I suppose some husband-and-wife singing duos were more influential than Ian and Silvia, but I’m hard-pressed to think of any. Their combined voices have a power and energy that is unique: instead of a lead joined by harmony vocals, Ian and Silvia sang dual leads, much like the Allman brothers’ dual guitar solos. Their first release in 1963 set a standard for artistic and acoustic quality that has been equaled, but never surpassed. The Complete Vanguard Studio Recordings provides us with the comprehensive collection of their work between ’63 and ’68. Some purists might see this chronological offering as a graphic documentation of a slow downward artistic spiral as alien and inappropriate pop influences diluted Ian and Silvia’s original folk sincerity. Conversely, others will delight in how Ian and Silvia’s narrow focus broadened with their exposure to the heady musical trends of the ’60s.
This deluxe four-CD set encompasses all the material from seven studio albums, plus a few additional tracks. A 78-page booklet includes complete album credits, copious photographs, and several well-researched essays by Colin Escott. Escott’s copy not only supplies a historical context for their work, but brings us up-to-date with where Ian and Silvia are now.
Even though Ian and Silvia were a folk duo, from their very first release, additional musicians contributed to their mix. John Herald, who is certainly one of the most influential folk guitarists of the early ’60s, joined them on their first three albums. His solo on “Moonshine Can” is a perfect flurry of flatpicking. Other superlative sidemen included Bill Lee, Eric Weissberg, Robert Bushnell, and Felix Pappalardi on bass, and Monte Dunn, David Rea, Jerry Reed, and Rick Turner on guitars. Pappalardi went from his eight-month sojourn with Ian and Silvia to producing Cream, while Rick Turner progressed to designing and building guitars and pickup systems.
Sonically, their early albums are heads and shoulders above the later releases. The first three albums have especially wonderful warm yet vibrant sound. Too bad there are no engineering credits. When Ian and Silvia added electric instruments, their sonic quality took a nosedive, as if their engineers couldn’t quite cope with their new, louder sound. Play One More and So Much for Dreaming are especially compressed, with a severely limited dynamic range. Compilation producer Tom Vickers is to be commended for not trying to goose up the sonics on the later albums to match the dynamic ease of the early releases. This slow and steady sonic decline is not unique to Ian and Silvia’s records. Most folk music in the late ’60s sounded steadily worse as electric guitars, Fender basses, and drum sets confounded studio engineers who were used to recording all-acoustic ensembles.
Hopefully, The Complete Vanguard Studio Recordings will bring Ian and Silvia the attention they deserve. Their first three albums are true works of art that are as musically strong and vibrant today as when they were created over 35 years ago. It’s about time these artists took their place in the pantheon of great folk performers of the 1960s.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Dec. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.