Fairport Convention’s Fairport unConventional

Fairport unconventionalI have chosen a somewhat unconventional way to review this collection, partly because of the title but mainly because there is just so much stuff in this box that it demands consideration. Geez! It cost almost $30 to mail it so imagine the magnitude of Fairport items that the box contains. So, before we get to the music, let’s discuss the inserts!

The first thing I looked at, because I am an avowed Pete Frame nut, was the Family Tree. Pete Frame creates the ultimate trainspotter’s dream, with these carefully researched and intricately designed works of art (and history). Okay, so David Rea is not from California (he’s from Ohio)… he met Fairport in L.A. so that’s close enough… and he was only involved for a couple of months anyway. Frame traces the history of the band through 11 lead vocalists, 11 lead guitarists, 6 fiddlers, 7 drummers, 5 keyboard players and 2 bass players. 35 years of music, 35 years of lineup changes and 35 years of where they went, what they did and with whom. A Pete Frame Family Tree is a rare treat, and one you can spend hours pouring over. Frame’s footnote is particularly enjoyable.

“As I lie here, exhausted and spent, nerve-wracked and red-eyed, I have just one thing to say to the band… if you bastards change your line-up one more time, you can go find yourself another fuckin’ genealogist!” On the reverse side of the Tree, is a replica of Koen Hottentot’s delightful Sgt. Pepper’s influenced portrait of all past members of Fairport. See if you can discover who he missed!

The main book, is a weighty 172 page tome which complements the poster (and the music, of course) beautifully. Written and researched by Nigel Schofield and edited by Neil Wayne (with materials from Ashley Hutchings, Dave Pegg, Simon Nicol and Dave Swarbrick) the book traces the history of the band with anecdotes and photos, old posters, and interviews. Okay, so David Rea is not a Canadian guitarist (he’s from #$%^in’ Ohio), after all, he was only there for a couple of months! For the most part the information is factual and fascinating.

There’s a section tracing the search for material chosen, and rejected, by the editors. Four chapters describe the selections which appear on the four discs (more about the music later). You’ll find a list of Bob Dylan songs Fairport covered, another list of the songs Richard Thompson wrote for them. A list of internet sites relating to the band is included. The book is heavy and attractive and filled with information which can be read from front to back, or dipped into here and there. Look for the link to Green Man Review!

Also included in the box is a copy of the most recent “Fairport News” advertising this year’s Cropredy Festival (the annual festival organized by bassist Dave Pegg and his wife Chris), 2002 tour dates and available Fairport Goodies; a color booklet celebrating the Cropredy Festival which features each year’s poster, and lineup. This booklet alone is a valuable resource. But there’s more! The first 2000 boxes include a souvenir program from Martin Carthy’s 60th Birthday Celebration. Fairport Convention were the hosts for this concert. A few other bits of paper advertise other Free Reed release, a book about Ashley Hutchings, a complete Fairport/Sandy Denny catalogue and a postcard (in the first 5000 sets) to be returned for a free bonus CD of Cropredy recordings!

Fairport Convention is the band most admired by the staff here at Green Man. The Fairport fan is one of the most fiercely loyal listeners in the world. They have stuck with this band of rag-tag gypsies for three and a half decades and the extras enclosed in this box pay tribute to their long career and the equally long dedication of their fans. Of course, you buy a box like this for the music… but Free Reed has made this anthology a must have with their devotion to detail and value.

Now let’s talk about the CDs.

