Judee Sill never made it big, the way other female singer/songwriters of her generation did. While Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Laura Nyro, and Joan Baez all enjoyed considerable fame and fortune, Sill didn’t sell many albums and was virtually unknown in the United States. In the past few years, interest in Sill, along with the also largely overlooked performer Karen Dalton, has, to a certain extent, been renewed, due to the posthumous re-release of her two early-‘70s albums, Judee Sill and Heart Food. At first listen, Live in London reveals that Sill deserves this newfound attention, and more.
Though comparisons to her folk contemporaries are certainly apt, Sill’s music is more stylistically adventurous, her lyrics more imaginative, cosmic (forgive me the hippie-ism; blame the genre), and often ecclesiastical than the typical late-‘60s, early ‘70s troubadour. Escaping a rough childhood, which included her father and brother’s deaths while she was very young and, subsequently, an abusive stepfather, Sill left home in her teens and began performing in tiny spaces across the country. She had bouts of severe heroin and cocaine addiction (the worst of which caused her death in 1979) and spent some time in jail for possession of drugs, writing bad checks, or robbery, depending on whom you ask.
While other songwriters with troubled backgrounds tend to write biographically, as this live collection demonstrates, Sill was more interested in the metaphysical than in the details of her own earthly existence. Her songs, performed solo on either piano or guitar, most frequently deal with the interaction between heaven and earth, what she calls, in introducing “Down Where the Valleys are Low,” “the place where romantic love and divine love meet.” The disc begins with Sill’s only successful single, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker.” Of all the songs on Live in London, it sounds the most like a Joni Mitchell tune, so it’s easy to see why it achieved popularity. The lyrics are characteristic of Sill, relating religious ideas to contemporary life, describing the Christian messiah as “a bandit and a heartbreaker.” As catchy as a folk song can be, “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” should be considered a classic. The Christian overtones become clear when, before “Enchanted Sky Machine,” a Revelations-via-space aliens fantasy, Sill tells the audience that she’s going to employ some “gospel licks” that she learned during her stint as “church organist in reformed school.”
The most impressive song on the album, though, is a quiet guitar ballad called “The Phoenix.” While still grounded in mythology, it is Sill’s most personal statement. Preceding one performance, she tells the audience that it “confesses that I never do quite get it right.” The emotion in her voice is palpable as she sings, “I’d like to think I’m being sincere/ But I never know.”
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this live record is its inclusion of extensive spoken commentary by Judee Sill. With a blunt, unaffected speaking voice, the songwriter candidly and intelligently explains her work to the audience, discussing the influence of “R&B of the ‘50s” on one song and talking about how she was “living in a car with five other people” around the time that her friends in The Turtles released her song, “Lady-O,” as a single. An interview with the BBC’s Bob Harris toward the middle of the album does break up the flow of the music somewhat, but provides still more insight on her thinking, as Sill rightly observes that British audience were more receptive to her music than American ones and discusses her dislike of opening for rock bands, whose audiences “want to have any ethereal music. They want to boogie on lower levels. They don’t want to boogie on the higher levels. It’s hard to combine those two things.”
The only major problem with the album is in the compilation. Split between three performances, for two episodes of the BBC program In Concert and one episode of the network’s In Session with Bob Harris, many songs are repeated. “Down Where the Valleys are Low” and “The Kiss” appear three times, while “Enchanted Sky Machines,” “The Phoenix,” and “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” each show up twice. This might have been all right if Live in London preserved the chronology, keeping each recording session distinct. Instead, tracks from the three performances are mixed together, so it’s necessary to keep glancing at the back cover of the CD to determine which of three instances of certain songs is playing. Another strategy might have been to make a shorter album, including only the best cut of each song. This flaw is annoying, definitely, but it’s worth overlooking for such an exciting and important document of one of the century’s great, almost forgotten musicians.