Over a career spanning nearly five decades, Strawbs have come to be known as one of the preeminent British prog rock bands. Though they peaked in popularity, like most of their peers, in the 1970s, and have gone through on and off periods since (going on hiatus for several years in the 80s and the 90s), they have found a new era of success in recent years. These days, the band tours in two formats – an acoustic group, dubbed Acoustic Strawbs, made up of core members Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert, and Chas Cronk, and a full electric lineup, which adds a keyboardist (currently Dave Bainbridge, of Celtic prog group Iona) and a drummer (currently Tony Fernandez, who has played with the group on and off since the 70s, and also drums for former Strawbs member Rick Wakeman). The band has largely stuck to acoustic tours when coming to North America in recent years (the last electric shows here were in 2008) due to the cost of touring, but finally this year the full electric group has returned to the US.
On Saturday, the band played two shows at the Sellersville Theater in Sellersville, PA, a northern suburb of Philadelphia, with the later show sold out to capacity. The band had to be exhausted – visa issues meant they had been forced to delay two earlier shows (including a headlining stop at the RoSfest prog festival in Gettysburg on Friday, which had to be rescheduled for Sunday afternoon), and they didn’t arrive in the US until late Friday night. But if they were tired, they didn’t show it on stage, playing two full sets and an encore at each show.
The setlists for both shows were mostly the same, and drew entirely from the band’s 1970s catalog. The first set, a collection of hits from the period, began with “Turn Me Round” from 1976’s Deep Cuts, a high energy track which from its opening notes showed that the band could still rock after all of these years. “New World” from 1972’s Grave New World was the oldest song of the night, followed by a vocal turn from Lambert on “The Promised Land” from 1975’s Nomadness. The two centerpieces of the set, though, were long prog tracks with multiple movements to them, “Ghosts” from the 1975 album of the same name, and “The River/Down By the Sea” from 1973’s Bursting at the Seams.
It was the second set, though, that drew the most anticipation from the fans which filled the theatre – a performance, in full, of the band’s 1974 album Hero and Heroine, a record which has come over the years to become the band’s defining statement. The band was playing, Cousins noted, the “21st century version” of the album (which the band released in 2011 as Hero and Heroine in Ascencia), and indeed there were several notable differences, including starting with a brief prologue drawn from the final song “Lay a Little Light On Me” before the album opener “Autumn.” After that, though, the band played the album mostly faithfully. While there were a few points where they may have shown their age (or, quite possibly, just their jetlag) – notably, some high notes missed or dropped to a lower octave – the band turned in a performance as full and vital as any they might have made over the four decades since the album was released.
As the final looping strains of “Hero’s Theme” washed out over the crowd (a backward tape loop of the song “Shine on Silver Sun”), the band left the stage, though they returned for a brief encore. Both shows got “Lay Down” from Bursting at the Seams. The late show added another Lambert song, “Heartbreaker” from 1977’s Burning For You.
The band comes to the DC vicinity for two shows next week, on Tuesday, May 17th at Rams Head Live in Annapolis, and on Wednesday, May 18th at AMP by Strathmore in Bethesda. If you’re a prog rock fan, you owe it to yourself to check them out.