To give you an idea of how close I was sitting to Iain Matthews during his concert last week at Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts, every time I said, “Yeah!” after he introduced a song he would smile and respond, “Yeah!”
This was not like seeing Paul McCartney at Fenway Park. As great as that experience was, it did not have the intimacy of this performance. It was as if Iain Matthews was performing in my living room.
It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen Matthews perform live. Those familiar with this space might recall the tribute I attended in Brooklyn back in January 2014 for late Byrd Gene Clark’s 1974 solo masterpiece No Other. Matthews sang lead on “Silver Raven” and “The True One.” As much as I enjoyed that evening, I have long pined for an opportunity to see and hear a whole evening of Matthews’ music and was delighted this opportunity had come my way.
Now when I mention Iain Matthews to most people they draw a blank. This is a real shame because Matthews has been performing for nearly 50 years, both as a solo artist and with groups like Fairport Convention, Matthews’ Southern Comfort, and Plainsong. But now approaching 70 (a very youthful-looking 70), Matthews has a found a way to take it all in stride. His most recent solo album was titled The Art of Obscurity.
This isn’t to say Matthews hasn’t had his share of success. His Southern Comfort had a number one hit in their native Britain in 1970 with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” It is nothing like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s hard rocking version. This “Woodstock” is quieter and more introspective, featuring gentle vocals by Matthews and a subtle pedal steel guitar by the late Gordon Huntley. I heard MSC’s version regularly on an oldies station in Ottawa when I was going to university there in the early ’90s. When I spoke with Matthews before the show I told him he should thank Canadian content rules. He smiled and said, “Woodstock.” “And ‘Tell Me Why’ too,” I said, referring to a Neil Young song MSC also recorded.
In 1979, Matthews would have a Top 20 hit in this country with a cover of Terence Boylan’s “Shake It.” If you’ve ever attended a concert by the Eagles you have probably heard them perform “Seven Bridges Road” in all their five-part harmony glory. Although originally written and recorded in 1969 by Steve Young (who sadly passed away last month), it was Matthews’ arrangement from his 1973 solo album Valley Hi produced by former Monkee Michael Nesmith that the Eagles would adopt as their own. So even if you haven’t heard of Iain Matthews, you have probably heard his music somewhere along the way.
On this night, Matthews performed under the Plainsong banner with Andy Roberts (who is four days older than Matthews). It marks the first time Plainsong has ever toured in the U.S., although it is not the first time the two performed together in this country. Roberts accompanied Matthews on his 1971 U.S. tour in support of his solo album If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes. They recounted a night where they along with Matthews’ ex-Fairport Convention band mate Richard Thompson had the misfortune of opening for soul singer Donny Hathaway at The Troubadour in L.A. Roberts described the audience as looking like “extras from Superfly.” Needless to say, that audience wasn’t too receptive to Matthews’ music much less Thompson playing a dulcimer. Matthews said they were only on stage for 10 minutes. Troubadour owner Doug Weston felt so badly that he invited them back to the club to open for Randy Newman.
Plainsong would record one album for Elektra Records titled In Search of Amelia Earhart released in 1972. Both Matthews and Roberts were Amelia aficionados and would record two songs about Earhart’s disappearance — a cover of “Red River” Dave McEnery’s “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight” and Matthews’ “The True Story of Amelia Earhart.” The latter song was inspired by Frederick Goerner’s 1966 book The Search for Amelia Earhart, which theorized that Earhart and her navigator Frederick Noonan were on an espionage mission for FDR and were captured by the Japanese government, with Noonan being beheaded and Earhart dying of dysentery. As an Amelia aficionado myself, I never really subscribed to the spy story. While I believe Earhart and Noonan are somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific, I can also say “The True Story of Amelia Earhart” is the best song about a conspiracy theory I’ve ever heard. On a personal note, In Search of Amelia Earhart would inspire a collection of poems about Earhart and flight in a chapbook I put out in 2009 called “Woman in The Sky”.
Another Plainsong record was in the works, but Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman steered Matthews towards a solo career. Matthews and Roberts would re-form Plainsong in the early 1990s and record occasionally over the past two decades. Their latest effort is Reinventing Richard: The Songs of Richard Farina. The first half of Plainsong’s set was devoted to this album.
