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24 February, 2004

Review: several albums by Fairport Convention

I discovered Fairport Convention in the mid-90s via the Jethro Tull connection, which was particularly strong at that time.  All but one member of Fairport had also recorded and appeared live with Tull in recent years (Dave 'Peggy' Pegg 1979-95, Martin 'Maart' Allcock 1988-91, Ric Sanders 1991, Dave 'DM' Mattacks 1992).  Fairport had also supported Tull on tour in 1987 and '88, whilst Ian Anderson and Martin Barre had appeared with Fairport at their Cropredy Festivals in 1987 & '89.

If only to satisfy my curiosity, I tried a Fairport album. I'm sure it was 'Jewel In The Crown' (1995), though until writing this I thought I'd found them earlier than that! I quite liked it, but wasn't immediately overwhelmed. I heard more Fairport material on unofficial Tull concert recordings, so tried another album: 'In Real Time' (1987), and was hooked. 'The Hiring Fair' immediately became, and remains, one of my all-time favourite songs (I mean by any artist, not just Fairport), and I still regard that rendition as 'definitive'.
I gradually acquired a few more albums, branched out to discover Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson (I might discuss them in a separate posting, but for now I'll just recommend them), and saw Fairport live on three occasions. This aspect of my musical education led me to Steeleye Span, Maddy Prior, June Tabor and a couple of other UK folk-rock artists, but 'trad folk' has never done much for me, nor US folk artists; the alleged attraction of Bob Dylan is a total mystery to me.

It would take too long to go into great detail, but the following are (very) brief reviews of those albums I own. I don't have the earliest albums (inspired by US folk of the late 1960s, which I don't like), nor the mid-70s albums (which, from out-takes and concert recordings, I've found not to my taste)

'Liege & Lief' (1969)
Just a classic - one of the most influential albums of at least the half-century. Irrespective of personal taste, the importance of Fairport, and specifically this album, in defining the folk-rock genre can't be overstated.
I don't feel the urge to actually play it very often, though....

''Babbacombe' Lee' (1971)
A folk-rock concept album. That's progressive of them.... Pretty good; not great.

'History Of' (1972)
A good cross-section of early Fairport. I wouldn't normally rate a compilation highly, as it's usually preferable to buy the original albums, but I feel the early albums were patchy anyway, so the exercise of picking out the highlights is worthwhile.

'Gottle O' Geer' (1976)
Rather depressing. Though technically as good as they'd ever been, in terms of creativity, Fairport were dead in the water in the mid 70s.

'Gladys' Leap' (1985)
Not so much a return to early form, more a virtually new band! Though more 'adult contemporary' than what most might call 'folk' (as if labels matter), and lacking the magic ingredients of Denny (RIP) and Thompson, this is a really enjoyable album. Highlight: 'The Hiring Fair', my all-time favourite Fairport song.
Writing this inspired me to play the album again for the first time in several months, maybe over a year. Surprisingly, I didn't enjoy it as much as I remember. I can't decide whether that's due to familiarity, or a shift in my taste, towards, 'darker', 'harder' music.

'In Real Time' (1987)
Excellent; some of Fairport's most popular songs, in a live setting.
Though the album features crowd applause between songs, this material was all played live in the studio, not on stage - the crowd noise, recorded at a festival, was added later!
This is the album generally recommended as a starting place for those new to Fairport; I'd echo that advice.

'Red & Gold' (1988)
Might be called 'Gladys' Leap Part 2', as I can't really distinguish them. In fact, I believe the two albums were re-released as a single package.
This 'more of the same' comment isn't a criticism - they're both very good, and the title track is another example of Ralph McTell writing well for the Fairport sound (just to clarify for those who don't have the album: McTell wrote some of Fairport's best songs, but doesn't play on their albums)

'The Five Seasons' (1990)
Rather disappointing after the foregoing albums, I haven't played this more than 3 or 4 times in years.

'Jewel In The Crown' (1995)
Another excellent album in the vein of 'Gladys' Leap' and 'Red and Gold'. I like it, though only 'casually', as indicated by the fact I originally tried it on tape, and have never bothered to upgrade to CD.

'Old New Borrowed Blue' (1996)
To be pedantic, this album is by Fairport Acoustic Convention - Simon, Peggy, Ric & Maart without DM on drums or keyboards. It's a combination of about 50% new material (almost universally excellent) and 50% a live album of typical Fairport material without the drums.

'Who Knows Where The Time Goes?' (1997)
For me, the point where it all started to go downhill. With the loss of Maart and arrival of Chris Leslie, there was less rock and more introspective ballads. There's nothing inherently 'wrong' with that, and the musicianship is as great as ever, but it's not really my thing.
The result still hangs together fairly well, but I'd say it's the last Fairport album that does (up to now, anyway!): their shark jump.

'The Wood & The Wire' (1999)
They're showing their age on this one! The long-term fans, who have aged along with the band, will probably enjoy this at least as much as earlier albums, but for those of us who are rather younger and approach Fairport from the folk-rock aspect rather than the trad folk/adult contemporary side, this seems a bit too cosy. As with the previous album, the standard of playing is high, and 4-5 of the 14 songs are great, but the subject matter of most tracks does little for me. This is as good as the best albums from many other bands (that I like!), but compared to earlier Fairport albums, it's slightly disappointing.
Last time I saw them, I knew they'd be playing some of this material, so I bought the album, but if I'd attended the concert first, I'm not sure that would have inspired me to buy it, and I haven't felt the urge to hear more.

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