This guide deals only with the official studio and live albums released by Fairport Convention. No samplers, collections or unofficial live albums are mentioned.
The albums are graded as follows: (****) = A classic. Should be in everyone´s collection. (***) = Very good, strongly recommended. (**) = Not bad at all. If you like them please buy it. (*) = Collectors only. (The grades express my personal opinions and will no doubt be heavily disputed by other FC fans.)
The albums up to ”The Wood & the Wire” made up the original Consumer’s Guide published in 2000. This part has been left virtually unchanged. The rest has been added in June 2017.
The early years
It all started in the Muswell Hill area of North London in 1967 with a nucleus of bass player Ashley Hutchings and guitarists Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson. As they practised in a house called The Fairport Lodge, owned by Nicol´s mother, they took the name Fairport Convention. During 1967 they were joined by Martin Lamble, drums, Judy Dyble, vocals, and Ian Matthews, vocals, and with this set-up they secured their first recording contract with Polydor.
Their first album, Fairport Convention (*), was released in June 1968. Listening to it more than 30 years later it gives no indications of the glory to come. It is an erratic effort by a group that has not yet decided what they want to be. About half of it is self-penned, but the best part is the other half, with their first Dylan cover “Jack O´Diamond,” two good interpretations of Joni Mitchell’s “I Don´t Know Where I Stand” and “Chelsea Morning,” and “Time Will Show the Wiser.”
After the debut, the band decided they were not strong enough in the vocal department, and Dyble was told to leave. She was replaced by Sandy Denny, who had already made herself a reputation in the folk clubs and through a collaboration with the Strawbs. With Denny they got a strong female singer, a good songwriter, and one more instrumentalist.
The second album, What We Did on Our Holidays (****) (not to be confused with the latter-day collection by the same name), should rightfully be considered the first album by Fairport Convention as we know them today. It was released in January 1969 on Island, one of the homes of what was then called progressive rock. With everyone but Lamble contributing songs, it is a record filled with small jewels, some of which have reached classic status. We are treated to Denny’s tribute to Mary Queen of Scots, “Fotheringay,” Thompson’s “Meet on the Ledge,” a song that has evolved into Fairport´s anthem, Hutchings´s rocking “Mr Lacey” and the group´s first two excursions into the traditional territory, “Nottamun Town” and “She Moves Through the Fair.” They even have time for an obscure Dylan song, “I´ll Keep It With Mine,” and Joni Mitchell´s “Eastern Rain.”
As all groups in the late ’60s, Fairport Convention played a lot of gigs up and down the country and did a lot of covers. Some of them were recorded by the BBC for their programmes. 12 of these recordings were released in 1987 by Hannibal on Heyday (**). The record includes songs like “Bird on the Wire,” “Reno Nevada” and “Tried So Hard.” Some of them turned up later on Matthews´s solo albums. There is also a Hutchings-Thompson original on it, “If it Feels Good, You Know it Can´t Be Wrong,” not released on any other record.
The only really constant thing about Fairport Convention in the early days were the personnel changes. After What We Did…, Matthews left the group to form Matthews Southern Comfort, although he was kind enough to lend his voice to some of the tracks of the next effort, Unhalfbricking (***). Once again the band is a little unsettled when it comes to choosing direction, though their playing is superb all the way through. They lend their hand to some Cajun music, “Cajun Woman” by Thompson, and include three Dylan songs, “Million Dollar Bash,” the epic “Percy´s Song,” and a musical joke in the form of “Si Tu Dois Partir,” a French version of “If You Gotta Go,” the group’s only single hit.
But the album is mostly remembered for Denny´s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” a song recorded by many and nowadays a regular in the band’s repertoire, and the traditional “A Sailor´s Life,” the longest track, where they are joined by Dave Swarbrick, a man with a reputation for being one of the finest fiddlers within traditional English music. Swarbrick guested two more times on the album.
The folk rock era
In between recording and release of Unhalfbrickling, disaster struck. On the way back from a gig, the band´s van crashed on the motorway. Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend died in the crash. In the aftermath, Swarbrick joined as a permanent member and the group recruited Dave Mattacks as a drummer. To overcome the grief they threw themselves into a new project, making a record with electrified folk songs. Whichever way you look at it, Liege & Lief (****) — released in December 1969 — is a classic. It helped to define a whole new branch of popular rock, folk rock. Here was a group who tackled medieval ballads like “Matty Groves” and “Tam Lin” with electric guitars and blistering drums. With the instrumental medley, Mattacks provided instructions for all future drummers who were given the task of playing jigs and reels in rock bands.
