...a band completely unafraid of putting themselves on the line...
Peter Marsh 2006-10-19
Concerts was Henry Cow's last recording for Virgin Records (who gave it a rather half hearted release on their budget label, Caroline). Only briefly available on CD, this is effectively its first proper issue, and very welcome it is too.
As drummer Chris Cutler points out in the sleevenotes, Henry Cow's live sets were equally split between structured songs and free improvisation. Both are well documented here. Disc 1 is mainly given over to the former, with a beautifully played John Peel Session from 1975 featuring a medley of Cow crowdpleasers ("Nirvana for Mice", "Beautiful as the Moon") together with a cover of Robert Wyatt's "Gloria Gloom". Dagmar Krause is in fine voice, as is Fred Frith's gently acerbic guitar. The Cow never sounded more lush than they did here.
Robert Wyatt is featured on a few tunes from a concert given a few months earlier. The sound here is boxier, but the band are on vigorous form, clearly enjoying the presence of their special guest. Even better though is a version of Frith's "Ruins", where the guitarist delivers a bewilderingly virtuosic performance that lies somewhere between Jimi Hendrix and John Cage.
Disc 2 is made from headier stuff. Henry Cow's improvisations drew on rock, modal jazz and 20th Century Classical music; like Varese, Sun Ra and the Soft Machine in an allstar jam. Bursts of electric noise give way to gentle, pointillistic abstraction or lurching, monochordal riffing. "Oslo" is a sprawling free improv suffused with moments of inspired beauty (particularly from Lindsay Cooper's sweet yet acrid flute) and full on primal screaming (courtesy of Dagmar). Bob Drake's heroic remastering has given this piece some much needed clarity.
Also included are the band's contribution to the long deleted 'Greasy Truckers' album; though nominally a live album, The Cow's contribution was made in the studio after the gig overran and they were only able to play for around 10 minutes. Frith's guitar is the main motivic force here, and it's a valuable early document of a band completely unafraid of putting themselves on the line. Brave, beautiful music; we won't see their like again.