A not uncommon response when Fairport Convention is mentioned is to think of a band with regular line-up changes. However, that was really only the case in the first couple of decades of their existence. The remaining two and a half decades have been quite consistent, with the current band being the longest lasting at 14 years. However, back in the late 1970s, for a Fairport line-up to last 3 years and even produce two albums with the same members was considered quite remarkable.
Such was the case with Simon Nicol, Dave Swarbrick, Dave Pegg and Bruce Rowland, who comprised the Fairport that formed in late 1976 and produced Bonny Bunch Of Roses, Tipplers Tales and the live album Farewell Farewell, until a temporary halt was put to the band’s activities in 1979. On the long deleted It All Comes Round Again video documentary in 1987, Nicol observed that this line-up was often considered “a bit carefree” but stressed it was also a “relaxed, hard working unit”.
Dave Swarbrick has recently compiled this double CD of previously unreleased live tracks from the period after trawling through his cassette collection, with the added help of fans, and it is easy to understand his claim in the booklet notes that he “enjoyed every minute” of the three years this Fairport was together.
As might be expected considering the age and format of the source material, the sound quality can be quite variable; anywhere from average to very good. But in the case of ‘General Taylor’ for example, the quality of the performance far exceeds any other limitations, as does the fact that a live Fairport version of the song has been hard to come by in any case. The same can be said of quite a few other tracks such as ‘Run Johnny Run’ and ‘The Limey’s Lament’, neither of which stayed in the live repertoire for very long.
The Richard Thompson song ‘When I Get To The Border’ was not released by the band in studio format at all, making this set all the more collectable. The more well-known tracks such as ‘Walk Awhile’, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ and ‘Dirty Linen’ are still snapshots of this particular era of Fairport with Swarb often taking the instrumental lead, Simon Nicol on very fine lead guitar and vocals and playing electric far more than nowadays, Peggy’s bass often taking on near-lead work itself, and Bruce Rowland’s distinctive, busy yet powerful drumming holding it all together.
A cursory glance of the track list shows only nine songs per disc, but three of them are over the ten minute mark – ‘Sloth’ of course (with what seems to be a seamless edit during the bass solo?), ‘Matty Groves’ and ‘Bonny Bunch Of Roses’, another one that was only played live for a short while. That song, with its Napoleonic theme, had the elements of being an epic track ala ‘Tam Lin’ but perhaps because of a lack of real light and shade in the arrangement and an overly meandering feel to it, didn’t quite make the grade. It still stands up well in its own right though, with some impassioned singing by Swarb and certainly some good dynamics throughout.
Without picking out specific tracks, it must be noted that the 70s fondness for flanging and delay effects on the violin and guitar is often quite noticeable! Again, that is simply part of the era in which they were recorded. Overall, this version of Fairport did have its own sound – a little looser than some others musically maybe, but not to anyone’s detriment, and the sense of fun is apparent in the introductions and the enthusiastic audience response.
4Play was recorded at various venues in the ’76 to ’79 timeframe – Belgium, Milan, Nottingham and Drury Lane, though the majority are from unknown venues on the band’s 1977 Australian tour. It works very well as a document of Fairport Convention at the time and interestingly has little overlap in tracks with the only other live album from that line-up, Farewell Farewell, AKA Encore Encore.
Most importantly, it stands on its own feet, so to speak, as an enjoyable and very listenable collection of tracks, despite any occasional anomalies in the sound. The packaging is excellent as well, including a selection of clippings and memorabilia from the period and notes from Swarb recounting his memories, and preference for live recordings as means of reliving the moment.
This is the third in a series of CDs taken from Swarb’s archives, following releases from his duos with Simon Nicol and Martin Carthy. All very historical and entertaining at the same time – makes you wonder what else may be lurking among the cassettes…!
More details including full tracklist here.