The Best Prog Bands You’ve Never Heard Of (Part Eighteen): Principal Edwards Magic Theatre

One of the hallmarks of the classic era of progressive rock was the theatrics: Peter Gabriel’s eclectic costumes, Keith Emerson’s knives and flying piano, and Rick Wakeman’s flowing capes are just a few that come to mind. But few prog bands ever included an entire troupe on tour. Enter Principal Edwards Magic Theatre (PEMT), a fourteen member ensemble that included singers, musicians, poets, dancers, and sound and light technicians. This cast of characters, who at the time were students at the University of Essex, initially sought to express their artistic abilities through the medium of print, but it did not take them long to realize that it was more enjoyable to display their talents on stage.

Although they managed to release only two albums (in 1969 and 1971) before splitting up, they rubbed shoulders with some of the luminaries of prog and classic rock, including Pink Floyd (Nick Mason even produced their second album), Elton John, Yes, Fleetwood Mac, and King Crimson. Combining whimsical lyrics with flute, violin, acoustic guitar, a healthy dose of electric guitar, and spoken word vocals, PEMT sounds something like a blend of Fairport Convention and Pink Floyd. Here are a few standouts from their debut album, Soundtrack:

“Enigmatic Insomniac Machine,” besides earning the award for best-titled song on the album, is as bizarre as the title suggests. And if you can’t follow the story the song tells, you can at least enjoy Vivienne McAuliffe’s soothingly beautiful vocals. Fans of Judy Dyble, Sandy Denny, or Sonja Kristina will be impressed.

Root Cartwright’s electric guitar explodes onto the scene in “Sacrifice,” a song concerning, well, a human sacrifice. Cartwright’s guitar calms down for a few minutes before taking centerstage again after the murder of the poor lady about halfway through the song.

The peculiar man of La Mancha who fought windmills is dispatched in a somewhat unorthodox fashion in “The Death of Don Quixote,” a patchwork epic that jumps from one mood to the next without much warning.

The album closes with “Pinky: A Mystery Cycle,” which features some eerie violin courtesy of the multi-instrumentalist Belinda Bourquin and ominous spoken word vocals courtesy of McAuliffe. Cartwright again shines on electric guitar.

Soundtrack is an eclectic patchwork of psychedelia, folk, grunge, and prog. The album is neither particularly coherent nor consistent, but for some this will be part of its charm. For those who enjoy Curved Air, Fairport Convention, or Strawbs, this will be worth a listen. And judging by the live performance below, they must have been quite a group to see, too.

Stay tuned for number nineteen!

“An Accidental Musician”: Judy Dyble, 1949-2020

Judy Dyble, whose crystalline vocals were key contributions to the early days of folk-rock legends Fairport Convention and progressive pioneers King Crimson, has died at the age of 71, following a late-life musical renaissance as a solo artist.

Dyble, who titled her 2016 memoir An Accidental Musician, grew up in North London. Drawn to the ferment of the Smoke’s music scene, she fell in with Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol, Martin Lamble, fellow singer Ian Matthews and Richard Thompson, who eventually became Fairport Convention.  Their kick-off single “If I Had a Ribbon Bow”, a oddball update of a 1940s big band shuffle, was a prime example of the early Fairport’s wildly eclectic style:

The band’s first self-titled album from 1968 featured a vivid mix of originals and covers (of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell among others), but Dyble was shuffled out of the band soon after, briefly joining an embryonic version of King Crimson (then trading as Giles, Giles and Fripp):

Following a final stint with cult duo Trader Horne, Dyble drifted away from singing, marrying music critic/record shop owner Simon Stable, then moving to the country and raising a family.  Invited to the occasional Fairport Convention reunion at the Cropredy Festival, she began singing in public again after her husband’s death.  A trilogy of electronica-based collaborations with Australasia’s Marc Swordfish eased Dyble back into songwriting — which led to 2009’s marvelous Talking with Strangers, co-produced by Tim Bowness of No-Man and Alistair Murphy (aka the Curator) and featuring contributions from Nicol, Fripp, and a starry host of other guests on the acoustic-prog epic “Harpsong.”

Further solo albums and guest appearances followed, including a vocal on Big Big Train’s “The Ivy Gate” from the Grimspound album.   Her latest effort Between a Breath and a Breath, a collaboration with David Longdon featuring contributions from the rest of BBT, has just been announced as a late September release.  While fighting her final illness, Dyble penned these reflections on the new album, showing both her unquenchable spirit and her wickedly impish sense of humor:  

The lyrics for these songs virtually wrote themselves, with minor tweaks, as music grew around them. All were written before I was diagnosed and before the dreadful virus stamped its footprint on our world.

“Quite a few of my lyrics have a touch of sadness about them but always with an optimism for the future and a desire to know what happens next. France, Whisper and Obedience tell stories suggested in conversations and Between A Breath And A Breath is sheer magic. Astrologers was a simple ‘Hmmpph! Stop it!, while Heartwashing and Tidying Away were just poems which wrote themselves.

David Longdon has written a tribute to Dyble which appears on the front page of Big Big Train’s website.  Two songs from the Dyble/Longdon sessions not included on Between a Breath and a Breath will be released as Bandcamp downloads later this year, with proceeds benefiting Dyble’s favorite charity, The Barley Greyhound Sanctuary.  A selection of Dyble’s albums (including a freshly released live recording from 2016, Weavings of a Silver Magic) are most easily available from Burning Shed and Amazon UK.

