ChunkyGlasses readers might be most familiar with Iain Matthews for his part in the Beach House-organized Gene Clark No Other Band that made a stop at the 9:30 Club a few years ago, where he sang lead on the songs “Silver Raven” and “The True One.” But while faces like Daniel Rossen and Robin Pecknold might have been more familiar to the indie rock audience, Matthews’ nearly five-decades long career has cemented his place as a music legend. Matthews began his career as a founding member of seminal British folk-rock band Fairport Convention (performing on the band’s first two albums) before striking out on his own both as a solo artist and as the leader of several other bands including Matthews Southern Comfort (who had a hit in 1971 with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”) and Plainsong.
Plainsong released one album, In Search of Amelia Earhart, in their original incarnation in 1972 before splitting. Nearly two decades later Matthews would reconvene with Plainsong member Andy Roberts to revive the band, and the pair have performed together under the name on and off again since. On Friday, the duo came to perform a benefit show at (and for) the Old Stone School community center in Hillsboro, VA, a small town northwest of Leesburg.
Matthews and Roberts recently released a new Plainsong album, Reinventing Richard: The Songs of Richard Fariña, paying tribute to the singer-songwriter who died tragically in a motorcycle accident in 1966 at the age of 29, and they devoted the first of two sets to his songs. Matthews has a long history of covering Fariña, having included his song “Reno, Nevada” on his first solo album, 1971’s If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes, and “House of Unamerican Blues Activity Dream” on his second solo album, 1972’s Tigers Will Survive. It was with these two songs that Matthews and Roberts opened the set. Roberts noted that the 30th of this month would be the 50th anniversary of Fariña’s death, which made it an ideal time to revisit his work (two albums during his lifetime, as well as a posthumous collection of unreleased material). Rather than playing strict note-for-note covers as Fariña performed them, they gave the songs their own interpretations – Matthews noted in particular that “Pack Up Your Sorrows” had always seemed to him to be more fit to be a ballad than the upbeat manner in which it was usually performed. “Hard Loving Loser,” they noted, was a “snapshot of the counterculture” from Fariña’s era.
The second set of the evening was made up of material from Plainsong’s other releases, in particular from In Search of Amelia Earhart. They opened the set with the final song of the album, a cover of Judy Henske and Jerry Yester’s “Raider,” followed by Matthews’ own “Call the Tune” and “Even the Guiding Light.” Matthews noted that critics at the time had made the incorrect assumption that the record was a concept album about Amelia Earhart because it contained two songs about her – “True Story of Amelia Earhart” and “Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight,” which they performed next (Matthews taking the lead on the former, and Roberts on the latter). “This is an old American song that I’m happy to be playing for old Americans!” Roberts quipped before “Lost John,” from 1994’s Voices Electric. The duo closed out the set with the traditional song “Old Man at the Mill.”
They returned to the stage for an encore of two more songs from Voices Electric, an a cappella cover of Richard Thompson’s “Galway to Graceland” and Matthews’ song “Christoforo’s Eyes.” A standing ovation called them back for one final performance for the night, a cover of Peter Blegvad’s “Penny Black” (which Plainsong recorded on their 1999 album New Place Now), which Roberts noted is probably “the only song about stamp collecting.”