Bridget St. John is one of the treasures of the British folk revival. Her early recordings on John Peel's Dandelion label in the late '60s and early '70s - delicate and delightful as they are - continue to inspire a growing cadre of songwriters, singers, and alternate-tuned guitar-wielders. Fifty years since her debut Ask Me No Questions, St. John continues to perform, criss-crossing between Europe, Japan, and her adopted home state, New York. And she's still enrapturing audiences of longtime fans and a growing group of new recruits with her enchanting, somehow still stunning voice and her transfixing songs.
Now, one of her recent concerts has been pressed to vinyl and released in an edition of 500 by Feeding Tube Records and Shagrat, the label that's supported some previous St. John archival releases. Entitled Live at The Betsey Trotwood, the LP is a document of a February 2017 show at the London venue, one that was five years in the making. Listeners are treated to nine tracks and plenty of banter. St. John covers lots of territory in her set - classics like "Fly High," "Lazarus," and "Ask Me No Questions," covers of songs by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, and a handful of songs that were never released during her Dandelion days.
The set begins with "Castaway," one such rarity that remained locked in St. John's vault until it was featured on the now-hard-to-find rarities album Take The 5ifth. As an opener, it invites listeners into St. John's unique musical world, with her lush, open-tuned guitar accompanying that unmistakably inviting and intimate voice. The song itself is a window into Bridget's personal quest for equilibrium. Having arrived in New York in 1976, St. John found herself seeking a balance between the city's "intoxicating energy and the calm I need."
Bridget offers that balance in her performance. Just check out the R.L. Stevenson-inspired "Fly High" - which St. John describes as "a little optimism in these difficult times" - or the original "Mon Gala Papillons" with its French and English alternating verses. Her songs have a natural calming effect thanks in no small part to her trademark gentle fingerpicking and quivering vibrato, but her delivery is dynamic and her knack for straightforward storytelling through song remains gripping throughout.
Bridget's selections at The Betsey Trotwood, whether her own songs or covers of her contemporaries', revolved around the wonder of joyful experiences, the quest for freedom, and the danger of greed and corruption. She tackles the latter graciously with a cover of Joni Mitchell's "The Fiddle and the Drum." Originally released a half-century ago, the a capella, anti-war ballad is given a different context in St. John's interpretation, to which she appends a re-written "America the Beautiful." "America, America, restore my faith in thee," she pleads, "May selfish gain no longer stain the banner of the free." It's a chilling moment that stands as a testament to St. John's talents: alone on stage, with just guitar and voice, she breathes new meaning into those old songs, while reminding listeners of the power of music as a force to unite and rebuild.
Flip the record over and you'll hear what may be the most intimate track on the album, a heartfelt post-breakup song called "The Hole in Your Heart." Another rarity, the tender ballad sat in the vault until it was resurrected on Cherry Red's A Pocketful of Starlight. While the studio cut is adorned with piano, strings, harmonies, and a pan-flute solo, the song takes on a different tone in its solo acoustic arrangement. Stripped of those extras, Bridget sings more directly to the Betsey Trotwood audience. "When everything's torn apart how does the healing start? How do you heal the hole in the heart?" She also took some liberties with the last verse. As she writes in the liner notes: "I end this song changing the words to The Hole in the Heart.'" Feeling her role in connecting the audience together, she writes, "it's impossible not to feel for the whole... Easier to ask the questions than find the answers." Yet, sometimes merely posing that question sincerely and tenderly can be a start.
Live at The Betsey Trotwood closes with two Bridget St. John classics. "Ask Me No Questions," the title track from her first album, and a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne." St. John had frequently incorporated the song into her sets and even cut it as a B-side back in 1972 (it later turned up on Cherry Red's reissue of her debut). The live versions here prove that Bridget St. John's talents remain undiminished with the years. Her voice remains as engaging and pure as ever, her songs new and old remain both tender and dynamic, and her guitar playing is just as otherworldly.
And though some two-second gaps between songs and hard cuts between banter, applause and music make this live album a little less seamless than desired, it's those unwavering qualities - the timeless talents of Bridget St. John - that make this album an indispensable part of any fan's record collection.
Live at the Betsey Trotwood will be released on October 11 and is available for pre-order directly from Feeding Tube Records, as well as on Amazon. Copies will also be available at independent brick-and-mortar shops. Readers should note, though, that the label's online shop provides the best price so far, and they've been known to ship product well before release date. So whether you're a longtime fan of Bridget St. John or are newly acquainted with her considerable talents, you'll want to place those pre-orders!
- Fly High
- Mon Gala Papillons
- Rabbit Hills
- The Fiddle and the Drum
- The Hole In Your Heart
- Ask Me No Questions