THE AUDIENCE looks a little warmer, younger and hairier tonight than the customary Howff fringe-theatre crowd who usually yap in cultured Hampstead tones through musical ‘turns’. But tonight the whole evening has been set aside for paying respects to Sandy Denny as she returns to do her first London club gig since longer than most can remember.
The lucky ones get seats: the rest stand – and it’s only 8.15. The music press, Guardian and Telegraph are piling up the empty wine bottles, whilst Al Stewart, Carolanne Pegg and the Gandalph-bearded Viv Stanshall can be seen hovering in and out of the bar.
At last – here’s Sandy – looking succulent in a long green figure-hugging flower print. A measure of nervousness escapes in her slightly paranoid/Cockney humour but she settles down at the Steinway hired at £50 – hence the entry price of a quid a nob). Then her eyes close, her face turns up to the light and she’s into ‘Late November’.
The audience are so completely with her that she has them from the first moment.
Actually she could have sung The Yellow Pages or nursery rhymes and made them sound like and archetypal tragedy – such is her expressiveness in performance, beauty of voice and conviction of mood in her music.
But, of course, it’s mostly Sandy Denny originals – the held-back power and breadth of the sea, and brooding storm clouds – a typical Sandy Denny song is the musical equivalent of a Turner painting. A succession of favorites spiral up round the paper lanterns. One new song – ‘Solo’ – touches in a very sharp way on the topic of contemporary personal isolation. And once – in ‘John The Gun’ – she lets rip a taste of her potential power, almost overloading the PA.
The management have turned off the cooling fans to cut down background noise, and by the time Sandy is called loudly back for an encore her fringe is pasted to her forehead and she’s gasping for air in the heat. But she bounces up to give us Fats Waller’s standard ‘Until The Real Thing Comes Along’. It did Sandy, it did.