Top Artists Pay Tribute To Late Brit-Folk Artist Sandy Denny

R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, folk-rocker Robyn Hitchcock among those who sang in honor of influential singer Saturday.

NEW YORK -- The late, British folk-artist Sandy Denny may not be well-known to fans of contemporary music, but at a tribute honoring her Saturday in this city's Brooklyn borough, it was clear her influence reaches places she may never have dreamed.

Take singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, for instance, who used the event -- organized by ex-dB's leader Peter Holsapple -- to bounce up and down onstage, his whitish hair whirling, as he sang a captivating, revelatory version of Denny's "Mattie Groves."

"In this day and age, it's great that Peter [Holsapple] and the extended Continental Drifters are playing this music and that you all are here to listen to it," Hitchcock said to open his performance.

Reading from a lyric sheet, Hitchcock led Denny's take on the traditional folk tale -- from Fairport Convention's 1969 LP Liege And Lief -- toward a wicked harmonica coda. He ended the tale in a loud revelry of instruments that recalled the Who's rock-classic "Baba O'Reilly."

For the 600 fans gathered for the sold-out show at St. Ann's Cathedral, energetic performances and meaningful readings of the late singer's work proved that she has influenced artists as varied as the surrealist-songwriter Hitchcock; Darius Rucker, singer of the pop-group Hootie & the Blowfish; and bassist/keyboardist Mike Mills of Athens, Ga., art-rock superstars R.E.M., all of whom were present.

Denny, who died after a fall in 1978, may be best known to today's rock fans as the wailing female voice on Led Zeppelin's "The Battle of Evermore" (RealAudio excerpt), a folk-style song from the band's classic, 1971 album, Led Zeppelin IV.

Still, listening to the marching, rhythmic ballads that day, it was clear Denny's music continues to live via contemporary artists, many who weren't even present, from chart-topping, emotional-rocker Alanis Morissette, to Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant and pop-artist Natalie Merchant.

Some of the churning tracks on Morissette's new Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie resemble the Denny tracks sung at St. Ann's by such distinctive female singers as Dana Kletter of the modern-folk/rock band Dish and a background singer on Hole's Live Through This and Susan Cowsill of the '60s family-band the Cowsills.

But it was the men of the evening who proved the most revelatory of the performers.

Who knew that Mills, who normally takes a backseat on vocals to R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, was just waiting to show his passion for Denny's eclectic musical taste? Mills' dyed-blonde hair and brown satin shirt made him look every inch the frontman as he belted out Denny's "It Suits Me Well" with verve.

"The living is hard but it suits me well," Mills sang during the chorus, his hands curled into fists as he moved them up and down at his sides to emphasize the beauty of the words. Mills' vocal range can't compare to Denny's, but he compensated with his high energy.

"I was a fan [who] enjoyed the music of Fairport Convention," Mills said before the show.

Mills had been invited to perform by Holsapple, the show's music director and an occasional touring member of R.E.M., who also had been instrumental in introducing early R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter to the band.

Holsapple, a former member of '80s power-pop band the dB's, is the leader of the Continental Drifters, a rag-tag ensemble that has been known to do tributes to artists, including folk singer Nick Drake and country-pop icon Gram Parsons. The Continental Drifters -- who also include ex-Bangles member Vicki Peterson on guitar, violinist/vocalist Deni Bonet (featured in the new concert-film "Storefront Hitchcock") and Cowsill -- backed the performers during the Denny tribute.

"I [have seen] Susan [Cowsill] wherever she is for 31 years," 40-something Lynn Margosian of Long Island, N.Y., said. "But all of [Saturday's] artists were fantastic, and of course [Susan] is married to Peter [Holsapple]."

Holsapple also has played with Hootie & the Blowfish, so Rucker's presence wasn't a surprise.

But his delicate rendering of the traditional "Blackwaterside," from one of Denny's solo LPs, was startling in itself. The atypically capless Rucker flitted his fingers by his chin as he crooned the gentle melody.

The evening of songs, which was simulcast on New York City's WFUV-FM, also included tunes by ex-Bangles member Michael Steele, Irish siren Susan McKeown, British singer Katell Keineg (who sang the hit Denny wrote for singer Judy Collins, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes"), Sugar Hill recording artist Marti Jones, Amanda Thorpe of rockers the Riddles, Jolene leader John Crooke and Don Dixon, co-producer of R.E.M.'s Murmur and Reckoning.

Folk/blues chanteuse Sloan Wainwright, another crowd favorite, also sang at last year's St. Ann's tribute to another late folk singer, Nick Drake.

All of the artists had reasons for performing, whether they were influenced by Denny or merely felt a kinship with her.

For Mills, the tribute had personal significance.

"When Peter Holsapple asked me, it wasn't only a chance to play with my friend, but it also meant something to me," Mills said. "It's a real labor of love for Peter."