But they were not all traditionally arranged. The record opened with a Hutchings-Denny collaboration called “Come All Ye” while Swarbrick and Thompson teamed up for the first time for “Crazy Man Michael,” one of the best ballads ever on an FC album.
The songs of Liege have proved to have lasting quality. “Matty Groves” has survived in the group´s live repertoire through their whole career, and “Crazy Man Michael” and the instrumental medley are dusted off frequently. But there was disagreement in the band. Was this a new direction for the band or was it a one-off-project? Hutchings thought the first and left to pursue his hunt for traditional music, which led him to form Steeleye Span and later the Albion Band. Denny thought the latter and left to form Fotheringay and later to embark on a solo career.
The remaining members decided not to replace Denny but went looking for a bass player. They had settled on being a rock band sometimes playing traditional stuff and tried to resist Swarbrick´s attempts to get his old friend Dave Pegg into the band. Reluctantly they admitted Pegg to an audition but tried to prove their point by speeding the songs up. Pegg survived the test and joined to become the longest lasting member of FC.
The next album was crucial. How can you follow a classic? With 1970’s Full House (****) Fairport established themselves as folk rockers supreme. “Dirty Linen” was another instrumental medley with all instruments trading tunes and licks. “Sir Patrick Spens” gave us another reworking of a mediaeval ballad, while “Flatback Capers” introduced the mandolins, played by Swarbrick and Pegg, into their armoury. The Thompson-Swarbrick partnership developed further with three songs, of which two, “Walk Awhile” and “Sloth,” have been much performed over the years. The latter is mostly used as a vehicle for the present band members to show off their instrumental abilities.
This version of the band was a superb live band. A string of gigs in the Los Angeles Troubador Club was recorded and 1977’s Live at the LA Troubadour (***) was released. It gives us three sets of jigs and reels, Thompson’s reading of “Matty Groves,” “Sloth,” a new Thompson-Swarbrick song, “Poor Will and the Hangman,” never officially released by FC in its studio version, “Banks of the Sweet Primroses” and another musical joke, “Yellow Bird.” The same concerts appeared again on House Full (***) released in 1986. On this, you get “Sir Patrick Spense,” “Staines Morris” and “Battle of the Somme,” the latter two tracks never recorded by Fairport in the studio, plus five of the tracks from the other one. Which one to get is mostly a question of what songs you prefer.
The band was at the time living as a commune with their families in a closed-down pub, the Angel. Thompson did a lot of session work and decided to start his own solo career and left. The others decided to continue as a four piece. They tried to record a successful single, but every recording they brought to their record company was turned down. Eventually they had enough songs to make up an album. Angel Delight (***) was released in June 1971. Few of the songs live on in the band´s current repertoire but there are quite a few nice ones on it. The starter, “Lord Malborough,” is one of the most successful traditional arrangements the group has ever produced, “Angel Delight” is a very amusing tale of the band´s life together, “Bridge over the River Ash” gives us Fairport as a string quartet with Mattacks on bass, and on “Bonny Black Hare” Swarbrick shows that he learned quite a lot vocalwise during his days with Martin Carthy.
Babbacombe Lee (***) from 1971 is unique in two ways. Firstly, it is the first time ever Fairport Convention recorded two consecutive albums with the same line-up; secondly, it is their only attempt at a concept album. Swarbrick had found the story about John Lee, a man sentenced to death for a murder he claims he did not commit. He used it as a starting point for a song suite with the various songs composed by different members of the band. On the original cover there are no separate song titles and it is supposed to be enjoyed as an entity. Musically it continues the direction set out on Angel Delight. But what looked to be a stable band was not. Nicol left when the record was released and Mattacks followed some months later. None of the replacements survived to make it onto an official Fairport Convention record, though tapes of the album that was recorded have circulated among fans.
The Lucas-Donahue era
It took almost a year to get a stable line-up. Mattacks returned, and the trio was joined by American guitarist Jerry Donahue and Australian singer-guitarist Trevor Lucas. Both had been members of Denny´s group Fotheringay, thus enabling some joker to label this line-up “Fotherinport Confusion.”
According to rumour, the first release by the new line-up, 1973’s Rosie (**) had originally been intended as a Swarbrick solo album. It is clearly not recorded with the whole group present. Mattacks only gets credit for four tracks out of ten and both Thompson and Ralph McTell guest. It is also to be noted that Gerry Conway drums on three tracks, 25 years before he officially joined the group.
