Today’s Cool Album of the Day (#701 in the Series) is Fairport Convention, By Popular Request
Fairport Convention, in part to mark their 45th anniversary put us, their fanbase, to the voting box last year to surmise which 20 tracks they would like to see the current, and longest standing version of the band perform. A band which brought, among many other notables, Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny to the awareness of the musical world. Of these 20 tracks 13 were chosen, it is my intent to give a track by track assessment of this outing, one which surely may be placed alongside many of their other finest outings in their long history. You can see it below.
Fittingly the album opens with “Walk Awhile” first appearing in 1970 on Full House and indeed often a show opener right up until now. As much and possibly more than ever, the band is a well oiled machine in terms of professionalism, tending these days to be nearly strictly acoustic, and on this opening track, a particular nod to what I believe to be the mandolin of Chris Leslie as Dave Pegg is playing bass, both sparkling mando players. One of the drawbacks to having downloaded this in mp3 is I have no track information, and it does not appear to be accessible online. Generally I know who is playing what in this band, so it doesn’t matter too much.
To the extent there is a shortfall to this recording, it is in part evidenced by the next and a few other tracks, in that so perfect was the original recording in 1969 with Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson, that to some, though not full extent a reinterpretation could be seen as superfluous. The track is “Crazy Man Michael,” one of several from the pen of Richard Thompson, originally appearing on the seminal album of the British Folk Rock corridor, 1969′s Liege and Lief.
I will interject here that in no cases would I rate the songs appearing as being the superior of the original, however given the quality of the songs across the board this will still rate as possibly one of the ten Fairport records to own, hopefully in part as a signpost to the original material as well.
Checking in at the 3rd spot is what I would mark as one of the finest love songs in the Fairport repertoire,” The Hiring Fair” first appearing to my memory on 1985′s Gladys Leap, one penned by longtime friend and contributor, Ralph McTell who the folk world will know as will some others as a result of his 70′s tune “Streets of London.” On the other hand it is one that has seen several reinterpretations in the past 25 years, though this is another sparkling one. And in fairness there are those in the Fairport camp who head for the beer tent at Cropredy (Fairport’s longtime summer festival) at the sound of it. To put it bluntly, it’s basically the story of some guy who sees a honey as they are waiting to be hopefully hired for work on the farm, he gets to meet her by happenstance, and magic occurs under the moon. A lovely little yarn, and rare indeed is there a song better suited to Simon Nicol’s lovely and gentle baritone. Usually gentle, some notable exceptions!
I find one video interpretation of the piece, though moderately different from the one heard here, to follow the story line remarkably well…
At the 4th spot is seen “The Hexhamshire Lass,” first appearing on 1973′s Fairport Convention 9. It strikes me that this unit by this point probably can play telepathically, and this uptempo strut in search of the Lass allows the acoustic brilliance and interplay of the Fairports to really shine, with singing duties by Chris Leslie.
“Red and Gold” is the title track from their 1989 outing concerning an English Civil War, which happened not too far from where they hold their annual festival in Cropredy. I recall seeing this tour in both Long Beach CA and Chicago (I happened to be out in LA for a run of Dead shows, and lo and behold Fairport was in town!). Simon was giving us a small history lesson behind this song in Chicago, in a crowd that I believe included a lot of people who were friends of the bar, and had been drinking a lot, and they became more than a little restless and loud at times. I think it was Dave Mattacks who said to them, “Yeah I remember when I had my first beer too.”
Likely the one of these tracks I most wanted to see revisited, “Sir Patrick Spens” is the next batter up, originally appearing on 1970′s Full House. Again being a downloader I’m not sure who it is on mando, sure sounds like Peggy, but I guess he is on bass so gold stars to Chris. Across the board an excellent vehicle for all the nimble fingers in the band.