The first disc is titled Fairport–A History. It begins with a live, instrumental rendition of “Meet on the Ledge,” which served as the overture to the Cropredy Festival in 1990 and performs the same duty here. This leads to an edit of “Wings” from 1997, and then two cuts from 1967. This moving back and forth through time, rather than presenting the material chronologically, proves to be a stroke of genius on the part of the Free Reed compilers. Remember their Martin Carthy box that used a similar, thematic approach? The dozen different lead singers & lead guitarists, various fiddlers, drummers and two bass players who have been members of Fairport have maintained a sound and approach, which, while not static, have remained stylistically recognizable despite the multitude of changes. “Si tu dois partir,” their big hit single from 1969, wherein they translated a Bob Dylan song into French, joins songs by Richard Thompson, Dave Swarbrick, Dave Pegg, Ashley Hutchings and traditional tunes that receive the Fairport treatment. This first disc, while not a typical “greatest hits” collection, presents a cross-section of their history, played by as many different lineups as they could fit into the 79-minute format. It concludes with “The Crowd” from their most recent CD XXXV and “One Sure Thing” their first studio recording (“a very early demo from a band in search of a deal”).

Disc two, Rareport Convention, continues the program with a nineteen track set of “the most… esoteric, inaccessible, obscure and unusual” and features lineups who never released a track, obscure singles and television broadcasts on foreign soil. What a collection! The first track is famous for being in the Guinness Book of Records for longest song title, “Sir B McKenzie’s Daughter’s Lament for the 77th Mounter Lancers’ Retreat from the Straits of Loch Knombe, in the Year of Our Lord 1727, on the Occasion of the Announcement of Her Marriage to the Laird of Kinleachie.” Then the wonderful vocals of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” the rocking “Time Will Show the Wiser,” some sizzling bluesy guitar by Richard Thompson on “Mr. Lacey,” the first official release of a recording from the Manor Sessions, a handful of Bob Dylan covers, and the legendary version of “The Lady is a Tramp” make this disc a true collectors’ gold mine.

A Fairport History, disc three, is not a history of the band but rather 700 years of British history as seen through the songs of Fairport Convention. From “Sir Patrick Spens,” with Sandy Denny’s crystalline vocals, to “Wat Tyler,” which features the 1992 lineup, songs which date from the 18th Century stand side by side with new compositions to describe events reaching back to the 13th Century. Sources include television programs, radio broadcasts and live concerts that have been remastered. Some of the sources were better than others, but if a tune appears with lower fidelity, it is because the performance deserves recognition. Simon Nicol, Swarb, the Guvnor, Peggy and Ian Matthews all appear to remind the listener of Fairport’s consistency in quality and vision, if not in personnel. A trio of wonderful cuts end this disc: “Get Together” by the ’67 band; “Genesis Hall” from ’93’s Cropredy Festival; and a 1995 version of “Jewel in the Crown” find Fairport Convention rocking through the Youngbloods’ anthem, rejoined by guitarist Richard Thompson on his composition, and racing through centuries of British imperialism in the closing song. Great stuff!

The fourth and final disc is entitled Classic Convention. Fans were invited, at Cropredy 2001, to choose their all-time favorite Fairport tracks. The band members, past and present, were invited to do the same. Then set lists were checked to discover the most often played tunes. This disc is the result of all that research. “Walk Awhile,” “Rosie,” “Crazy Man Michael,” “Meet on the Ledge” (which closes the collection, as it opened) and “Now Be Thankful” may be no surprise; but the newer “John Gaudie” and “Slip Jigs and Reels” don’t have the history, but have captured the imagination of the listeners and the players alike in a shorter time. Bravo to Chris Leslie and Ric Sanders for their efforts. 18 minutes of “Sloth” from a 1974 concert is a standout track (with Jerry Donahue on guitar), and a BBC radio rendition of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” finds Sandy Denny in fine voice backed by the interlaced guitars and bass of Nicol, Thompson and Hutchings. The version of “Matty Groves” has been specially compiled to include as many of the varied line-ups as possible. And then… “Meet on the Ledge.”

Eleven lead singers, eleven lead guitarists, six fiddlers, seven drummers, five keyboard players, two bass players, four CDs, one 172 page book, a Family Tree from Pete Frame, a poster by Koen Hottentot, a history of Cropredy, some interesting loose papers and ads, a postcard for a 5th CD and a program from Martin Carthy’s birthday celebration! Whew! Does Free Reed know how to throw a party? Until further notice this box is the anthology of the year! Don’t miss it!

(Free Reed, 2002)

[David Kidney]

About David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.