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!

Monday, September 28, 2020

Empty: Empty Baseball Park

Whiskeytown: Empty Baseball Park

When I suggested the Empty theme, it was prompted by watching sports in empty stadiums, and honestly, I had forgotten about this song. If you have read my posts here and elsewhere, you know that I’m a sports fan, mostly New York teams (Mets, who I have written about often, Giants, Knicks, Red Bulls, Sky Blue), plus Arsenal and Princeton sports, the US Women’s and Men’s National Soccer Team, and the Olympics, World Cup, etc

As the pandemic closed things down, sports were an early casualty, so that being stuck at home wasn’t tempered by the chance to watch games on TV. Slowly, though, games started to return, beginning with the German Bundesliga, then other European soccer leagues, all of which were played in empty stadiums. In the USA, because our response to the coronavirus was incompetently handled by our incompetent president, the first games that started were played in “bubbles,” where the players and staff were isolated from society to prevent infection. So, both the NWSL and MLS played, as did the NBA and NHL, at various central locations, with reasonable success. 

But summer means baseball, and for me, I love watching Mets games, even when the team is, as usual, not good, in part because it is a long standing tradition, but also because the Mets announcers, Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling are the best. (And if you don’t believe me, read this, subscription to The Athletic required, and well worth it.)  Baseball ultimately decided to have a truncated season, with some new on and off-field rules, with the games played in the teams’ parks, not a bubble (although they are moving to a bubble for the playoffs). But again, there were no fans allowed, although some teams allowed fans to buy plastic cutouts of themselves, their families, random other people, and even pets, to make it look like people were in the stands. And like most of the other empty stadium sports, fake crowd sounds were pumped into the stadium and/or played on the broadcasts to lend some degree of normality. 

I watched a good part of the Mets’ season, in the empty baseball parks, and despite the talent on the team, and the fact that the number of teams qualifying for the playoffs was increased, the team fell short—which was a disappointment, because most prognosticators had the team at least making the playoffs. But as the cliché goes, that’s why you play the games. 

So, when I started looking for songs for this theme, “Empty Baseball Park” jumped out at me. Whiskeytown was a band founded by Ryan Adams, and was known for excellent songwriting, inconsistent performances and internal turmoil. The band cycled through members, with only Adams and Caitlin Cary as consistent participants. The band released only three full albums, but their influence can be seen by the fact that there are at least two books about the band. 

Adams is one of those scarily talented songwriters and performers who has probably thrown away more great songs than most people write. He’s also known for being personally difficult, having issues with drugs and alcohol, and, most recently, being accused of sexual harassment. I’ve long appreciated Adams’ talent, and appreciated his part in helping Jason Isbell get sober and supporting his career, but it is hard to ignore the harassment issues, which he has denied, but which appear to have derailed his career, at least for now. And Isbell has distanced himself from his former friend. 

But, back to the song. “Empty Baseball Park” was originally recorded as a demo, along with other songs, called the “Baseball Park Sessions.” Many of the demos later appeared on Whiskeytown’s 1997 Strangers’ Almanac album, but not this one. In 1998, the band reissued its debut album, Faithless Street, and included a slew of bonus tracks, including “Empty Baseball Park.” Now, despite my long discussion of playing sports in front of empty seats, that’s not what the song is about. Rather, it is a reminiscence by Adams of growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and his aimless activities, including hanging out in an empty baseball park after the bars closed, with, reportedly, a young woman, and pretending that a game was going on. 

It’s not the best Whiskeytown song, but I’m glad that this theme reintroduced me to it.