The title track has become somewhat of a Swarbrick anthem. It is one of five from his pen. Newcomer Lucas contributes two and sings them as well; and Pegg gets his first credit for an instrumental, “Peggy´s Pub.” He also contributes the funny “Hungarian Rhapsody” about the band´s fortunes behind the Iron Curtain. The song has a line which could be the policy statement for the group: “Actually we´re only here for the beer.”
The A-side of Nine (***) from 1973 is one of the masterpieces of the band. Had the B-side been as good this could have been a classic. It starts off with a traditional, “The Hexamshire Lass,” sung at high speed by Swarbrick, continues with Pegg´s music to the trad song lyric “Polly on the Shore,” which gets a nice treatment by Lucas. There is a mandolin-based instrumental medley, “To Althea From Prison,” a poem by Richard Lovelace (1642) set to music by Swarbrick and ends with one of the best instrumentals FC has ever recorded, “Donahue´s “Tokyo”.”
As Denny was now married to Lucas, the next step should not have come as a surprise, but a few eyebrows were raised when Denny appeared on the 1974 release Live Convention(**) (also released under the title A Moveable Feast) recorded live in London and Sidney. As usual with Fairport live albums, you get versions of “Sloth” and “Matty Groves,” but they also treat you to Dylan´s “Down in the Flood,” a new instrumental medley called “Fiddlestix” and the old pop song “Something You Got.” Quite a nice live album, but a resting point in the Fairport career.
During the recording of the next studio album, Mattacks left and on half the album Bruce Rowland, ex-Grease Band and drummer on the original version of Jesus Christ Superstar, can be heard in his place. The resulting LP, Rising for the Moon (**), released in 1975, is a bleak affair. The main mood is mellow. It is the first Fairport Convention studio album since the debut not to contain any traditional songs or tunes, and the first since Unhalfbricking not to have any instrumentals. Denny, Lucas and Swarbrick provide the songs, with Denny winning the competition. Her “Stranger to Himself,” “Dawn” (written with Dyble) and “One More Chance” are the strongest tracks.
The final days?
And then it was all chaos again. Dyble, Denny and Lucas left, and the remaining trio recorded an album with various musicians, including Martin Carthy and the then-popular duo Gallagher and Lyle. The result is Gottle O´Geer (*) (May 1976), a record for which there are very few excuses. Probably “Limeys Lament” could pass off as a musical joke, but the rest should rest in peace. The most interesting feature is that Simon Nichol returned, although only as engineer and guest musician.
A short-lived version of the band, including Breton guitarist Dan Ar Bras, toured for a few months, and then it seemed like Fairport was history. However, a new four-piece with Swarbrick, Pegg, Rowland and Nicol began touring in small venues. In July 1977, they appeared on record again, this time with Phonogram. Bonny Bunch of Roses (***) is a return to folk rock with three traditional songs, one each by Thompson and Ralph McTell and only one by Swarbrick. There are two instrumentals, another one from Pegg and the traditional medley “Royal Seleccion No 13,” now a regular in FC concerts.
We get a very powerful Fairport Convention this time, more lively than the past versions. At the same time they seemed more relaxed, playing as if they had nothing to prove anymore.
The same goes for the follow-up album, Tipplers Tales (***) from 1978, a lovely record in its unpretentiousness. Once again we get a bunch of traditionals, sometimes interlarded with tunes. Pegg turns out to be a great supplier of instrumentals. There are three from him this time. If this record had been released a decade later, it would have been pronounced a classic. Now it is best remembered for the powerful “John Barleycorn.”
Then it was almost over again. The band did not prove the golden goose for their new record company; they were released from their contract and given a substantial sum of money for not making any more records. They did one last tour with a subsequent live album released as Farewell, Farewell (**) in September 1979 on a new record company founded by Pegg with his share of the money from Phonogram.
A new beginning
Pegg went off to join Jethro Tull, Nicol played with the Albion Band, and Swarbrick recorded solo albums for Transatlantic. Where Rowland went, no one knows. But there were the annual reunions in August each year, reunions which started out as “one-offs” but eventually developed into the Cropredy festival.
Some off these reunions were recorded. The 1981 one at Broughton Castle was released on LP, Moat on the Ledge (**); 1982´s reunion turned up as a cassette called AT2, complete with an ET pastiche on the cover; and 1983 year´s festival became a double cassette called The Boot. The new millennium saw the release of AT2/The Boot(**) as a 4 CD-box. Hopefully the later recordings, The Other Boot and The Third Leg, will get the same treatment. The money from the cassettes helped to run the festival and to establish Woodworm Records.
