Thursday, 3 August 2017

"In Search Of Amelia Earhart" by PLAINSONG featuring IAN MATTHEWS and ANDY ROBERTS (2005 Water Records 2CD 'Expanded Edition' Remasters) - A Review by Mark Barry...

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"...First Lady Of The Air..."

Between 1969 and 1972 - both singer-songwriters IAN MATTHEWS (of Fairport Convention and Matthews Southern Comfort) and ANDY ROBERTS (of The Scaffold, Liverpool Scene and Everyone) were busy boys. Between them I calculate they'd recorded nearly 20 albums before they finally amalgamated with Keyboard and Bassist Dave Richards (of The Scaffold, P.C. Kent and Everyone) and the American Guitarist Bob Ronga to form the short-lived but hugely revered PLAINSONG (signed to Elektra Records).

Plainsong's tenure lasted a year - 1972 to be exact before differences parted them and Matthews went to the USA again to re-engage his solo career. The four-piece British band formed out of a mutual appreciation for Folk-Rock, Country-Rock and Americana – quickly rehearsing and recording their debut album "In Search Of Amelia Earhart" - finally released in October of 1972 with all those musical genres very much in evidence. Very much in the vein of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young vs. America - two superb lead vocalists in Ian Matthews and Andy Roberts bolstered the band’s largely Wall-Of-Acoustic sound. They also put a second unreleased 13-track album in the can - along with BBC sessions, live shows and one-off singles - a tad over 40 recordings in one year (most are on here, not all). 

And that's where this fabulous 2005 American 2CD reissue on the respected Water Records label comes harmonising in. Here are the airborne details...

US released 2 May 2005 - "In Search Of Amelia Earhart" by PLAINSONG (featuring Ian Matthews and Andy Roberts) on Water Records WATER 149 (Barcode 646315714920) is a 2CD ‘Expanded Edition’ Reissue of their lone 11-Track 1972 album on Elektra Records. It also includes the unreleased 13-track 2nd album entitled "Now We Are 3" along with outtakes, live recordings and stand-alone singles sides. It breaks down as follows...

Disc 1 (65:13 minutes):
1. For The Second Time [Side 1]
2. Yo Yo Man
3. Louise
4. Call The Tune
5. Diesel On My Tail
6. Amelia Earhart's Last Flight [Side 2]
7. I'll Fly Away
8. True Story Of Amelia Earhart
9. Even The Guiding Light
10. Side Roads
11. Raider
Tracks 1 to 11 are their debut album "In Search Of Amelia Earhart" - released October 1972 in the UK on Elektra K 42120 and October 1972 in the USA on Elektra EKS 75044. Produced by SANDY ROBERTSON (Engineer Jerry Boys) - it didn't chart in either country.

12. Seeds And Stems
13. Tigers Will Survive
14. Spanish Guitar
15. Time Between
16. Truck Driving Man
17. I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
18. Wreck Of The Old 97

19. I'll Fly Away (Pre-First album Demo - Acapella Version)

IAN MATTHEWS - Lead Vocals, Acoustic Guitar and Percussion
ANDY ROBERTS - Lead Vocals, Acoustic and Electric Guitars, Dulcimer and Kriwaczek String Organ
BOB RONGA - 6 and12-String Acoustic Guitars
DAVID RICHARDS - Bass and Piano
Timi Donald - Drums (except on "Call The Tune" - Dave Mattacks)
Martin Jenkins - Mandocello on "Diesel On My Tail" and "Raider"

Disc 2 (78:45 minutes):
"Now We Are 3" - Previously Unreleased Second Album
1. Old Man At The Mill [Side 1]
2. Urban Cowboy
3. The Fault
4. Swinging Doors
5. Keep On Sailing
6. Miss The Mississippi
7. Home [Side 2]
8. First Girl I Loved
9. Save Your Sorrows
10. Nobody Eats At Linebaugh's Any More
11. The Goodnight Lovin' Trail
12. All Around My Grandmother's Floor
13. That's All It Could Amount To
Tracks 3, 5, 7, 9 and 13 written by Ian Matthews - Tracks 2 and 12 written by Andy Roberts - all others are cover versions. "Old Man At The Mill" is a Traditional arranged by Plainsong, "Swinging Doors" is a Merle Haggard cover, "Miss The Mississippi" is a Jimmy Rogers cover, "First Girl I Loved" and "Nobody Eats At Linebaugh's Any More" are both John Hartford covers and "The Goodnight Lovin' Trail" is a Bruce Utah Phillips cover.

