Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sandy Denny - "One More Chance" and Transcendent Moments

I was putting together a new piece based on the merits of the blank C-90 cassette tape which I’ll post later on down the line here. But in the middle of that I got totally blindsided by a single song by Sandy Denny. Y’know – I listen to a LOT of music. And I’m not always affected by lyrics – more often by the composition as a whole – the whole record – melody, chords, tambre, production – the big picture. But I think I finally discovered the most profound, heart-wrenching, devastating recorded piece of music / performance / composition of (at least) the 20th Century…………

I throw my hat into the ring for…………..One More Chance by Sandy Denny on the Gold Dust CD - recorded (basically) live at the final show of the last tour she ever did before her untimely, sad death at the tender age of 31.

“Is it too late………to change the way.…….we’re bound to go……is it too late……….surely one of us must know…..”

The drama of the song and performance here is already pretty high, but leave it to (the great) drummer Dave Mattacks to ratchet up the stakes higher still with one of the single best performances of any drummer backing up a singer who is transcending the moment on an already staggeringly sophisticated level – pushing the proceedings to further heights of drama that most likely neither one could have ever imagined.

 I’m a drummer myself and although there are many drummers whose work and technique I admire, I have to admit there is only one drum sound I have ever LUSTED after and that is the drum sound / approach / fluidity / sympathy exhibited by Dave Mattacks on this recording and on several other recordings of this era of the mid-to-late 1970s. There is some kind of major drum set / tuning / miking / mixing / atmospheric pressure / whatever he was eating that year / other arcane variable MOJO going on with Dave Mattacks in this time period that is just ……… staggering to my ears.

The song itself has a built-in drama. There are two competing elements that alternate throughout the song and to greatest effect during the guitar solo sections: a brooding minor-chord progression reminiscent of dark clouds threatening from above contrasted with a bright and sunny major-chord progression that sounds like the sun trying to break through the storm clouds chasing the gloom away…..even if only temporarily.

“Is it too late………to change the way.…….we’re bound to go……is it too late……….surely one of us must know…..”

The fatalistic refrain follows the guitar solos. Sandy Denny’s fate was cruelly tragic. At the time of the recording she was just returning to live performance after a two-year hiatus during which she had recently given birth to her only child. Her marriage was shaky, but there was a hopeful eye to a renewed career. The recording issued proved to be her last, however. Only 31 years old, Sandy Denny suffered a fatal fall down a flight of stairs, fell into a coma and passed away.

Years ago I read a biography about her. Such promise and talent cut down too soon. Most rock music fans might only recognize her name connected with Led Zeppelin IV. She performed the duet with Robert Plant on the song just before “Stairway to Heaven” – the often overlooked “Battle of Evermore”. Though it is arguably Sandy Denny’s most high-profile performance, it is not exactly her best or most-representative of her talents. How she came to the attention of the Zep guys had to do with her membership in that chameleon-like British folk-rock institution Fairport Convention.

The Fairports had put out a record in 1969 with Sandy Denny in the lineup that has since become a legendary piece of modern music – the album “Liege and Leif”. The concept was to re-work traditional British ballads with modern rock music arrangements. Surprise! It worked. What The Band’s “Music From Big Pink” did for the resurgence of American roots music, “Liege and Leif” did for a revival of interest in Celtic and traditional English folk music. The impact was not lost on the rock community at the time. New to the group on that record was the wonderful drummer Dave Mattacks, who would continue on through a few different permutations of the Fairport Convention as well as working with both guitarist Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny on solo projects when both of them would depart from the Fairport nest.

But even before Sandy was part of Fairport she had written a song which turned into a hit for Judy Collins called “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”. In fact, I always thought of Sandy Denny’s voice as being like Judy Collins’ but WARM and inviting as opposed to cold and detached. The effect, for me, of hearing Sandy Denny sing is straight-up SWOON CITY. Some performances of hers just get me all misty-eyed and defenseless. What the sound of the violin did to Frankenstein – Sandy Denny’s voice does to me. With her finer moments I am reduced to a glassy-eyed, pathetic creature – and unashamedly so!

Anyway – this song just absolutely flattens me. Heart-wrenching drama – beautifully sung, passionately performed, excitingly drummed to – this track has it all, folks. About ten years ago I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alone for my birthday. I was newly broken-up from a relationship gone bad and I wanted to do something rewarding on my own. It was a good trip and I spent a lot of fun time checking out various exhibits as well as a record show being hosted there that weekend. But one of the really transcendent moments I had involved a little area with a TV and a video clip of Janis Joplin’s performance of “Ball and Chain” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. You could push a button and the clip would play on demand. I stood in front of that stupid thing in the middle of a sea of strangers watching that video a good three or four times and I can tell you there may have been a tear shed in that moment.

 I learned then that any singer, musician, performer has the possibility of experiencing a TRANSCENDENT MOMENT where time stops for their art, their moment. For me, Janis Joplin never was better than on that Monterey stage – a truly spellbinding moment. Some singers can do that more than once. Sandy Denny hits that mark for me in many of the recordings I have of her. But none are more stunning than “One More Chance” recorded at her final performance.

Don’t get me wrong – there are some GREAT talents amongst female musicians and singers. But, if push came to shove – I’d put Sandy Denny at the top of my heap.

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