As the festival grew, so did interest in a proper reformation of Fairport; and in 1985 it was time. Pegg, Mattacks and Nicol went into the studio to record another album, this time on their own label. Swarbrick turned the offer down due to his commitments with the newly founded group Whippersnapper, that incidentally included Chris Leslie, so Ric Sanders, whom Nicol had met in the Albion Band, was invited to play on the record, and later to join the group.
Glady´s Leap (***) from 1985 was a strong return for FC. It also gave the band a new direction, playing songs by contemporary songwriters working within a traditional framework. Ralph McTell provides three songs on the album, one co-written with Mattacks and one with Nicol. “Hiring Fair” is already considered a classic Fairport track, and “Bird from the Mountain” is one of the few songs in the band´s history where Pegg takes lead vocals. But for me the stand-out track is “Honour and Praise,” written by Jon Richards. It is an epic ballad about man´s hunt for glory.
After the release, the band were joined by multi-instrumentalist Martin Allcock to become a touring band, Pegg sharing duties between Fairport and Jethro Tull. The most stable of all lineups was formed.
Glady´s Leap only had one instrumental, but this was corrected by the next album, 1986’s Expletive Delighted (**), the group´s only all-instrumental album. In true Fairport tradition, the cover shows the members with black tape across their mouths, and the last words on the back cover are “Lyric Sheet enclosed.” Most of the tunes are newly written, usually by Sanders or Allcock. “Portmeiron” by Sanders is already a classic among fans; the closing “Hanks for the Memory” brings back Dyble and Thompson for a medley of Shadows tunes. My favourite is John Kirkpatrick´s 5/8-tune “The Gas Almost Works,” a tune that was not mentioned on the original cover.
It was now time for another live album, although a counterfeit one. With the 20th Anniversary coming up Island wanted an album. With no time to do a proper concert LP, the group went into the studio and did live versions of some classic tracks, including “Matty Groves,” the first in a number of reworkings of the song, and “Crazy Man Michael” with Nicol on vocals. It was released with the audience sounds from a John Martyn concert under the title In Real Time (***). The record shows the high level of musicianship within this lineup. It also shows the development of Nicol from a supplier of vocal harmonies to a lead singer of substance.
The 1989 release Red and Gold (***) is a sadly overlooked record. It is worth owning for the title track alone. It is a wonderful tale of a man who witnesses the battle of Cropredy Bridge during the English Civil War. Ralph McTell´s song takes place somewhere in the twilight zone between dreams and reality. The album also boasts instrumentals from both Sandersanders and Allcock and Huw Williams´ lovely “Summer Before the War.”
The Five Seasons (***) from 1990 has many fine moments but somewhat lacks direction. On “The Card Song,” Fairport are back like good old folk rockers. On “All Your Beauty,” they are in danger of turning into a country combo, and on “The Wounded Whale,” Allcock shows ambitions of combining symphonic rock with folk song.
Then it was anniversary time again. This time the group decided to keep it within the family and their performance at the Cropredy Festival 1992 was recorded. The proceedings were marred by Sanders having an unfortunate encounter with a plate glass window some time before the festival and therefore being unable to play his violin. Chris Leslie stood in for him, leaving Sanders with some keyboards and announcing the guests.
The 1993 double CD, 25th Anniversary Concert (***), was the result. It is a run-down of some of the classic Fairport tracks with guests providing other songs as well. Chri Leslie sings “I Wandered By a Brookside.” Robert Plant performs Dylan´s “Girl from the North Country,” and Hutchings supplies a completely new set of lyrics for “Million Dollar Bash.” He is not the only past member present. Sanders sings “Rosie,” and both Thompson and Dyble are there on a number of tracks. Even Rowland is back, banging a tambourine. As for the ever-changing nature of “Matty Groves,” this time Allcock turns it into heavy metal with a screaming electric guitar. Maybe it was Robert Plant´s presence that inspired him.
It having been four years since their last studio effort, the group decided to do the next one rather thoroughly. They invited a number of songwriters to contribute, record demos for the members to work with and then they were ready to go into a studio. They came out with 15 tracks to make up Jewel in the Crown (***) (January 1995), the strongest album by this line-up. The opening is superb. The title track by Julie Matthews is a rocky item dealing with Britain´s colonial past. It is folloed by Steve Tilston´s beautiful “Slipjigs and Reels,” a haunting story of the wild west, and Allcock’s “Surfeit of Lampreys,” a strong contender for the best Fairport instrumental ever — beaten on the finish line by “Tokyo.” The rest is not as strong but “The Islands” by McTell and Allcock, “London Danny” by Jez Lowe and “Red Tide” all stand out.
