Sunday, 10 March 2019

Fairport Convention

Several albums from these folk legends here....

Fairport Convention (1968)

This was the debut album from folk rock legends-pioneers Fairport Convention. It features Judy Dyble on female vocals as opposed to Sandy Denny and is (somewhat unfairly) dismissed by many as being somewhat insignificant. Although it is folk-rock-ish, it take far more inspiration from late sixties West Coast hippy country rock and (to a slight extent) psychedelia than from traditional British folk music. Personally I see this as a hippy rock album, not a folk one. There are only snatches of folkiness on here to be honest. It is an album far more of incense than real ale.
Time Will Show The Wiser is a lively, rocky opener. I Don't Know Where I Stand is a very late sixties folk rock ballad, with plaintive vocals from Judy Dyble and a Velvet Underground-sounding guitar throughout. If (Stomp) is a very country rock-ish song, like the stuff Crosby, Stills & Nash would soon do, The Byrds or even Dylan on Nashville Skyline. The vocals are harmoniously early Beatles-esque. Decameron is a haunting, folky acoustic number with a beguiling, almost ghostly melancholy to it.

Jack O' Diamonds, co-written by Bob Dylan, is a solid piece of jangly guitar-driven rock, with great harmony vocals and a deep, sumptuous bass line. The instrumental break in the middle is very late sixties, man. Check out that flute. 
Portfolio is a short, funkyish piano-driven instrumental. They do Joni Mitchell's atmospheric hippy anthem Chelsea Morning beautifully. This version actually came out a year before Mitchell's own version. 

Sun Shade is a gently rhythmic, mysterious and meditative number. Its bass is fetching, as is its guitar parts. It merges seamlessly into the inventive number, The Lobster. It starts with a lengthy instrumental before a martial beat and some odd lyric about the said lobster arrive. The last minute is taken up with some madcap Velvet Underground guitar. It's Alright Ma, It's Only Witchcraft is a lively, rocking Dylan spoof, full of Subterranean Homesick Blues- influenced lyrics. I'm sure Deep Purple used the verse melody for Strange Kind Of Woman too. My One Sure Thing is a cynical song about a love gone wrong, featuring some Byrds meets The Doors guitar. M1 Breakdown is an energetic instrumental romp to end the album on. As I said earlier this was not really a folk album at all and it is very much an album of its time, but is worth a re-visit every now and again. It is not essential but it is interesting.

What We Did On Our Holidays (1969)

This was the album which saw some of the initial signs of a switch towards folk rock from the semi-psychedelic late sixties fare of their 1968 debut album for Fairport ConventionJudy Dyble had left and was replaced by Sandy Denny, complete with haunting, ethereal vocals that gave the band a unique sound for three albums. The band were actually influenced by Pentangle quite a bit as they made this transition. Another thing to note is that there are no long narrative tracks on here, they are all very short, something that would change on subsequent albums.
Ironically, Fotheringay, the opening song, written by Denny,  about the incarcerated Mary, Queen Of Scots, would be the name of the group Sandy Denny would join a year or so later. The song is a gentle, moving one sung over a light acoustic and strings backing. Mr. Lacey shows that the group had not completely left behind their bluesy rock taste as they deliver a Clapton-esque slow burning blues grinder of a track. It contains some odd background noises that sound like an electric drill. Book Song combines a folky melody with some solid, bassy instrumentation. Denny’s voice is typically late sixties as it strongly matches the rumbling bass and lead guitar interjections admirably. It sounds a lot like some of The Byrds’ material from the same period. 

The Lord Is In This Place - How Dreadful Is This Place is an authentic, short instrumental cover of a traditional blues-spiritual number. No Man’s Land is an upbeat, male vocal stomper that is sort of country-ish rock with some folky airs. Some Cajun-style accordion is used, something the group would utilise on more than one occasion. The group always liked a Dylan cover and this album’s one is I’ll Keep It With Mine, sung beautifully by Denny over a bewitching bass and cymbals rhythm. 