IAN MATTHEWS - Lead Vocals and Acoustic Guitar
ANDY ROBERTS - Lead Vocals, Acoustic and Electric Guitars and Dulcimer
DAVID RICHARDS - Bass and Piano 
TIMI DONALD - Drums and Percussion
Steve Ashley - Harmonica on "The Goodnight Lovin' Trail"
Ray Warleigh - Tenor Saxophone on "The Fault" and "Keep On Sailing"
B.J. Cole - Pedal Steel Guitar on "Urban Cowboy" and "Keep On Sailing" - Dobro on "Miss The Mississippi" and "Nobody Eats At Linebaugh's Any More"
Harry Robinson - String Arrangements on "First Girl I Loved" 

14. Amelia Earhart's Last Flight 
15. Any Day Woman
16. Poor Ditching Boy
17. Even The Guiding Light
18. True Story Of Amelia Earhart
19. Raider
20. Miss The Mississippi

Same line-up as "Now We Are 3" LP
Added Bob Ronga on 12-String Acoustic Guitar and Roger Swallow replaced Timi Donald on Drums

21. Along Comes Mary
22. Even The Guiding Light (Single Version)
Dave Mattacks – Drums on Track 21 – Timi Donald on Track 22
Track 21 is a Tandyn Almer song - a cover of The Association's hit in 1966 on Valiant Records
Track 22 is a radical re-recording of the "Earhart" album track with only Andy Roberts on Lead Vocals and is edited to 3:15 minutes in length.
The louder and more Produced album version has both Ian Matthews and Andy Roberts on combined Harmony Vocals and runs to 4:12 minutes

Although the sepia-tinted 20-page booklet is a pretty thing to look at - when you go deeper - it's actually frustratingly vague on key issues and moments. The interview between Pat Thomas and Ian Matthews that makes up the bulk of the text is enlightening in some places - but you feel it concentrates on what happened to Matthews and Plainsong 'after' the album too much - acrimonious splits only to be re-united in the 90s to a point where there appears to be a Plainsong still technically operating to this day. I say this because the album's release date is not here, catalogue number, no discussion on where it was recorded, how, who did what - no pictures of the sevens Elektra tried in the UK and USA - no discussion of the BBC stuff - the stand-alone singles – no dates as to when they were recorded or by whom. There is zero discussion as to why the superb second album remained unreleased (the title probably reflects Bon Ronga leaving the original four-piece – hence "Now We Are 3"). Without sounding glib here - you'll probably learn more from my review than you will from the booklet. What you do get is the artwork of the gorgeous gatefold sleeve of the original 1972 album with the 'In Search Of Amelia Earhart' Fred Goerner story reproduced - live photos of the boys with Acoustic Guitars - a foreign tour poster for a gig on the 31 March 1972 (I think its Holland) and the usual re-issue credits at the rear (basic info though, no recording dates).

GARY HOBISH carried out the remasters and these CDs sound fab – really lovely - especially the two sweetly produced studio albums. Even though the Live Sessions (BBC shows in 1972) are a little below audio par - don't take that as a turn-off. They're full of atmosphere and actually show what an awesome thing Plainsong was in the live environment and make you wish they'd gotten that second album out because it's clear something special was going on here (and the audience knows it). This 2CD set isn't everything Plainsong recorded and doesn't claim to be (there are exclusives on the Band Of Joy "On Air" CD reissue from 1992 and the Taxim Records CD compilation "And That's That – The Demos" from the same year. But across 41 tracks – this wonderful release hardly puts an audio foot wrong. To the music...

In his interview with Pat Thomas – Matthews is almost like a cranky child as he describes his annoyance that the album and its specific artwork got somehow taken for a ‘concept’. The intriguing 'was she a hero/was she a government spy' story of Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan disappearing in July 1937 was only sung of in two songs – the rest independent of that theme. Yet people mistook Plainsong which I suspect may have done for it sales wise. With regard to the charismatic Earhart – America’s first lady of the air – the jury is still out. Somewhere between New Guinea and Howland Isle and the 2556 miles in-between - lies the truth.