With Pegg out of Jethro Tull and Mattacks doing lots of work with others, there were gaps in the calendars that could not be filled by proper Fairport Convention tours. So, Fairport Acoustic Convention was created. It also gave the lads the opportunity to perform in smaller venues. This set-up is still used to this day, with the band performing with a drummer on the winter tour and at festivals and bigger venues, and as an “acoustic” four piece for the rest of the time.
In March 1996 the only FAC album (so far) was released. Old New Borrowed Blue (**) is a strange collection. The first seven tracks are studio recorded. Top tracks are “Woodworm Swing,” a jazzy instrumental by Ric Sanders, and “Lallah Rookh,” a lovely tune by Martin Allcock with words by Chris Leslie. The rest is a live recording with the band performing songs from the Fairport back catalogue and other recorded items like “Foolish You” by Wade Hemsworth and Loudon Wainwright´s “Swimming Song.”
Sometimes the Acoustic Convention are just Fairport without a drummer. At other times, they are nearly an English impersonation of a bluegrass band. Early January 1997, just before the winter tour, Allcock left. Leslie was called in as a replacement, getting little more than a week to settle in. Instead of just performing old classics, they decided to add seven new songs and tunes to their repertoire. These turned up on their next album, 1997’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes (****), a record that truly has gained from most of the songs being performed live before they were recorded. The fourth star is taking a risk, but I suspect this will be considered a classic Fairport Convention album in years to come. There are lots of good songs on it, like Leslie´s “John Gaudie,” Anna Ryder´s “Sailing Boat,” the traditional “Spanish Main” and Kristina Olsen´s “Dangerous.” As a bonus you get a live recording of the title track with Nicol singing and a lovely string arrangement by Sanders.
It was anniversary time again. At Cropredy, Fairport Convention played for a total of six hours.
On Friday night they performed songs up to Full House. In May 1998 a 3 CD-box was released capturing some of the moments. You also get a new song from Hutchings, “Wings,” about the early days, and a stunning version of “Rain” (Lennon-McCartney) by Dan Ar Bras. As a bonus, there is a studio recording of the traditional song “Seventeen Come Sunday” and an evil April Fool´s joke played on Swarbrick many years ago. The Cropredy Box (***) could be viewed on as Fairport Convention´s Anthology.
In March 1998, there was again a line-up change. Mattacks left, and Gerry Conway moved in. The first result is a live CD from that year´s festival, imaginatively called Cropredy 98 (*), a mix of Fairport tracks and guest spots. Though not a bad album, it is almost unnecessary, since there is a superb video on general release from the same year, “Beyond the Ledge.”
The 1999 release The Wood & The Wire (***), has been the cause of much debate in fan circles. One of the reasons is he break away from the formula Fairport had used for the previous decade and a half. Instead of choosing among other people´s songs, they have concentrated on their own, mostly written by Leslie. It also has a more acoustic feel to it than recent albums, a change that was brought about by Leslie replacing AllcockA and Conway standing in for Mattacks. With Leslie playing only acoustic instruments such as the mandolin, fiddle and mandola, as opposed to Allcock´s armoury of electric guitars and keyboards and Conway being more of a percussionist than a drummer, the change is inevitable. The problem is that with sticking to your own songs, you have less to chose from. Nevertheless, there are some magic moments on the album, like the title track and “Banbury Fair.” There are also two or three songs that do not add much. But to be on the safe side, the group added a couple of borrowed songs as well. Both “The Heart of the Song” by Peter Scrowther and “Rocky Road” by Steve Tilston stand out in a positive way; and their version of “Western Wynde” makes you wonder if they should not dig for more traditionals. But Leslie proves himself to be a very promising song writer indeed; and, if they can keep this line-up going, there could be another age of glory on the way for Fairport Convention.
Stability at last
There have been no changes in Fairport’s line up since Gerry Conway joined. The band has created an almost fixed yearly calendar, with a British Winter tour in February, a more acoustically based tour of smaller British venues in May, Cropredy in August and then often a European tour in the autumn, plus additional gigs now and then. In November and December the members take time off to work on other projects.
There has been a steady output from the band over these years. A summary of those albums follows:
2002 was another anniversary year, the 35th. In true Fairport fashion, one way of celebrating it was Wandsworth Brewery(main suppliers to Cropredy) brewing a special Fairport beer to be served at the festival.