The beguiling Eastern Rain was a Joni Mitchell cover done in a very Crosby, Stills & Nash way. All very airy and slightly druggy in its hippiness. Nottamun Town is a traditional US folk song that sounds very much like a British one. It is one of the album’s folkiest numbers, combining folky vocals with a swirling psychedelic, Eastern instrumentation. Again, there is a pleasing, warm bassy sound. Tale In Hard Time is a very 1969 sounding piece of strong folky, harmonious rock. She Moves Through The Fair is a take on a traditional Irish folk song performed in an appealing way, with Denny’s trademark vocals to the fore. The same applies to Richard Thompson’s Meet On The Ledge, which also features some impressive rock backing and a truly sumptuous bass. End Of A Holiday is a short, acoustic instrumental to end the original album.

** The bonus track, Throwaway Street Puzzle is a solid piece of blues rock that you feel should have been on the album. Similarly bluesy is You’re Gonna Need My Help, while Some Sweet Day is a sort of Beatles go country lively song.

The group would explore the folk thing more in their next album, Unhalfbricking, before going full on folk rock on Liege And Lief. All these albums appeared in 1969 (January, July and December), which was a potent year for the group.

Unhalfbricking (1969)

This was considered a bridging album for Fairport Convention, one that saw them begin to move from slightly bluesy, slightly psychedelic rock to folk rock. It was only a partial move, however, and there are huge dollops of Americana present, mainly in the shape of the as yet unreleased Bob Dylan tracks (one from The Basement Tapes) that are covered - four tracks in total. So, it cannot really be called a folk rock album at all, in the way that their next album, Liege And Lief, can be, or indeed the one after that, Full House. It is a breezy, airy and harmonious rock-ish album with definite folk ambience in places. It is an album which seeps into your consciousness with each play.

Genesis Hall is an atmospheric folk-ish rock number with Sandy Denny's ethereal vocal at its haunting best. The drum sound is insistent and strong. Si Tu Dois Partir takes Bob Dylan's If You Gotta Go, Go Now and turns it into an accordion-driven Cajun-sounding stomp, with the lyrics sung in French. Autopsy is a deliciously rhythmic but mysterious number with another breathy vocal. There are folk influences at play here but not in the traditional folk ballad style, this is a slow-paced rock song that sounds folky. The drums, from Martin Lamble, tragically killed in a motor accident soon after the album's recording, are superb. He was only 19.

The ten minutes plus of A Sailor's Life is the real pointer to future material. It is haunting, almost mystical tale of historical seafaring, sung in typically ghostly fashion by Denny against a slow, rumbling guitar, bass and percussion backing. After three minutes the guitar, bass, drum and violin interplay is sublime. There is a quiet, insistent dignity to this addictive ballad. It was pretty ground breaking stuff in terms of folk rock, being a lot different from the country styles of the American equivalent. This took ancient Celtic musical traditions as its foundations. Check out the bit where they truly rock out around 6:45. All of a sudden they've turned into Led Zeppelin. Outstanding.

The upbeat, lively strains of Cajun Woman is the second example of Cajun influence (not too many albums, certainly in the UK, had such a thing in 1969). It sits a bit incongruously with the rest of the album, however, in its complete difference. You would expect Creedence Clearwater Revival to do this, not Fairport Convention. Denny delivers an enthusiastic vocal and the fiddle is as enthusiastic as you would expect. 
Who Knows Where The Time Goes brings the pace down on a beautiful, reflective number that is driven along by some subtle, melodic bass. The vocal is lovely. There are hints of Fleetwood Mac's Albatross in the instrumentation. Now it's time for some DylanPercy's Song is a wonderful ballad-style narrative number that sounds a traditional song. It builds up wonderfully, verse by verse. Million Dollar Bash is suitably invigorating and enjoyable. This is where the original album ended, which was a shame, because the excellent cover of Dear Landlord, from John Wesley Harding was worthy of inclusion. The same applies to the inspiring cover of The ByrdsThe Ballad Of Easy Rider.

