Sandy Denny performed on the BBC as a solo artist quite a bit between the years of 1966 and 1973, a span that saw her evolve from an obscure folk singer to Britain's finest folk-rock vocalist. Twenty tracks from the early '70s were briefly available on the 1997 release The BBC Sessions 1971-1973, but unfortunately that CD went out of print after its limited edition immediately sold out. A decade later, the four-disc box set Live at the BBC rectified that wrong and then some. It includes not only all of the material from The BBC Sessions 1971-1973, but 23 additional cuts as well, along with a DVD disc containing footage of the only three surviving songs she performed on BBC television. There's also an interesting seven-minute interview from 1972, and Denny also provides insightful comments on her songs between the tracks taken from her 1973 session for the Sounds on Sunday program.
Unlike many other BBC collections, this particular one is essential for fans of the artist, even those who already own a lot of Sandy Denny. First and most importantly, the performances are uniformly fine and often superb, particularly in the vocal department. Second, it includes some songs that she did not put on her official releases, among them some traditional folk songs from 1966-1968 sessions done in her pre-Fairport Convention days; covers of Tom Paxton's "Hold on to Me Babe" and Jackson C. Frank's "Blues Run the Game," and the traditional song "Sweet Nightingale," done as a duet with Mick Groves of the Spinners on a 1971 television show. Also, and very significantly, the arrangements are usually stark, emphasizing her singing backed only by piano or guitar. These are quite different from many of the arrangements she elected to use for the same tunes on her studio releases, and those who feel her solo albums suffered from over-production will likely judge these BBC versions superior.
Of course, as with almost any such ambitious box set, there are minor criticisms, or at least aspects of which some non-completists might be wary. The sound, though often very good, is variable, as some of the tracks are obviously not first-generation (and, to their credit, the compilers have separated "off-air" recordings onto disc four and labeled it as such, though the fidelity on those really isn't so bad). Many of the songs are presented in multiple versions, which might frustrate less indulging fans, though these have been intelligently spaced out within the set to enhance listenability. The DVD, though it has all of the BBC television solo footage there is of Denny (in good-quality color, all from 1971), nevertheless doesn't have that much material overall. It does also offer excerpts of song lyrics and drawings from her diaries that will interest serious fans (though these will need to be viewed on a computer screen rather than a television screen to be comfortably read), as well as a photo gallery. But considering that the DVD (on disc three) has just three songs and that disc four only contains a little more than a half-hour of music, perhaps the list price could have adjusted downward a bit -- as it is, it's a pretty expensive set.
And, finally, this doesn't contain Denny's BBC performances as part of bands, and though the ones she did as part of Fairport Convention are on Island's BBC box for that group, the ones she did as part of Fotheringay haven't been assembled for proper official release. There are also a couple of solo tracks (one each from 1972 and 1973) that couldn't be found, though the annotation readily acknowledges this. All this really is nitpicking, though, and only stated so that the hardcore fans likely to pick up this box are fully aware of its contents. On its own terms, it's a superb production that assembles everything possible from her BBC radio and television performances, packages it well, and makes an important part of her recorded legacy available that more fully rounds out our appreciation of this magnificent singer.