WITHOUT the help of hit records, British and Celtic folk-rock has won a devoted American audience, an audience large enough to support a thick bimonthly magazine called Dirty Linen. Founded as a fanzine called Fairport Fanatics, the Maryland-based magazine has expanded to embrace the full range of folk-rock. They have even released their own series of albums and sponsor occasional concerts. (You can reach them at P.O. Box 66600, Baltimore, MD 21239-6600.)
Dirty Linen presents June Tabor Saturday at Baltimore's Otterbein Coffeehouse, and the House of Musical Traditions presents her Monday at the Silver Spring Unitarian Universalist Church. Tabor is best known as one of the Silly Sisters, a vocal duo she formed with Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, but she has been a much admired singer of a cappella traditional ballads for years. More recently she has led the continuing surge of folk-rock albums with two very different projects.
June Tabor & the Oyster Band
"Freedom and Rain" (Rykodisc). Unfortunately, Tabor has recently cast herself as England's Linda Ronstadt. On this album with London's would-be Eagles, the Oyster Band, Tabor displays excellent taste in choosing songs by Richard Thompson, Lou Reed, Si Kahn, Billy Bragg and the Pogues' Shane McGowan. Then, as Ronstadt would, she robs them of their original bite by replacing their irony with a prettified melancholy. She sounds much more comfortable on traditional songs like "Dives and Lazarus" (a duet with the Oysters' John Jones) and "Dark Eyed Sailor" (where she sounds like her old friend Prior).
June Tabor "Some Other Time" (Hannibal). Just as Ronstadt tried her hand at vintage jazz and show standards, so does Tabor on this album of tunes by Porter, Ellington and Gershwin. Legendary folk-rock producer Joe Boyd is at the helm, and the band is anchored by pianist Huw Warren (Tabor's sole accompanist on her current tour) and ex-Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson. Like Ronstadt, Tabor has a good enough voice to make these timeless tunes sound attractive, but -- like Ronstadt -- she lacks the rhythmic swing and dramatic delivery to stand up to the definitive versions by Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.
Various artists "Keltia: The Dirty Linen Sampler, Vol. 1" (Dirty Linen). The dozen tunes on this anthology offer a welcome introduction to seven contemporary American acts who excel at British and Celtic folk-rock. Baltimore's Reel Time and Dogs Among the Bushes are overlapping bands who inject an authentic Irish-folk flavor into the folk-rock formula. Fairport Convention's Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks back up New Jersey's Patrick Regan on two Kristofferson-like songs. Two California bands, Tempest and Phoenyx, apply the instrumental flash of jazz-rock fusion to folk-rock instruments and material. Debbie Hunter's piercing soprano makes Virginia's Mandelay sound like Steeleye Span.
The Strawbs "Preserves Uncanned" (Dirty Linen). In 1968, three young Brits -- Dave Cousins, Tony Hooper and Ron Chesterman -- formed an acoustic band called the Strawberry Hill Boys and recorded nearly two hours of traditional American and British songs. Later that year, the band shortened its name to the Strawbs, added singer Sandy Denny, and jumped on the electrified folk-rock bandwagon. A year later they gave Rick Wakeman his start and began an unfortunate slide toward art-rock.
Those 37 original acoustic demos had remained unreleased, though, until Dirty Linen rescued that bit of history on this new double-album. The results won't make anyone forget Pentangle or Martin Carthy, but they do show an earnest enthusiasm.
Pentangle "So Early in the Spring" (Green Linnet). Only two of the original members remain, but lead vocalist Jacqui McShee and acoustic guitarist Bert Jansch still give Pentangle its signature sound. The new rhythm section of electric guitarist Rod Clements, ex-Fotheringay drummer Gerry Conway and bassist Nigel Portman Smith give the group its punchiest folk-rock sound yet. Six of the nine numbers are traditional British story-songs -- including three that McShee and Jansch have recorded before, the title tune, "Reynardine" and "Bramble Briar"/"Bruton Town" -- but never has Pentangle delivered such a lively kick to the music. Best of all is the beatnik-rock inflection Jansch gives to the original "Lucky Black Cat."
Nightnoise "The Parting Tide" (Windham Hill). Keyboardist Triona Ni Dhomhnaill and guitarist Micheal O Domhnaill were co-founders of Ireland's legendary folk-rock group, the Bothy Band. Now the two siblings are reunited in Nightnoise, a quartet based in Portland, Ore. With the help of flutist Brian Dunning and fiddler Billy Oskay, they create spellbinding Celtic instrumentals without ever lapsing into new-age muzak. The highlight of the new album is Ni Dhomhnaill's three-part suite about Irish immigration which climaxes with her gorgeous vocal on the ballad, "Island of Hope and Tears." She also sings two lovely wintertime songs.