As I said, this was nowhere near as folk rock an album as Liege And Lief or Full House. It sort of stands on its own, stylistically, difficult to pigeonhole.

Liege And Lief (1969)

Fairport Convention’s most “folk rock” album , from 1969, in that it used traditional British and Celtic ballads (in the way that Steeleye Span were to subsequently do) far more on this album than on the previous three, which did, of course, have their folky moments, but also had blues rock influences and had several Bob Dylan covers floating around. This album was ground-breaking, though, it led the way for the likes of Steeleye Span (who would soon feature Ashley Hutchings from Fairport), Pentangle and Fotheringay (who would feature Fairport’s vocalist Sandy Denny).
This, from the first track, the rousing Come All Ye, this is very much folk rock all the way - fiddles, drums and electric guitars merging perfectly, topped off by Sandy Denny’s soaring voice. It also has some excellent rock guitar bits on it. Reynardine is beautiful - a haunting vocal against a stark, atmospheric guitar and keyboard and lone cymbal backing. Matty Groves is a traditional, tragic ballad concerning young Matty Groves who dallied with the lady of a Lord and got killed for his trouble, in a duel with the Lord, who then kills his unfaithful wife. It is one of those classic folk rock narratives that is lengthy and has some excellent musical passages in between the verses. The upbeat guitar, fiddle and drum passage in the middle of the song, (after the lyrics have been completed), that continues at a pace until its end is outstanding. 

Richard Thompson’s Farewell, Farewell is a short but beautiful ballad, while The Deserter is a harrowing, sad tale of a deserting soldier, sung against a solid, powerful rock beat. The drums are potently used here. No folk drums, it is a traditional rock drum kit. The instrumental folk medley is exactly as you would expect (Steeleye Span would go on to do so many of these) - fiddles to the fore against an exhilarating, frantic drum backing. The second air, Rakish Paddy, is Irish in derivation, and really sounds it. These airs are exciting and fun, providing a tuneful interlude.

Tam Lin is a traditional ballad from the Scottish Borderlands concerning a common theme - a young girl seduced in the forest by a possibly ethereal being, or was it a mortal man? Who knows. Either way she ended up “with child” from her journey in the forest. It has an insistent, chugging rock backing, a wonderful, crystal clear vocal from Sandy Denny and some killer violin in the middle from the legendary Dave Swarbrick.

Crazy Man Michael is a laid-back, mysterious song featuring, again, some affecting fiddle and yet another quality vocal. Sir Patrick Spens is another ballad originating in the Scottish Borders. It is a seafaring song and has immaculate backing again. The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood is a mournful, stark, sparsely backed and mysterious ending to the album. It does go on way too long though, to be honest.

Fairport Convention would go to make many, many more albums, but none quite as close to folk rock perfection as this one.

Full House (1970)

This was one of British folk rock’s finest moments influencing many groups thereafter such as Steeleye SpanThe Albion Country BandThe Strawbs and Pentangle. Of course, there were several of the musicians from this album scattered around subsequently on albums by those groups. It featured a strong electric guitar and rock drum sound and followed on from the successful Liege And Lief album. This time, however, the group had no female vocalist, as Sandy Denny had left to form Fotheringay. The line up was Dave SwarbrickRichard ThompsonDave PeggDave Mattacks and Simon Nicol.

If anything this was a more powerful, rock-driven album than its predecessor. While that album was culturally more important, maybe this was actually the better one. It was certainly one of the best folk rock albums of all time.

Walk Awhile is a lively and melodic opener, a typical folk rock song of the era. Lots of acoustic guitars, merged with electric riffs and harmonious shared vocals. There is some killer violin on it too. In places it is almost like folk psychedelia in its swirling rock instrumentation. Doctor Of Physick is a narrative tale of a girl telling her doctor she “woke up and can’t find her maidenhead…”. Oh dear, who can have come a-visiting after dark? It sounds so much like a traditional ballad, lyrically, but it is actually a Thompson-Swarbrick composition. It is the album’s most Steeleye Span-sounding number. Dirty Linen is an appealing jig of an instrumental with the usual changes of pace throughout its time.

