Album Review

Now Be Thankful for Fairport Convention

Fairport Convention - Come All Ye

“Come all ye rolling minstrels, and together we will try to rouse the spirit of the earth…” as goes the Fairport Convention anthem and title of this magnificent seven CD set of 131 tracks. And they do. Released tomorrow, July 28, Come All Ye is a comprehensive selection of Fairport Convention’s first ten years’s work during which they established themselves as the UK’s pre-eminent folk-rock band, having pretty much invented the genre. This year they marked fifty years since forming and they are going strong, touring regularly including their own festival. 

Why, I hear you ask, should No Depression readers be interested in a bunch of old English folk- rockers, far less consider buying seven CD’s worth of music made over forty years ago? Because this is roots music; not only did Fairport create its own deep roots in traditional English songs but in their early years they drew most inspiration from what was going on in America; the Byrds, the Band, Jefferson Airplane and particularly Bob Dylan. 

Fairport Convention started off in London in 1967 and over the past fifty years have had more line-up changes than just about any band I can think of. Rarely did the same group make two consecutive albums. There are some stalwarts and many fine musicians, sadly not all with us, that have left their indelible mark. The first ten years was much the band’s most creative. Started by Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol and drummer Shaun Frater playing their local “underground” venues then joined by one of the greatest voices ever, Sandy Denny, who died tragically so young. The first ten years saw the band move from being England’s Jefferson Airplane to the country’s finest folk-rock band that spawned many offshoots. Latterly they again fused wider influences, coming from country and bluegrass as the fluid line-up kept changing.

Inevitably the track list on such a collection as Come All Ye will be contested. Why is that in twice but that wasn't included at all? Well maybe, but I see this not as a chronicle that leaves out not a single detail but a celebration. Sure, if pushed I do wonder about some of the selections and uneven exposure of the band’s most influential contributors (thinking Ian Matthews here) and there are some surprising omissions just as there are some that hardly merit inclusion, much less repetition. But, on balance, for purist and generalist alike there is much to savour. Whether you dip in and out or start at the beginning, Come All Ye gives a faithful account of this group’s prodigious range. The liner notes take you through it all well, again these aren't a court record but Patrick Humphries’ love for his subject is palpable and form a valuable complement.

Discs one and two are largely the West Coast Fairport Convention. Opening track ‘Time Will Show The Wiser’ with Richard Thompson’s jangly guitar could be from San Francisco. The other songs from the eponymously titled first album continue in the same vein. Sandy Denny’s arrival brings a strong Dylan influence; not only in her covers on the later live sets but in their own compositions, 'Si Tu Doir Partir' on disc two is derived from 'If You Gotta Go, Go Now'. The version here is from a radio show hosted by John Peel, a great champion of new ideas. That’s what I like best about Come All Ye, it’s not all album tracks but contains a range of either obscure or previously unreleased versions from radio, television or live. 

Liege & Lief is surely Fairport’s finest hour. This record, their third in 1969 was born out of tragedy as the band recovered from the loss of two close members in a car crash. It was the first record where traditional dominated, the influence of Ashley Hutchings and his deep knowledge of English folk melding with the arrival of fiddler Dave Swarbrick and Richard Thompson’s compositions and interpretation of old songs. The album is well represented with ‘Reynardine’ and ‘Farewell Farewell’ but where Come All Ye excels is in selecting less well known versions. The title track comes from Liege & Lief but here we have an alternative take from a Sandy Denny collection. 

The alt selection continues with the next phase in the band’s decade. This is after Denny has left and Fairport have moved towards a more direct folk-rock style with a solid core of instrumentals led by Swarbrick’s virtuoso fiddle playing and new bassist Dave Pegg, who is still with the band. ‘Walk Awhile’ is from a live show as is another furiously paced jig, ‘Sir B McKenzie’. 

Part of their pioneering approach was to make the first folk-rock opera, 'Babbacome Lee’ about ‘the man they couldn't hang’. After three tries he was pardoned. The album tells his strange tale.

Discs four and five bring in a new strand with the arrival of Trevor Lucas then Jerry Donahue. Lucas took over on vocals with an easy deep, almost country feel while Donahue’s picking again added a new, more international dimension to Fairport’s now heavily trad. staple. Rosie and Nine are the albums featured here but again much of the material is previously unreleased. This time not all are as good as the album e.g. two versions of ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’ seem a bit generous but I did like the unreleased ‘Possibly Parsons Green’. Sandy Denny rejoined for Rising For the Moon on disc five returning from full-on folk-rock to a much gentler feel. After that, reflecting Denny’s loss, the band struggled and it shows. The rest of the disc is the least memorable of all seven.

The final two discs contain a live show each. Although there are ten years to choose from, these are from consecutive years; Fairfield Hall, Croydon in December 1973 then scarcely three months later at the LA Troubadour. These are perfect choices as the first is the Swarbrick/Lucas/Donahue mix then Denny returns and what a venue to play a mix of traditional and the influences that started the band. This is infinitely better than Fairport Live Convention released later in 1974 and a great final disc for this collection. Highlights range from ‘Hexhamshire Lass’, with Swarb on fire to 'Knocking on Heaven's Door', ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, (if Sandy Denny doesn't bring tears to your eyes you're made of stone) and 'Six Days on the Road”. Then its back to to folk with the classic ‘Matty Groves’ and to prove Fairport can do anything, ‘That’ll Be the Day’.

I know I’ve missed out some songs that deserve comment but that is just the point of a compilation like Come All Ye, there’s so much material and if it’s not the version we've grown up with, these seven discs show what a lot there is still to discover from this fifty year old.