Matthews and Roberts were particularly keen to play at Club Passim. Originally known as Club 47, it was a crucial venue in American folk music in the early ’60s and would help launch the careers of both Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Baez’s younger sister Mimi was a musician in her own right and would end up marrying Farina, who was also an author. In 1966, Farina published a novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me. It was while promoting this book that Farina was killed in a motorcycle accident on April 30th of that year, which happened to be Mimi Baez Farina’s 21st birthday.
In the half century since his death, Farina’s music has largely been forgotten. Which is a shame, because as Roberts put it Farina was “a wild banshee of a man.” Farina’s best known song is probably “Pack Up Your Sorrows.” Co-written with Mimi and Joan Baez’s older sister Pauline Marden, it would be later recorded by Johnny & June Carter Cash as well as Peter, Paul & Mary. Plainsong’s version was much more downbeat. As Roberts put it, the fellow in the song is “a bloke who’s a misery magnet.”
Matthews’ fondness for Farina goes back to his earliest days as a musician. If you check out this YouTube video you can see a very young Matthews singing “Reno, Nevada” with Fairport Convention on French TV, featuring an absolutely intense guitar solo by Richard Thompson. Matthews would later re-record “Reno, Nevada” on If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes. So it was only fitting that Plainsong began their set, armed with two acoustic guitars (and a mandolin for Roberts) with… “Reno, Nevada.”
Matthews and Roberts explained they had only two rules in recording Reinventing Richard. First, they would not record Farina songs they had previously recorded. Second, there would be no dulcimer. Not because of fear of an audience of Superfly extras, but because it would sound too much like a Richard Farina record. The Farina set included “Pack Up Your Sorrows,” “Sell Out Agitation Waltz,” and the posthumously released “Lemonade Lady.” But perhaps the most interesting song in the Farina set was one called “Somber Winds.” Plainsong obtained sheet music for this never recorded Farina song from one Thomas McCain. He had attended a Joan Baez concert when he was 12 and the Farinas were the surprise guests. Somehow young Mr. McCain got to meet the Farinas backstage and he subsequently got hold of their publisher who sent him sheet music to three of his songs and Matthews and Roberts decided to bring “Somber Winds” to life.
I was also delighted when Matthews read the late Rod McKuen’s poem “Richard Farina — For Mimi” from his book Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows, which begins with the line, “He died as though he’d read his own book and believed that folks should die that way.” McKuen would be much maligned for his poetry after the height of his fame, but those who did the maligning surely never read his thoughts on Farina. In between sets, I personally thanked Matthews for reading the poem.
The second set of the show would be devoted to Plainsong material. This meant performing much of In Search of Amelia Earhart. In addition to the Earhart songs, Plainsong also performed “Raider,” “Yo-Yo Man,” “Even The Guiding Light,” and “Call The Tune.” I should note that Roberts was fighting a cold and drinking hot tea with lemon between sets, but managed to pull off the vocals on “Raider” and “Yo Yo Man” without a hitch. But Matthews had a foot-operated harmonizer on stand-by just in case.
“Even The Guiding Light” is Matthews’ response to Richard Thompson’s “Meet on The Ledge,” which Matthews sang along with the late Sandy Denny during his Fairport Convention days. While Matthews thinks “Meet on The Ledge” is one of Thompson’s finest songs, he simply wanted to offer a counterpoint. Matthews may have turned obscurity into an art form, but he does have his share of fans. One night, Matthews and a lady friend were attending a show by J.D. Souther at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village. Matthew’s friend introduces him to Lou Reed. Upon seeing Matthews, Reed begins singing the lyrics to “Call The Tune.”
I do wish Plainsong had performed “For The Second Time.” Matthews’ vocals are their finest on the song that leads off In Search of Amelia Earhart. But perhaps it was fitting that they ended the evening with the traditional folk song “The Old Man at The Mill.” In many ways, this song has come to represent Iain Matthews. Same old man workin’ at the mill/Mill turns around of its own free will/Hand in the hopper and the other in a sack/Ladies step forward and the gents fall back. Even if Iain Matthews’ music has gone largely unrecognized by the listening public, it hasn’t stopped him from performing and recording music day in and day out. That is a reward in of itself. A note to other musicians: Keep on playing, because you never know who might be listening.