Sloth is simply electric folk of the highest quality, featuring some storming, stabbing electric guitar over a solid rock drum beat. It lasts over nine minutes. Check out that delicious deep, but subtle bass line too. It is a song packed full of atmosphere and folky gravitas. It took folk rock to a new level. A new version of Sir Patrick Spens - featuring once again on an album - is a violin-driven tale of a sailor, who, unsurprisingly, perhaps, drowns at sea. It is a Scottish ballad from those collated by Francis Child. It features some sumptuous folk violin. Great drums too. 

Flatback Caper is a jaunty piece of extended fiddle instrumental backed by some rhythmic drums. It again changes pace several times over its six minutes or so. Poor Will And The Jolly Hangman is a sombre narrative played out over another impressively strong folk rock backing. We are encouraged by Thompson and Swarbrick to raise our glasses to the jolly hangman. Not so sure about that. Richard Thompson kicked up a fuss about his guitar solo, which he didn’t like and tried to get the track taken off the album. The eventual album found it replaced by Flowers Of The Forest. It was re-added to later releases of the album, thankfully. Nit picking, precious folkies, eh? The afore-mentioned Flowers Of The Forest is a gentle, traditional, bucolic folk number that ends the original album. Beneath its apparently peaceful theme, however lies a Scottish lament about English lies and deception.

** The bonus tracks include the hymnal sounding Now Be Thankful; an instrumental whose title was so long because it was an attempt to get into The Guinness Book Of Records so I will just refer to it as Sir B. Mackenzie’s Daughter and Bonny Bunch Of Roses, a nine minute slow ballad about The Irish, Napoleon Bonaparte and England, Scotland and Wales in the 19th century and their turbulent relationships. It is an anonymous ballad written by someone with Irish sympathies, one would presume, from both its lyrics and indeed its lilting but mournful melody. As I said, one of British folk rock's seminal albums.

"Babbacombe" Lee (1971)

This was the first "folk rock opera" or "folk concept album" as such. Released in 1971, it threw Fairport Convention's fans somewhat in that it was a series of narrative songs detailing the life of John "Babbacombe" Lee, a Victorian murderer convicted to hang but reprieved because the gallows failed to work properly three times. A quite incredible story of good fortune for a man who was probably a pretty unsavoury character, yet gains our sympathy throughout the album. Lee brutally murdered his landlady, yet bizarrely I find myself feeling sorry for him as his tale is narrated.
The group is now all-male and the vocals are all strong, vibrant and harmonious, sung in that traditional English, rural real ale-drinking, bearded "folk" style. It is an atmospheric, interesting album and the instrumentation is lively and impressive on the fiddle-dominated, upbeat numbers such as the two parts of I Was Sixteen and the sailor's hornpipe jollity of St. Ninian's Isle which sounds very like the theme tune to sixties children's TV show Captain Pugwash.

Sailor's Alphabet is another seafaring song. There is a lot of these type of songs, as Lee was a Devonian and had a navy background in his early life. It has a great fiddle solo on it near the end. John Lee features some electric guitar jangling riffage and proper rock drums. There is some fetching guitar on Breakfast In Mayfair.

The old "side two" sees the "John Babbacombe Lee" refrain repeated a lot through the rocky Trial Song and there is a moving, plaintive song about Lee's incarceration, Cell Song, that features a lovely fiddle solo. 
The punchy The Time Is Near is powerful and haunting. Once again, some killer fiddle enhances the song. Dream Song has a sumptuous bass line and some Beatles-esque ethereal vocals. The final song Wake Up John (Hanging Song) has the by now ubiquitous fiddle virtuosity as we hear of Lee's remarkable survival.

After the successes of Liege And Lief and Angel Delight, the album sold disappointingly. Obviously the concept did not take off. That is sort of understandable, although I quite like it and dig it out every year or so for a pleasant enough listen, like watching an old film every now and again.

Related posts :-
Steeleye Span
Bob Dylan

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