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Monday 15 July 2024

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When You Can’t See The Wood For The Trees

Jan 11, 2021

Mysterious and enigmatic the music of Trees has historically been hard to find and expensive, yet has become the stuff of legend.

A new 50th Anniversary box set from Earth Records, creatively titled ‘Trees,’ collects everything worth hearing by this iconic band. Folk rock might have taken a different path if they’d endured thinks Simon Jones as he assess the box set and attempts to put the band in context.

What might have been

Trees somewhat wide eyed and maybe a touch innocent stare into the distance from the cover of this new compilation, lost perhaps in thought, wind-blown, other worldly too. It’s a photo which enforces the mysterious aura and slightly detached impression which has lingered since the band’s tantalisingly short existence. Signed in fairly short order to CBS when the folk rock boom first began booming (1969 if you’re wondering,) just about the same time another band called Fairport Convention were curating the initial brushes of trad with rock that’d emerge at the end of the year as ‘Liege & Lief.’ Fairport went on as music history dictates to be the cradle of a whole movement, they arguably set the template.

What could have been

Trees were of a similar mind but chose another road to travel using an altogether different format. Sure they’d listened to some of Fairport’s jams, especially the section of ‘Sailor’s Life,’ where Richard Thompson on guitar and Dave Swarbrick’s violin take flight, trading licks and riffs in a dazzling spiral. The palette Trees chose to colour their folk refits was psychedelia and the West Coast American variety at that. No fiddles, mandolins or squeezeboxes here thank you, just a group determined to warp out, wig out and change the form of rootsy British song, both ages old and contemporary, so bringing it to an entirely new audience. This wasn’t music for smoky back room pub venues, it might have its roots there but once transformed it belonged naturally to rock and festival stages.

What should have been

Only one member of Trees actually had any experience of folk. Dave Costa and his acoustic guitar hung out with Martin Carthy and learned much from him, though as the sleeve notes here reveal, Costa believes M.C. didn’t always approve of how they turned folk material on its head. Vocalist Celia Humphris was a drama student before she was introduced to her band mates, drummer Unwin Brown he of solid fills and rolls, worked in a bank, bassist/keyboard player Bias Boshell and lead guitarist supreme Barry Clarke, whose fluid trips and acid leads would drench many a venerable narrative finished the participants. Boshell was a real find not only because he was a great arranger but he could write material which fitted seamlessly with the traditional mutations. Thus armed Trees began.
This 50th box set celebrates the band’s official output as well as extras which reflect on their efforts and in a couple of cases offer hope of a modified Trees performing live once present difficulties are over.

on the shore out take

One of the unused shots from the cover shoot for ‘On The Shore’

Disc 1 is their debut ‘The Garden Of Jane Delawney,’ titled after a song of Boshell’s which he’d written whilst in a school band with drummer Unwin. It’s an overlooked record, which catches the young band with a bag full of ideas some half, others fully formed. It has moments where you can play guess the influence, but increasingly as the album kicks up a notch it becomes far less relevant and in the end pointless because you realise you’re actually listening to something new being forged. Highlights to check out include Boshell’s melodic, chooglin’ ‘Nothing Special,’ a spectral ‘She Moved Through The Fair,’ Humphris ghostly vocal matching the subject matter exactly and a far-away version of changeling ballad ‘ The Great Silkie.’ In reality this sets the stage for Trees’ masterpiece, ‘On The Shore,’ which delves into darker matter and shadows across ten tracks of wonder. ‘Garden,’ still has light and shade, even at times you could say it’s fun, ‘Shore,’ though gets serious. ‘On The Shore,’ is one of those perfectly contained and complete records.

