Rentrée Letter

Dear Mailing List,

Here’s my rentrée letter – a French expression coined when everyone went on holiday at the same time and returned together for back-to-work/school. A Fairport Convention record I once produced was finished about this time of year and duly entitled “What We Did On Our Holidays”.

My summer was eventful. Musical highlights included Ornette Coleman at the Festival Hall with his 3 (!) bass players, guitarist and drummer. A very pleasant surprise involved going to Somerset for a friend’s party for her 2 sons, where the live music turned out to be Little George. Someone had given me a Little George cd a few months earlier and when I listened to it, I tried to figure out how I could have missed a Chicago or Detroit soul band from the Sixties that was so good. When consulted, the back of the cd informed me that Little George was a Greek guy from Camden Town and there he was in a tent in Somerset playing for 20-somethings who seemed to enjoy him almost as much as the old codgers like myself who gathered around the bandstand.

Another highlight was mini-genius Prince at the O2 Arena. We had tickets already, but the discovery that Will Rast, my second cousin, was playing keyboards with Myra, an American singer opening for him transformed the evening. The result was a box-seat view of most of Prince’s show, a backstage lig and an after-hours jam. Prince doesn’t need me to wax ecstatic about him, but I will anyway. His arena show is good of its kind but overshadowed by the jam at the Indigo club (around the back of the O2 Arena), where he explored the Stevie Wonder and Sly Stone songbooks. Most impressive was the sheer energy and exuberance of it all, the fact that he has been playing 2-hour shows followed by long ‘after-parties’ 6 nights a week for over a year. Also impressive was the unusual lyric about ‘how to please your woman’: “if the toilet seat is up / put it down!” (huge cheers from the ladies). To top it all off, we returned to the West End from Greenwich by boat at 3am for £4!

The summer also saw the death of my father. I don’t go into personal stuff here, but I’ll make an exception for Dad. He was 92 and sharp as a tack up to the end and working on a book about the state of the world’s economy. My brother and I were able to spend 2 days talking to him before he faded. His musical taste began with Bach and found anything after Brahms a bit problematic. He approved of what I did without really understanding it or listening to any of the recordings. But one of the many platitudes he used to annoy me with as a teenager stuck. People, he said, would insist that aesthetics and pragmatics are incompatible, but they were wrong. There was always a way to make aesthetics work and I mustn’t listen to those who say they can’t. These words stayed with me as I was struggling to promote Nick Drake, Cubanismo, Richard & Linda Thompson and all the others. His book is about preserving local economies in the face of globalization and how vigorously communities had to fight to resist being crushed by big capital. So it wasn’t that difficult to apply his lessons to music! (If you live near Princeton, NJ and want to hear more about him and maybe listen to some Bach, there will be a memorial on Sept 30 at 2pm at the Princeton Public Library.)

I am now nearing the end of a short trip to North America. The primary purpose was to attend Martha Wainwright’s wedding at the McGarrigle homestead in St Sauveur, Quebec. The bride was gorgeous, Brad (the groom)’s father astounded all the folkies with his impeccable crooning, Teddy Thompson and Jenni Muldaur delivered a joyous Viva Las Vegas, Rufus sang the Gounod/Bach version of Ave Maria, Linda Thompson harmonized with her offspring on Dimming of the Day, Kate McGarrigle hovered over everything like the angel she is, the weather was beautiful and a good time was had by all.

My subsequent stop in Toronto revealed that Mary Margaret O’Hara will be re-releasing Miss America. I am very pleased about this, partly because it’s a wonderful record and partly because Mary has promised to correct the cover copy that failed to credit me with co-producing most of the tracks. I had originally tried to sign Mary Margaret to Hannibal, but my proposal was trumped by one from Virgin. When Mary suggested I ought to produce it, Virgin snorted and said they wanted a proper ‘commercial’ production, not a ‘Joe Boyd’ record. They brought her and her great Canadian band to Rockville Studios in Wales and put them together with Andy Partridge of XTC, a man evidently unfamiliar with the concept of everyone playing together live in the studio. The Canadians rebelled, so they sent for me. We cut an lp’s worth of tracks but my schedule and Mary’s plans for finishing the record at a leisurely Ontario pace didn’t gel, so it came out much later with Michael Brook credited as producer. Most of the tracks are the ones we recorded in Wales.

After Canada, I proceeded to Northampton, MA to for the weekly ‘singing’ of Sacred Harp music organized by Tim Eriksen. Tim and I tried to make a Sacred Harp cd years ago for Hannibal but it didn’t work out quite as we planned and the project fell victim to the general deterioration of my relationship with Hannibal’s parent company. He then created some of that extraordinary music for the sound-track of “Cold Mountain” and from his base in Massachusetts, the Sacred Harp phenomenon has spread far and wide – there are now regular ‘singings’ all over the US and in Britain. The Sacred Harp hymnbook contains four-part arrangements written in the early 19th century. The four sections sit on four sides of a church, with the leader in the middle. The harmonies and counter-point are unlike anything else and thrilling to hear. I’m trying to make sure that a great recording of that music will eventually be heard. Le Mystere de Voix Americaine!

(If you’re interested in learning more, visit or

Happy Autumn everyone