XXXV (***) is the anniversary album of that year. I must I admit I did not care that much for it when it was released, but listening to it 15 years later, all the pieces fit. Here you will find Chris Leslie’s best song (in my opinion) to date, ”My Love Is in America”, a superb instrumental set by Ric Sanders, ”Everything but the Skirl” with some amazing fiddling from both Ric and Chris, Anna Ryder’s lovely ”The Crowd”, about Cropredy, complete with audience noise, and a return to traditional songs with ”The Happy Man”. XXXV also shows a few glints of Fairport the rock band, especially during the instrumental ending of Chris Leslie’s ”The Light of Day”, clearly inspired by what they did at the end of ”Matty Groves”.
Another feature of XXXV is the band’s new habit of re-recording tracks formerly played by older line ups. There are three here. Chris picks up Swarbrick’s vocal duties on ”The Banks of the Sweet Primroses” and ”Now Be Thankful”, and he does it well. Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) guests on ”Portmeiron” and adds a nice flute solo. There are also two tracks previously recorded by band members in projects outside Fairport. Simon sings ”The Deserter” by John Richards, a song he recorded on his second solo album. Chris sings ”I Wandered by a Brookside”, which he first sang on an album with Beryl Marriott in the middle of the eighties. Both sound fine in the group format.
Jubilee year also meant extended Fairport sets at Cropredy, usually an ”early years” on the Friday and a more up to date Fairport on the Saturday. Also in 2002, some of it was put on Cropredy 2002 – Another Gig: Another Palindrome (*), a double CD boasting more than two hours worth of music.
It is a very mixed affair with almost all living ex-members guesting together with people associated with Fairport, like Marc Ellington, Ralph McTell and Vikki Clayton, and some seldom seen with the group, like Eddie Reader. The songs cover the period from the first album up to Jewel in the Crown, with a few numbers they never recorded (like a couple of Dylan songs) thrown in for good measure.
Some of it is brilliant. There are number of fine examples of Richard Thompsons guitar work for instance, like the solos on ”Jack O’Diamonds”, ”It takes a lot to laugh …” and ”Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman”, and a monster ”Sloth” with both Richard Thompson and Jerry Donahue. There is also Ralph McTell singing ”Red and Gold”. But there are also some tracks that had been better left off, some not so very precise singing and a few examples of bad mixing. (It was recorded straight off the sound desk.)
If you were there it is a nice souvenir or if you are a collector of all things Fairport, or Thompson’s guitar solos, you need it. For the rest of you it does not really add anything.
In retrospect is historic in a way, the last Fairport album to be released on the Woodworm label. After that, Dave Pegg sold the studio, the Woodworm Record Company closed down and the group’s records then appeared on Matty Grooves Records.
Two years later, in 2004, we get the first album on the new label, Over the Next Hill (***), one of the best with the new line up. Ten new tracks, each one different from the previous, and a new version of their only hit ”Si tu dois partir”.
Half of the tracks are written by the band, three songs from Leslie and two instrumentals from Sanders. Leslie has the first of many songs about the ill-fated Lord Franklin attempt to find the Northwest Passage, ”I’m Already There”, a song previously played live by the band, as well as ”The Fossil Hunter” and one of the best lyrics he has ever written in ”Over the Falls”, where he compares a relationship with tight rope walking over the Niagara Falls. Absolutely wonderful stuff.
Sanders provides an instrumental medley, ”Canny Capers”, which starts in an acoustic way with mandolin and a tambourine, and then slowly builds up to reel rock with some fantastic quick runs on the fiddle. ”Some Special Place” contrasts sharply, a slow melodic tune, with a strong build up, adding some heavy drums half way through.
There is also a wonderful arrangement of a wassailing song, mostly played in 5/4, with Pegg, Nicol and Leslie sharing lead vocals. Steve Tilston provides two songs, the title track and the bouncy ”Willow Creek”, and Julie Matthews a jolly countryish song, ”Westward”.
All the way through the playing is top notch, and the lead vocals and harmonies spot on. With no fillers it would have gotten four stars if only the guys had let many of the songs live longer in the repertoire.
The double live from 2008, Off the Desk (**) can be seen as a tribute to the late Rob Braviner. It is just what the title says, a number of tracks recorded straight from the mixing desk, giving you exactly what the audience heard on the nights if was recorded. Sanders took on the job to run through a number of live recorded gigs to chose the best version of each song, and he has chosen well.
On a good day Fairport is a live band second to none, and even on a bad day they beat most others bands as concert experience. I have seen them at least a couple of dozen times and have never went away disappointed. And this shows on the album.
