For many, Arbre will be not so much a forgotten band as one they have never heard of – but this is a band that could claim to be among the earliest British exponents of Americana, long before the term “Americana” was in common usage.
Hailing from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, the band were fronted by the Caffrey Brothers, Phil, Peter and Paul, who brought great sibling harmonies to the vocals, the band was completed by Roger Askew, lead guitar and keyboards, Tony Davison, Bass and Bill Bissett on drums. The music press called them the “British Eagles” and they certainly had that California sound down pat but they brought a British muscularity to the sound, through the work of the power trio behind the singers. They were also prolific songwriters with all members of the band contributing to the songwriting on their albums.
I was lucky enough to be a student in the city of Newcastle in the 70’s and frequently saw them at various gigs around the area, even putting them on at the college a few times when I was social secretary. They were a great live band, really tight and focused and everyone who witnessed their gigs predicted great things for them; no-one was surprised when they signed their record deal.
They were snapped up by DJM Records, the label that launched Elton John, among others and their debut album, ‘Time and Again’, came out late in 1976. Unfortunately for Arbre, 1976 was also the year that bands like The Damned and The Sex Pistols started to emerge and Punk Rock burst out onto the streets of Britain – a “British Eagles” was always going to be fighting an uphill battle against the shifting musical trend. They released a second album, ‘Arbre’, just over a year later, early in 1978, and both album releases enjoyed strong critical acclaim but, musical fashions being what they are, the band struggled to build an audience and, not long after the second album release, they called it a day.
Listening to those mid/late 70s recordings today, it’s amazing just how contemporary they sound and you have to suspect that, had Arbre emerged in today’s Americana friendly market, they would’ve enjoyed a lot more commercial success.
The story didn’t end with the break up of Arbre. The Caffrey Brothers continued to work and record together for a number of years in various incarnations. These days Phil and Pete Caffrey still work together in The Caffreys (who were finalists in the BBCs 2017 ‘Best British Part Time Band’ programme) and Phil continues to work as a songwriter and host regular Songwriters’ Circles in his native North East. Guitarist Roger Askew moved into engineering and producing, working with the likes of Wilko Johnson and Joe Strummer and in 2019, he produced the debut album from Americana trio, Ragtop Down. He has also continued with his songwriting, recently working with rising UK singer/songwriter Emma Ballantine and Nashville recording artist Anna Howie.
Arbre are, perhaps, the perfect example of what happens when a band are a victim of a shift in musical fashion – they produced some great music but they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s worth seeking out their albums (though record fairs are likely to be your best option) to hear a band that were ahead of their time and among the first of the British Americana bands.