Disc 2 gives us the album straight. I recommend you listen to it all in one sitting. In the time since their debut Trees had found a unity. They recorded their second album quite quickly at Sound Techniques in Chelsea with Tony Cox overseeing. Hipgnosis the studio of Storm Thorgerson created the sepia/Victorian cover shot of a gothic child flailing around with water in the grounds of a deserted house. This slightly unhinged context suited the newly discovered depths and mystery in the band’s repertoire. Opening with a brace of strong tracks, the Soldiers Three,’ sounds Scandinavian in delivery, acoustic interludes punctuate the electric undertow, ‘Murdoch,’ is Boshell’s almost heathen creation galloping along on wild hooves, beating a tattoo, guitars chasing and illuminating a witchy vocal from Humphris. ‘The Streets Of Derry,’ explodes from the speakers in a melee of guitars and bass, the trad lyric wound round and round as the bass line bounces free form across electric lead stabs and wails from Clarke, then they’re off riding the sky. This wonder leads right into ‘Sally Free & Easy,’ perhaps their most celebrated creation, here the original Cyril Tawney sea faring number is thoroughly reshaped and transmuted, totally surreal. Opening with a rather random keyboard trill, you can picture crashing waves and erratic winds, things calm somewhat, Celia’s vocal comes in all willowy and coy, the band seemingly absent but for a quiet bass and grumbling guitar, as they build you know the storm is coming. The vocal returns louder and firmer, the music keeps a tight pace, then Humphris inner banshee gets stuck in and the group give forth with deep extemporisation. At almost eleven minutes, even as it fades they’re still heads down, trucking on. A quite remarkable cut. ‘Geordie,’ by comparison is straight folk rock, though there is still the title track which closes, a snaking guitar and confident engine room allows the full horror of dying in an unknown place to come through the lyric, “our decks were spattered with blood, so loudly the canon did roar, I wished myself at home, all alone with my Polly on the shore.” Clarke’s guitar once more jumps from the speakers roaring and howling, it echoes and reverbs all the way to the record’s final moment. And it’s at that moment the whole point of Trees strikes you, this is folk rock without jigs, reels and folksy trappings, this is something different, something that could have meant folk rock wasn’t to be marginalised or stuck with its own genre. The music of ‘On The Shore,’ could and should have been taken as just that, contemporary music.

Within weeks of release though Trees had lost momentum and members, the first to go was Costa, then Unwin Brown walked as did Boshell not long after. A combination of lack of sales and belief on the part of their label lay at the bottom of it all. As did the massive let down of an American tour with the Byrds being pulled at the last minute. Whatever the combination of factors Trees effectively finished in early 1971, except they didn’t Celia and Barry kept the name adding, Robbie Hewlett and Peter Clark who were followed by the Mr. Fox rhythm section of Barry Lyons bass and Alun Eden drums as well as fiddler Chuck Fleming and lead guitarist John Lifton. They recorded a few BBC and live sessions before another switch of personnel saw Joe O’Donnell and Chas Ambler sign on until 1973 when the flag of Trees was finally lowered. For those curious enough to want to know what latter line ups sounded like there is somewhere out there an impossibly difficult to locate item called ‘Trees Live.’ The sound quality is dodgy so beware and there is scant detail of who plays what even, when and where, the end result is often a puzzled confusion.

As they didn’t sell in huge numbers Trees CBS albums just disappeared from the racks and became quite sought after by those in the know. By the end of the 70s the term collector’s item was applied to both of them. The price of an original, if you could find one, rose steeply. I know I tried and failed to purchase either at a figure which didn’t involve scalping! Fortunately reissue label Decal rectified that unfortunate state of affairs by issuing the pair in their original covers in 1987, time went on and you guessed it, the first issues rose even more and the reissues value climbed too. Somebody somewhere was watching over Trees back catalogue though as since then there have been no less than 4 other official re-pressings and a couple of not so official items.

trees album coverThis swell of archive material had come about because the band had been sampled by no less a hip act than Gnarls Barkley for their ‘St. Elsewhere.’ So much was the associated hoohah that David Costa and Bias Boshell met up and remixed key tracks from ‘On The Shore,’ as well as decorating both rereleases with old demoes. It’s this material which fills Disc 3. The final disc has yet more demoes, material recorded by a reconvened band in 2007 and more crucially live takes of ‘She Moved Through The Fair,’ and ‘Murdoch,’ performed in 2018 by a Trees and friends type aggregation. The On The Shore Band, made up of Costa, Boshell with various younger shoots from a wide variety of backgrounds all bonded by a healthy fondness for the music of Trees. It is these two selections which display the way you can capture an old spirit and breathe new life upon it. When you get a dozen individuals rounding on ‘She Moves,’ you know creatively the time is right for reassessment and to be fair Earth’s anniversary box set, fingers crossed, may this time put things in motion. But then just as all parties were nodding sagely to a possible resumption of Trees activity along came you know what and pushed the pause button.

Effectively this four CD set is the source material and the reflection / after life it created, packaged carefully by David Costa in a hardback case, the only niggle is that the notes don’t really cover the whole life of the group, representing Stewart Lee’s original essay for the reissue of ‘On The Shore,’ in 2007 with a couple of pages book ending the project. Yet despite that slight oversight you have here in one simple package, all you’ll ever really need concerning Trees. They were a band full of potential and if the stars had been right could have made a greater impact on the struggle to create an endemic rock form. It took a lot longer because the public’s ears weren’t tuned in. Now there is no excuse. ‘Trees’ is one of the finest archive boxes you could wish for.

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