“This happened when we headlined Wembley Stadium,” says Dave Cousins drolly, as there’s a pause for bass player Chas Cronk to replace a broken string. Strawbs never quite reached that level of popularity, and tonight’s crowd doesn’t match what you’ll see for some of their more celebrated peers. Yet their diehard fans display great affection for them, and tonight enjoy two well-judged sets of older favourites and new tracks. The 72-year-old Cousins had health problems not long ago, and quips that during the interval the band will be charging their pacemakers. His voice always had a reedy, sandy quality, and there are moments where he strains, but he compensates with stentorian, headmasterly anecdotes.
The enduring band have had a strange career, moving whimsically between folk, prog and random pop hits. Tonight loosely honours the 1974 Hero And Heroine album, but there’s plenty of other fertile ground covered. From their legacy, the best spells include Down By The Sea and the standout of Bursting At The Seams, where the complex riff powers real emotion. Dave Lambert remains a lightning-quick guitarist, and he’s often the musician sparking the flame here.
There’s a pathos to their charming new album The Ferryman’s Curse, where Cousins deals with themes like time, mortality, religion and mobile phones. He likes a twist too, as shown on The Nails From The Hands Of Christ and the melancholy The Familiarity Of Old Lovers. Keyboardist Dave Bainbridge (ex-Iona) has already impressed when he switches to guitar for a duel with Lambert.
Cousins then introduces “a 21st-century version” of Hero And Heroine, which he recalls went gold in the US and is often rated among prog’s greats. It’s distilled into a moving surge through selections like the lovely Autumn and Round And Round. A greater degree of gravitas fills the room and there are one or two with something in their eye by the end.
That razor-sharp riff of 1972 hit Lay Down leads the encore. It was a one-off, where Strawbs condensed their musings into three minutes of glam pop, and it still hits the spot. Before heading off, the group leave us with new anthem We Have The Power. Cousins adds poignantly, “We’ll see you again in 25 years. Don’t be late.”