Oddly enough, I’d been celebrating the upcoming release of Between a Breath and a Breath last night, listening to Talking with Strangers again and re-reading An Accidental Musician.  So Dyble’s final words in her memoir have an uncanny resonance today:

There may be trouble ahead, but while there’s poetry and starlight and mellow autumn colour in the woods and a dog at my side, I’ll face the music and slightly dance.  To be continued.  I expect …

For all those who sorrow at Judy Dyble’s passing, I wish them comfort as they remember her life with gratitude, as well as continued delight in the beautiful music she made.


— Rick Krueger


soundstreamsunday: “Matty Groves” by Fairport Convention

fairportconvention2With deep roots in the mountains of north Georgia, young Hedy West presented authenticity and authority in her singing of old time folk music.  By the early 1960s she had become a mainstay of the growing traditional music revival in America, having written the often-covered “500 Miles” and dazzling audiences with her fluid clawhammer banjo style and clear, naturally inflected, singing voice.  By the mid-1960s she was touring Europe, singing and playing with like-minded fellow travelers of the British folk revival.  But if you’ve heard of Hedy West, even if you’re acquainted with the American and British folk revivals, you’re an exception.  She kept a low profile, and her career as a musician was wrapped tightly with her political activism.  She was no rock star — although many thought her the best of the “girl” folk singers of the era.*

Hedy West

Following Hedy’s death in 2005, a collection of recordings and papers — including hundreds of tapes of interviews with her grandmother Lillie Mulkey West that in themselves are a storehouse of Appalachian culture — made their way to the special collections library where I worked at the University of Georgia.  As my colleague Christian Lopez and I started working through some of the boxes in 2010, we found pictures Hedy had taken of two young men in a flat, sometime in the mid to late 1960s.  We were flabbergasted: they were Dave Swarbrick and Martin Carthy.  Both of us were fans of these two, knew their work and their cultural impact on British rock and folk music.  And it’s an interesting thing, Hedy taking these pictures.  Like West, fiddler Swarbrick and guitarist Carthy were leading lights of their folk revival, in Britain, often recording as a duo.  According to Swarbrick, in an email response to Christian, the three traveled Europe together, and it was  “on the banks of a river in the former Yugoslavia” that Hedy played for Swarbrick and Carthy a tune called “Maid of Colchester.”  Why, you might ask, was Christian emailing the ailing Dave Swarbrick regarding this tune, and why should it be important in any way? To condense a long story, I started as a Martin Carthy fan because I was a Steeleye Span fan because I was a Jethro Tull fan.  And, by the time I saw Carthy play his adaptation of “Famous Flower of Serving Men” in 1991 in a community center in a London suburb, also on my radar was the tune “Matty Groves,” from Fairport Convention’s live record, House Full (recorded 1970, released 1986 — of course, “Matty Groves” was the epic track of their seminal album, 1969’s Liege and Lief).  Swarbrick was Fairport’s fiddler on these records, and anyone familiar with British folk-rock and with half an ear knows that the central tune for “Famous Flower of Serving Men” is identical to the extended jam-band outro of “Matty Groves.” Carthy identifies the tune to “Famous Flower” in the liner notes to 1972’s Shearwater as “Maid of Colchester,” learned from one Hedy West.  Christian had emailed Swarbrick to see if we could close the loop, since Fairport’s “Matty Groves” pre-dated Carthy’s song.  Swarbrick confirmed that his and Carthy’s source for the tune was the same, and it was indeed Hedy West.  Our minds were fairly blown.  Two keystone songs of the British folk revival and British folk rock rely on a riff brought (back?) from America, by a woman who as far as we know never recorded the tune herself.

As sung by Sandy Denny in 1969, “Matty Groves” is a song of adultery and tragic murder that became the centerpiece — along with the riff monster “Tam Lin” — of Fairport’s pinnacle album.  Denny and founding bassist Ashley Hutchings left Fairport weeks after the release of Liege and Lief, and while Richard Thompson would stay for one more album, by 1971 he had embarked on a solo career.  But between the departure of Denny and Thompson, Fairport Convention hit its stride as a live band, touring widely. For the first time without a female lead singer, the group indulged its triple attack of guitarists Simon Nicol, Thompson, and fiddler Swarbrick, trading vocals depending on the tune.  The addition of Dave Pegg on bass gave them a heavier sound, and what sounded on Liege and Lief a bit thin was overpowering and raw live.  By the time they hit a residency at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in September 1970, they were on fire, delivering absolutely devastating versions of Thompson’s new song, the mighty “Sloth,” as well as a huskier, rocked-out “Matty Groves.”  With Thompson singing lead and the others in support, the tale takes on a dark, derelict tawdriness, unlike the tragedy it was in Denny’s reading, and when at the break they launch into, yes, “Maid of Colchester,” they may as well have been the greatest rock band on earth.  At breakneck speed, Thompson demonstrates why he is who he is, while Swarbrick’s performance is electric and Dave Mattacks’s drumming dependably dynamic and fully engaged, as it always was and is.  According to Joe Boyd, Fairport’s producer — for who else would it be — during Fairport’s stay at the Troubadour Led Zeppelin stopped by, sat in, and the music that happened was “not fit for a family album.”  No doubt Zep loved their Fairport, if only based on the evidence of Denny’s presence on “Battle of Evermore,” but beyond that there is in this music a ragged-but-right universal tone that both bands were following at the time and in their own ways.  As Hedy and others before them had done, they took what they needed from the ancient songbag and made it something else, in the spirit of Art.

*This from A.L. Lloyd, who was sort of Britain’s Pete Seeger.  Seeger, for his part, also held Hedy in high esteem.

Image above: Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Dave Swarbrick, 1970.

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