Yet the one next up is the track most changed in appearance. “Farewell Farewell,” another originally appearing on the gold standard Liege and Lief, and another from the still highly fertile brain of Richard Thompson. It is given at the beginning what I would identify as a chorale treatment. Amongst the changes includes what sounds to be a tin whistle, not sure who, but likely not their old musical associate Ian Anderson as I know his sound on any wind instrument. In any case truly lovely, what I will have to mark as the single finest effort on this collection. That they could record something this beautiful, and still have it not improve on the original, though certainly good enough to stand alongside it is quite a feather 43 years on, and quite a low bow to Liege and Lief. And this song has additional poignancy for me, as in one of life’s strange quirks this song happened to be playing on the internet radio Pandora when I received the call, albeit expected, of the passing of the most beloved person in my life. Made it impossible for me to play that album, conceivably the most played in my massive collection over 40 years, Liege and Lief, from whence it came for about 2 years.
“Rosie,” originally a ballad spot sung by original violinist Dave Swarbrick (aka Swarb) is one that is dear to a large swath of Fairport Fanatics. I like it well enough, it’s just not on my all time list. Having said that this rendition is done with tender care, and originally on the 1973 album of the same name. Still to me it has that sing-along quality of some folk music that somehow leaves me cold, seems too academic. I am reminded of a quote from Ian Anderson, who at one time or another has employed 4 of these 5 individuals, in which he says (circa 1989) and in part probably to pull Dave Pegg’s leg who was in the room and a member of both bands at the time, “I don’t like folk music. It reeks of duffel coats and students.” Later in the set he offered up Fairport Convention as his favorite band, so make of that what you will.
Now some might say, OMG, another “Matty Groves?” Actually probably not too many would say it, but very, very familiar. The acoustic treatment of it in itself makes it stand somewhat alone (this FC staple that dates back at least 500 years). But left to identify my favorite moments of the album more so than favorite song, it is Simon taking on the identity of the 3 participants towards the end of the song in a fashion I am quite sure I have not heard him do before, and it is very effective. You know the part, where mofo’s are about to get pinned up to the wall with a broadsword by point of emphasis. Ric Sanders, violinist in FC since ‘85, unleashes some quality salvos, I almost could see that sucker, the broadsword that is, flashing right by my neck.
A little surprising to me it that this is the first I have heard of Simon to address “Fotheringay,” as it seems right down his street vocally. A little diamond which made its first appearance on Fairport’s second album in early 1969, What We Did On Our Holidays, which also saw the departure of one wonderful voice, Judy Dyble for another steeped in the folk tradition which was Sandy Denny, a path Fairport was pursuing a little harder by this point, British folk in particular. Also the name taken on by the band the short lived Fotheringay, in 1970 which Sandy left Fairport for, recording another exquisite version of this song.
The title track of 1995′s Jewel in the Crown gets a reworking next, like Rosie, just not one that received my vote. Although a fine version, a tongue in cheek description of pride in country would be one relatively lame description.
Finally, it might be a case of messing with the Fairport juju to close with anything other than “Meet on the Ledge,” in terms of verbage as it sort of has a similar meaning that the words “Hey Now!” do to a Deadhead. Indeed one of the biographies written some time ago took this as its title, it almost always closes FC performances, not to mention being played at countless weddings and ever more regularly, funerals. Originally coming from, I can almost say who else but Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention 1967-71, but ever since he has remained just on the periphery, appearing at their annual fest at Cropredy, Oxfordshire most years since it started in 79.
Well done Fairport! I love you.
- Walk Awhile 4:22
- Crazy Man Michael 4:41
- The Hiring Fair 5:42
- The Hexhamshire Lass 2:30
- Red And Gold 6:42
- Sir Patrick Spens 3:34
- Genesis Hall 3:29
- Farewell Farewell 3:01
- Rosie 4:16
- Matty Groves 5:06
- Fotheringay 3:24
- Jewel In The Crown 3:32
- Meet On The Ledge 4:23
- Simon Nicol – guitar, lead vocal
- Dave Pegg – bass guitar, mandolin, backing vocal
- Ric Sanders – fiddles, occasional keyboards
- Chris Leslie – fiddle, mandolin, bouzouki, lead vocal
- Gerry Conway – drums and percussion