I daresay that many, if not most, readers of Green Man Review know all there is to know about Fairport Convention. If you’re not among them, there’s no dearth of information about this most venerated of English folk rock bands elsewhere in GMR, including a recent omnibus review. So I’ll skip any long historical introduction and say that Who Knows Where the Time Goes is a solid addition to the band’s discography.
It has all the elements that have been mainstays of the band’s offerings over the years: rocked-up traditional tunes and songs, social-commentary folk songs, love ballads, and a smashing cover version of an American rock standard. Behind it all is the peerless instrumental work: the stalwart rhythm section of Mattacks and Pegg, vibrant twin-fiddle work from Ric Sanders and Chris Leslie, and Simon Nicol’s now spiky, now fluid guitar playing.
Added bonuses are Leslie’s tenor vocals that contrast pleasantly with Nicol’s baritone, and the occasional guitar duets between the two.
The album starts off with a bang on “John Gaudie,” a traditional song done up as a rollicking Celtic-flavored reel arranged and sung by Leslie. Tight vocal harmonies, hot twin fiddling and Simon’s rattling Strat hitting the backbeat add up to a sound that might as well be patented by Fairport Convention.
Nicol paints a beautiful picture with his rendition of “Sailing Boat,” a ballad that may well have been written with the life of the wandering minstrel in mind. It gains added poignancy because Nicol is of an age when he can sing lyrics like these with a great measure of authenticity: “I want to hear my sails catch the wind/And taste the sweetest salt upon my lips/And know for sure that I’m heading in one direction/Not running round in circles time and time again.”
“The Wishfulness Waltz” is a mature man’s song in the same vein: “The Wishfulness Waltz goes round to eternity/The time passes by on a carousel horse/And strong expectation is wooing weak memory…”
Do we detect a theme here? Well, the album title is a giveaway, and Nicol’s thoughtful live version of the Sandy Denny/FC standard is the high point of the album. Again, the maturity gained from 30-plus years singing and playing, tasting love and loss, success and obscurity, gives extra depth and weight to what was already an exquisite song.
The cover of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” from Cropredy ’97 is a treat, with Richard Thompson on vocals and the Roy Wood Big Band accurately capturing the mood of Memphis. Likewise the two Ric Sanders instrumentals, “Bowman’s Retreat” and “Slipology,” a jazzy slip-jig.
Some of the remaining songs are expendable, especially the odd “Here’s to Tom Paine,” and the awkward “Dangerous.” The latter is one of those songs whose lyrics bob along atop the melody, with the two never quite joining comfortably. This is the sort of ballad, the tale of a man who flies planes into war zones and whose girlfriend is ironically killed in an auto accident, that Bob Dylan so successfully parodied with “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” on the Traveling Wilburys’ first record.
But Who Knows is a worthy effort from this ensemble that has earned its loyal worldwide following. You’d be hard pressed to find another band that’s still making music this vital while remaining true to its original vision, more than three decades along.
(Green Linnet, 1998)