Even after all these years, it is still a moment of great anticipation when a new Fairport album reaches one of their fanatical followers — and this is a band which has long inspired such a reaction in its fans. Throughout their 32-year history, there have been a few phases when there was concern that a new recording may be less than satisfactory. The confused period in 1972 when the band effectively only had two members (Dave Swarbrick and Pegg) and the less than fondly remembered “Gottle O’Geer” era from 1976, both come to mind fairly quickly. But, nowadays, the band has pretty much found its own comfortable niche and is content to produce CDs on its own terms and in its own time. That comfort zone has in turn led to accusations that Fairport has become a little too mellow for its own good in recent years, veering too close to the middle of the road at times — not a good accusation for the band with the rightful claim of inventing distinctively British folk-rock with the emphasis on the “rock.”
Of course, it is unreasonable to expect them to be continually groundbreaking. Why should they always be such when they have already been there and done that? Even if each album was a radically surprising change from the previous, the lack of consistency would surely be a disadvantage and confusing to casual listener and fanatic alike. Fairport invented the path they walk on, so it makes sense to more or less stay on it. The trick is to do so while sounding fresh and refining the essence of what they do — and not becoming bland while they do it, as some may suggest. So, when The Wood & The Wire reached this particular fan’s CD player, the anticipation was as great as ever about this CD, the first studio recording from the band for a couple of years. And after the first playing, I was pleased to note that in the majority of cases it is a success; both musically and in terms of fitting into what one expects from a Fairport Convention album.
This is the first studio recording from the current line-up. The two most recent recruits — Chris Leslie on violin, bouzouki, mandolin, lead vocals etc. and Gerry Conway on drums and percussion — certainly make their presence felt, while still fitting into the Fairport ethos, however that may be described. In fact, I can’t think of an album where one member has had so large a share of the songwriting credits as Leslie does on this album; apart from the ever-prolific Trad Arr, that is. Whether by himself or with writing partner Nigel Stonier, nine out of the album’s fourteen tracks are credited to Chris Leslie. This is by no means a bad thing, and it is undoubtedly a great advantage for Fairport to have an in-house songwriter again. At the same time, it is probably not unfair to suggest that the album can therefore be largely judged by the quality of these songs alone. To my ears, those that are good are very good indeed, and those that aren’t spectacular are at least pleasant. Where the percentages for each side lie is naturally an individual choice, but I’d say it weighs in on the positive side.
One thing that can be said about most of Leslie’s songs, though, is that they are certainly catchy. Rockier songs like the title track, “Still A Mystery” and “The Dancer,” have both memorable melodies and creative arrangements in common and are examples of Fairport showing they can still have their own special place in the world of folk-rock. The ballads such as “Close To You,” “The Lady Vanishes” and “Don’t Leave Too Soon” are still good examples of the songwriter’s art but tend to veer to the pleasant, “middle of the road” side of the musical equation. Mind you, it’s not such a new phenomenon; Fairport has included such ballads on most of their albums from at least the mid-70s, and those here are largely up to the standard of those older songs.
Gerry Conway has added his own personality to the band by, well, being himself, really. He adds a number of unusual percussion instruments such as dhumbek, cabassa, Nepalese and Moroccan hand drums to the usual drum kit, and adds greatly to the overall sound as a result. No disrespect to ex-drummer Dave Mattacks, but the setup now is not quite as predictable as before. Some listeners very much appreciate Mattacks’ precise style of drumming while some have called it leaden. Gerry Conway’s style however fits the band well as it is now.
Instrumentally, the amount of lead electric guitar has dropped off somewhat since Maartin Allcock’s departure a few years ago, but Simon Nicol throws in the odd bit of plugged-in wood and wire, largely as rhythm and occasionally melody as with the excellent traditional tune set “The Good Fortunes.” Of course, no FC album is complete without such a medley! The other instrumental is a lovely Ric Sanders tune “A Year And A Day,” which is a bit of a cross between a couple of his earlier slow pieces “Portmeirion” and “The Rosehip.” Sanders’ contributions on the fiddle are as creative as ever although perhaps not as overwhelming in the arrangement as has been the case in the past. His style is still very distinctive, though. Nicol also takes lead vocals on half the tracks, including some of the Chris Leslie songs. Again, it is good for the band to have a couple of lead vocalists as well, each excellent but unmistakably different in both tone and approach.
Dave Pegg is still the master folk-rock bass player — not to mention the man who runs the record label! He provides backing vocals on most songs but gets his chance to lead on the closing track, Steve Tilston’s “Rocky Road,” where he, Simon Nicol and Chris Leslie take a verse each. The song sounds traditional,or at least the chorus has its base in a traditional song: “If I ever get off this rocky road, I’ll ne’er get on it any more.” Again, it’s a great song with a catchy melody and clever arrangement and shows Fairport’s collective ability to gather good material from other songwriters. “The Heart Of The Song” by Peter Scrowther is another track that falls into that category. “Western Wind” is the other traditional piece on the CD, learned from Susan McKeown. It also happens to be one of its highlights.
The Wood & The Wire is unmistakably an album that fits well into the Fairport Convention discography. In fact, if you include compilations, official live tapes and the like, this is actually their 51st release, so that’s quite a back catalogue! The spirit of the band is still evident. Although the album is not groundbreaking, it will certainly please the band’s legion of fans to at least a healthy degree. The songs which are good are excellent. The rest are quite fine. It will be interesting to see which songs stay in their repertoire for the long haul. Overall though, Fairport have shown yet again how they can adapt to changes in personnel and produce the goods when required.