite ever work out quite who their audience should be, and they ground to a halt, that accelerated by the Woods reviving their duo. Which is where we came in. 

On the dissolution of the duo and their marriage, Gay Woods, somewhat surprisingly and counter-intuitively, became, for a while, the brighter flame, as she applied a more modern varnish to songwriting. For a while the keyboard and synth heavy Auto da Fe were seen as Ireland's next big thing, the presence of Phil Lynott as producer and on bass helping no little. It couldn't last, however, and 1994 had her rejoining Steeleye Span, now a completely different band, with only Maddy Pryor remaining from that first line-up. For a while they were joint front women, with Woods taking over entirely for a while, as Pryor took a sabbatical. Woods left again shortly after, but not before providing the stand out track for 2000's Bedlam Born.

Terry has had a more varied career, dipping in and out of various groupings with artists as varied as (again) Phil Lynott and Ron Kavana. But his moment in the sun came a little later,  when folk-punk mavericks the Pogues needed a little more gravitas to ground their unwieldy, if effective, amalgam of the musicianship of the Dubliners with the attitudes of punk rock. Woods was the perfect bridge between the two opposing styles, his membership giving a boost of credibility to those who couldn't see past the image, and thus failed to see the astonishing songwriting of Shane MacGowan. And, as MacGowan slipped into a drunken self-parody, it was Woods who could provide the glue and keep the band together. Whilst he left in 1993, he became again present in band reunions from a decade later until final performances in 2014, spending the interim and since back with old buddies from his long and varied past. A final iteration of the Woods band, the name revived even if he the only Wood present, provide an apt reminder of his position as a weaver of styles and traditions.

Fill your rooms with this!

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