Strawbs always did do things just a bit differently than other bands. In their 1970s heyday, they managed to sell out clubs, theaters and sometimes even arenas, without a single Top 20 hit. They’ve been accused of performing Christian music by some and crooning pornographic lyrics by others. In the late 70s, at the top of their game, they disappeared from our shores for over two decades, leaving behind a legacy of masterful progressive rock albums like Grave New World and Hero & Heroine yet somehow remain best known as the band that launched the career of Yes’ Rick Wakeman.
In 2003, Strawbs reemerged as a Cousins-led acoustic trio that lured hordes of old and new fans to venues up and down the east coast, performing pared-down versions of Strawbs’ classics from acoustic release Baroque & Roll. But just when we started getting used to hearing what had been highly-orchestrated favorites like “Hero & Heroine” and “New World” translated into acoustic simplicity, it was announced that a full-blown reunion of Strawbs’ original electric lineup was in the works. A U.S. and Canadian tour would culminate in a headlining performance at NEARFEST 2004 Progressive Rock Festival and an album of all-new material–their first in 25 years–would mark the occasion.
But even this was done a bit…well…differently, with one band organized for U.S. performances and a different one for U.K. gigs, Cousins and guitarist Dave Lambert the only members common to both. “The differing lineups were logical, really” stated Cousins following Strawbs’ three sold out performances at Hugh’s Room in Toronto. “In the U.K., we’re known as more of a folk band while in the States we’re considered progressive rock. “
It’s this progressive rock incarnation of Strawbs that is featured on Deja Fou, the long, long, long awaited release that hits the shelves in August. “Deja Fou,” emphasizes Cousins, “Not Deja Vu. In French, ‘fou’ means mad. I came up with the title when I realized that we’ve got to be bloody mad to be back in the studio and back on tour after all this time.”
Comprised of Cousins, Lambert, Chas Cronk, John Hawken and Rod Coombes, these Strawbs are the same guys who conjured magic on 1974’s Hero & Heroine, the band’s biggest American seller, considered by many to be among the best progressive rock albums of all time.
Deja Fou kicks off with “Riviera dei Fiori,” an hypnotic instrumental piece that segues into “Under a Cloudless Sky” and floats beneath the surface of that track for its duration. Like so many Strawbs’ classics, “Under a Cloudless Sky” swings from gentle ballad to explosive rapture before once again settling into its original soft, hypnotic rhythm. “Face Down in the Well,” set against a string arrangement provided by guest artist Robert Kirby, is a showpiece of Cousins’ poetry, a tune that conjures vivid images at once lovely and disturbing, the antithesis of whimsical “La Bamba”-like rocker “On a Night Like This.”
Mandolin and banjo join bass, drums and electric guitar on Dave Lambert’s “Cold Steel” while french horn, again from Kirby, is the surprise ingredient in the second Lambert track, “When the Lights Came On.” Lambert, who performs in the acoustic version of the band as well as the electric, is himself an accomplished songwriter and solo performer whose rock & roll passion contributed to the delivery of Strawbs from its celtic/folk origins to its current progressive rock concentration.
Strawbs’ trademark emotion-drenched ballads sit comfortably alongside Deja Fou’s rockers, with the romantic “If,” and the nostalgic “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” lovely, heartfelt and moving. A dash of the spirituality that is generously sprinkled throughout Strawbs’ catalog arrives in “Sunday Morning,” an accounting of one priest’s pre-Mass ritual set against a backdrop that discreetly pays homage to the wonders of God’s creations.
Even for long-standing Strawbs fans, Deja Fou, holds a couple of surprises, the first in the form of “Russian Front,” an electronic and percussion-infused cut that features Cousins’ at his rock-squealing best, telling a tale of love denied; and the second being NRG, an Eastern-influenced number that begins with a cacophony of noises recorded on a Cairo street. With exotic sounds and innovative rhythms, these tracks—you could actually dance to them—are a dramatic departure from Strawbs classics with a world music sound that may intrigue or may alienate devoted fans.
It’s taken Strawbs twenty-five years to deliver a new album, but Deja Fou is convincing proof that these often-overlooked legends of progressive rock are less nostalgic novelty and more 21st century masters. It was worth waiting for.
By Judi Cuervo
Judi Cuervo is a long time Kinks and Strawbs fanatic from New York who is a widely published travel writer. Her work has been published in Gotham, Travel Savvy, Porthole, Executive Traveller and Cruise Traveller U.K.