Nine of the 22 tracks on Off the Desk are from Over the Next Hill and most of them sound a bit heavier — more lively live than in the studio, especially ”Canny Capers” which is very powerful here. The rest is a mixture of songs and tunes from throughout their career, from ”Genesis Hall” from the third album and onwards. My two favourites are the end tracks on CD1. First ”Western Wind” where a capella harmony verses meet wild fiddle passages, and a very slow ”Rosemary’s Sister” with just Nicol on guitar and vocals, and a beautiful violin arrangement by Sanders, played by him and Leslie.
Sense of Occasion (**) 2007 was recorded to celebrate the band’s 40th anniversary. 16 tracks, but none of them have survived to be played regularly by the band.
There are a few fine Leslie songs on the album, like ”South Dakota to Manchester”, ”Spring Song” and ”The Edge of the World”, and as usual a couple of Sanders’s tunes, a fast one, ”The Bowman’s Return”, and a slow one, ”Your Heart and Mine”. But the best songs are by others.
”Hawkwood’s Army” by Pete Scrowther is a powerful song with an historical background, about an English soldier who fought all around Europe in the 14th century. A song worthy to be played more often.
”Best Wishes” is an attempt to find a new Fairport anthem. Written by Steve Ashley it has a very nice set of lyrics. They did it as an encore for a year or two, but then it disappeared.
The re-recordings this time are ”Polly on the Shore” and ”Tam Lin”. On the latter Nicol and Leslie share vocal duties, with a key change added to make that possible.
Not one of the stronger Fairport albums of the 21st century.
Cropredy must be the one festival that has been the source of the most live recordings released by one single band. There are numerous records as well as CDs. Live at Cropredy 2008 (***) is probably the best of them. It showcases Fairport Convention the rock band.
It starts off great with three tracks from the quartet albums of the late 1970s, with the starter ”Ye Mariners All” giving a taste of what is to come. Then there are three songs from Babbacombe Lee, with Leslie shining on ”Cell Song” and Pegg’s bass lines on ”Hanging Song” lifting it to new heights. Then a powerful ”Doctor of Physick”, Leslie singing ”Reynardine” and Sanders ”Mock Morris ’90” from The Five Seasons. Up until then you sit contented and love every minute, then it gets even better.
2008 marked 30 years since the untimely death of Sandy Denny and five tracks are taken from the band’s tribute to her, songs she recorded with Fairport and others. Vikki Clayton, Chris and Kelly While, and Kristina Donahue take turns in honouring the lady. Chris While’s reading of ”It’ll Take a Long Time” is superb, and the tracks has the extra benefit of two solos by Jerry Donahue. The Whiles doing ”Who Knows …” is another highlight, but the real buzz of the tribute is when Robert Plant turns up and sings ”The Battle of Evermore” from the Led Zeppelin catalogue. Sandy Denny was the only female singer ever to sing on a Zeppelin album.
The record finishes off with ”John Gaudie/The Bowman’s Retreat” and an a capella version of ”Best Wishes”. Great stuff all the way through, that third star awarded for the Denny tribute.
2011, four years after ”Sense of Occasion”, it is time for another studi0 album of new material, Festival Bell (***). It show a mature band delivering. Not a classic in anyway, no ground breaking stuff, just a fine album without any obvious fillers.
The opener ”Mercy Bay” has been in the Fairport repertoire ever since. Another song about Franklin’s voyage from Leslie’s pen, this time sung by Nicol. A good start to any album. The title track, also by Leslie, closes the album, an uptempo song about the fact that the band has a bell dedicated to them in Cropredy Church. As Nicol usually remarks: ”Forget your Grammies and Oscars, we have got serious metal”.
In between two good Ralph McTell songs, with ”Around the Cape Horn”, being one of the standout tracks on the album, a soft ”Celtic Moon” sung by Pegg, a historic song, ”Reunion Hill” by Richard Shindell, a mystic one by Chris While and Fairport turning into a ukulele orchestra on ”Ukulele Central”, co-written by Sanders and Leslie. Sanders also co-wrote an instrumental with Pegg and two on his own.
Not quite reaching the heights of Over the Next Hill, it is still well worth buying for anyone interested in latter day Fairport.
2011 also meant another feat for Fairport. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of their theme Babbacombe Lee album, they decided to perform the whole of it on their winter tour that year. They did it as the first set each night, straight through with all the songs in order, and with the readings coming from the speakers.