The album "In Search Of Amelia Earhart" opens its Country-Rock, Folk-Rock and Americana credentials with a Matthews original - the melodic "For The Second Time".  A friend had seen our Ian through the night - twinned guitars humming his pain like America meets The Eagles (the Remaster is gorgeous). "Yo Yo Man" is a Rick Cunha/Martin Cooper song that first appeared on the 1971 Mason Williams album "Sharepickers" credited as "I'm A Yo Yo Man". You notice the Lead Vocals have changed from Ian to Andy Roberts with Ian harmonising when it's needed. Elektra obviously thought the funky wah-wah Tony Joe White guitar might give the song some legs because they issued it in November 1972 on Elektra EK-45821 with Side 2's "Side Roads" on the flipside - but it didn't ignite. Inexplicably - and especially given the sheer array of musicality on display here - it was the only US 45 from the album. In Blighty however Elektra UK tried a Promo 7" Threesome Maxi-Single issuing "Even In The Guiding Light" as the A-side to October 1972's Elektra SAM 8. The other two artists were Mickey Newbury and Harry Chapin and the release was plugging their appearance as a package bill at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall on the 20th of that month. What eagle-eyed collectors noticed from the Butterfly label was that the 7" single variant was 3:15 minutes while the album cuts runs to a full 4:12 minutes. What it didn't say was that the recording was a re-make with Andy Roberts only on Lead Vocals as opposed to the two voices harmonising on the LP cut. Although the album version is better produced - I can more than understand why the re-recording was done - the single voice suddenly giving the song the focus and oomph it needed. It was obviously being lined-up for 45 number 2 - but not officially released. Shame because it's got great guitar work and a hooky nature.

Plainsong then takes on another obvious musical influence - Elektra's Paul Siebel and his "Louise" - a song covered by a diverse number of artists including Leo Kottke and Willy DeVille. Listening to the truly pretty "Side Roads" - I'm reminded so much of Smith Perkins Smith and their only self-titled album on Island Records from 1972 - those same cool-as-a-breeze CSYN vocals floating over beautifully recorded acoustic instruments. The "Earhart" album ends on another cult tune (Matthews has a knack for picking them) - "Raider" from the 1969 "Farewell Alderbaran" album by Blues Belter Judy Henske and Modern Jazz Quartet's/Lovin' Spoonful's Jerry Yester – an acquired taste over on Zappa's Straight Records. I've heard so many versions of their "Raider" song (the kind of tune that's always being covered) - but Plainsong's nearest comparison would be Fairport Convention circa "Liege & Leaf" with Andy Roberts on Vocals instead of Richard Thompson. Other nuggets include Matthews beautiful and lilting "Call The Tune" (would have chosen this as the lead-off 45) and their cover of the Carter Family associated traditional "I'll Fly Away" (most will probably know the melody from the Coen's movie "O, Brother Where Art Thou?" where it was heavily featured).

The Radio Sessions portion of Disc 1 opens with a George Frayne and Billy Farlow song from the Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen debut album "Lost In The Ozone" on Paramount Records in 1971 - "Seeds And Stems". The wall of acoustic guitars comes with top in-the-studio production values as do the covers of Gene Clark's "Spanish Guitar", Chris Hillman's "Time Between", Terry Fell's "Truck Driving Man" and that old Hank Williams perennial "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry". On these 'Radio Sessions" - Plainsong sound like a mellow James Taylor or Matthews Southern Comfort having a chill out and a laugh. And the Acapella version of "I'll Fly Away" is fantastic - showing the band's amazing vocal chops - pure melody and a wonderful end to Disc 1. 

I’m kind of taken aback by the strength of the unreleased album "Now We Are 3" that in my humble opinion was lining up to be better than the revered debut. They’d worked out that the Ian Matthews first song – followed by Andy Roberts on the next one – worked. Even their Country cover of Merle Haggard’s "Swing Doors" rocks – a witty take on the end of a relationship (you can find him with a neon sign, a bar stool and a late closing time). The two John Hartford songs are superb too - "First Girl I Loved" and the nostalgic "Nobody Eats At Linebaugh’s Any More" while B.J. Coles adds hugely to four songs – two with his distinctive Pedal Steel Guitar and the others with cool Dobro picking. Love that Dulcimer sound too on "Old Man At The Mill" – so Lindisfarne in its own way.

I could go on – but enough is enough. This is a superlative 2CD set making available again music that shouldn’t have gotten lost in boxes of tapes and public misconception.

"...All these chiefs...running out of braves..." – the boys sing on "Even The Guided Light". Don’t let this winner get away from you this time... 

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