It was released on CD as Babbacome Lee Live Again (**) in 2012. A fine album, where they basically stick to the old arrangements, but taking some liberties with them. Chris Leslie takes all Dave Swarbrick’s vocals from the original, and he does it very well. Ric Sanders adds some fast fiddling that wasn’t there from the start, and parts of it sound a bit heavier that it did 40 years earlier, but who is complaining?
2012 was also an anniversary year, 45th this time, and so time to do something special. Fairport’s idea of special this time was to have a vote among the followers. Which part of our back catalogue would you like the current line up to record again. The result was By Popular Request (**), 13 tracks ranging from ”Fotheringay” and ”Meet on the Ledge” up to ”Jewel in the Crown”, most of them basically what would you expect.
Often they stick to the original arrangements, with just minor adjustments, like Nicol playing a little more electric guitar on ”Red and Gold” and Leslie adding flute on ”Crazy Man Michael”, one of the best tracks on the album. Leslie also gets to use his tenor banjo (a four stringed one) on ”Matty Groves”.
The biggest changes come on ”Fotheringay”, which keeps the structure of song but where Nicol takes great liberties with the phrasing, and ”Farewell Farewell”, where the vocals are divided between Leslie, Nicol and Pegg.
It is a nice selection of songs, but I prefer some of the live recordings the band have made of many of the songs. They sometimes sound a little too laid back. Nicol sometimes jokes ”We are not the tribute band, we are the real thing”, but on this they come close to being a tribute band to themselves.
Three years on and time for another album with new material, Myths and Heroes (***). It shows a Fairport striving in many different directions. Some off it will sound familiar, some of it very un-Fairporty.
The start is brilliant. First the title track, an uptempo Leslie-song, then ”Clear Water” by Ralph McTell, presumably about Fairport themselves. There are more goodies to come. ”Theodore’s Song” first appeared on one of Chris Leslie’s solo albums. It was good then and it is even better in the band treatment. On Sanders’s ”The Gallivant” Fairport are joined by members from the Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Ensemble, which gives it even more weight. A very exciting one from Ric.
My favourite on the album is ”John Condon”, a beautiful song about an Irish soldier killed in the First World War. It reminds me of Eric Bogle’s ”Green Fields of France”, and that is high praise.
And then the un-Fairporty sounds. Ron Beattie’s ”The Man in the Water” is a strange tale of a dead man in the water and people wondering how he died and got there. It starts of with Leslie on Celtic harp, and then he and Nicol sing it together. Subdued, with a strong but soft rhythm. James Wood’s ”Weightless” has the same feeling about it, subdued and rhythmic. Both these songs point to another direction for Fairport.
In all, a fine album, matching, if not even surpassing Festival Bell. But beware: It takes a few listenings to come to grips with.
The title of the 50th anniversary album, 50:50 @ 50 (**) is very appropriate: it was recorded half live, half in the studio.
Once again the start is brilliant. ”Eleanor’s Dream” is Leslie’s third song about the ill-fated Franklin expedition, and it is every bit as good as, and more powerful than, ”I’m Already There” and ”Mercy Bay”. It is followed by a wonderful live version of ”Ye Mariners All”, with the band firing on all cylinders.
After that I’m not so sure. You get a few more Leslie songs, ”Devil’s Work” the best of them, live takes of ”Lord Malborough”, ”Portmeiron”, ”Naked Highwayman”, ”Mercy Bay” and ”John Condon”, none of which adds anything new. There is a remake of ”Danny Jack’s Reward”, with Joe Broughton’s people guesting. There are more guests. Robert Plant sings on a live version of ”Jesus on the Mainline”, a song that to me is a little out of place on a Fairport album. Jacqui McShee sings a studio take of ”The Ladyof Carlisle”, a song she once recorded with The Pentangle.
Apart from the opener I suspect ”Summer by the Cherwell” will be only song from the album we will hear the band play a few years from now. As you might have guessed it is a song about the Cropredy Festival, written by P. J. Wright.
I am sorry to say I expected a little more for a 50th anniversary record, especially after the fine Myths and Heroes.
To still be making new music 50 years after a band’s formation is quite an achievement. Most surviving bands from the 1960s seem more set on playing their old hits on tour. Maybe Fairport’s blessing is never having had any hits. Of course everyone always expects ”Matty Groves” and ”Meet on the Ledge”, but then they are free to chose from new and old songs.
So let us salute those first 50 years. Maybe there will not be another 50, but the story has far from ended. And who knows, maybe there is a new generation to carry on. Math Pegg has already substituted for his father both on stage and record when Pegg Sr. had to take time out to heal a wounded hand.