Fairport Convention Reinvention

John Kelman BY

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While British folk-rock progenitor Fairport Convention was never less than mercurial — with a revolving door of band members that began with its first, self-titled, recording and continues to this day—there have also been clearly defined periods where, despite personnel changes, distinct identities would emerge. And while many look back most fondly and consider the band's halcyon days to be those that included singer/songwriter Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson—an equally significant singer/songwriter, but perhaps even more notable for his original approach to guitar, which blended the visceral Celtic phrasing of Northumbrian pipes master Billy Pigg with the rock and roll sensibility of Chuck Berry—the group not only managed to survive the loss of both (although one would return; more about that later), but would ultimately release one of the finest albums of its extensive discography, Nine.

While Denny's departure following '69s classic Liege and Lief was a significant loss, the recruitment of fiddler/mandolinist/singer Dave Swarbrick on their previous disc, Unhalfbricking, and his increasing involvement on Liege and Lief, meant that there was already a significant new voice in the group to help fill the gap. And when Fairport's next album Full House was released in '70, it was immediately clear that Thompson's greater role as singer/songwriter, and Swarbrick's equally important contribution, while not minimizing the loss of Denny, pointed to a new identity that linked Fairport even closer to the British folk tradition, both through traditional pieces like "Dirty Linen" and "Flatback Caper," but more importantly through a number of Thompson/Swarbrick collaborations that have since gone on to become classics in the Fairport repertoire, including "Walk Awhile," "Sir Patrick Spens," and the epic "Sloth."

Thompson's sudden departure after Full House to pursue a solo career was, perhaps, an even more monumental blow to the group than Denny's, since he represented the triple threat of lead guitarist, vocalist and one-half of the collaborative writing team with Swarbrick that was already asserting the band's increasingly-distinctive personality as a truly British group, in contrast to their early days, where they interpreted material from American writers including Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.

With Thompson's departure, Fairport continued on as a four-piece, featuring guitarist/vocalist Simon Nicol in a more prominent role alongside Swarbrick, with the rhythm section of bassist Dave Pegg and drummer Dave Mattacks lending distinctive arrangement ideas to traditional material and new original songs. Still, both their '71 releases, Angel Delight and the concept album Babbacombe Lee—while clearly having their own charms and managing to remain indefinably and distinctly Fairport—felt as though they were missing something. Nicol emerged as a unique and powerful rhythm guitarist and a strong lead vocalist, but was unable to deliver the kind of solos that could maintain the kind of surprisingly open-ended improvisational approach achieved when Swarbrick and Thompson were in free flight on extended pieces like "Sloth."

Still, when Nicol left the band after Babbacombe Lee, the group was thrown into further disarray. With only Swarbrick, Pegg and Mattacks remaining, the group needed a serious infusion of new blood if they were to survive.

Meanwhile, Sandy Denny had not only released her first self-titled album, but also joined the cooperative group Fotheringay, which featured Australian singer/songwriter Trevor Lucas, whom Denny would ultimately marry, and American ex-pat guitarist Jerry Donahue. Donahue's roots in American country music coupled with an uncanny ability to marry his banjo-like finger picking, frightening string bends and compositional approach to soloing with Denny's traditional British folk roots represented a significant new guitar voice on the British scene.

With the British folk scene being a relatively close circle, it was no big surprise when, following the break-up of Fotheringay, Swarbrick, Pegg and Mattacks recruited both Donahue and Lucas for what would ultimately become Fairport Convention's eighth album, Rosie. While inconsistent, as the group tried to re-establish its identity there were some high points that demonstrated the new line-up had potential, notably the tender title track and the traditional medley, "The Hens March Through the Midden & The Four Poster Bed," where it was clear that a chemistry was emerging, especially between Swarbrick and Donahue '" the first time that the group would have a strong front line since Thompson's departure two years earlier.

Fairport Convention
Island Remaster IMCD310/982 796-6
2005 (1973)

So when Fairport entered the studio to record their next album, Nine, there was a renewed sense of energy and purpose. With a powerful front line, Lucas' deep baritone an effective contrast to Swarbrick's tenor, and compositions coming in from Swarbrick, Donahue, Pegg and Lucas, the group was positioned to record an album that has ultimately been under-appreciated but deserves to be considered amongst their strongest efforts. The group would go on to record two more records, with Sandy Denny returning for Fairport Live Convention and the follow-up studio album, Rising For the Moon, before the group would, once again, find itself in disarray. And with Island Records' Remasters Series reissuing beautifully remastered versions of all three albums with additional bonus tracks, it's a good time to re-evaluate this period in Fairport Convention's development, and recognize it for its significant contribution to the group's overall history. Jerry Donahue provides informative liner notes to put each album in context within Fairport's overall timeline, and there are plenty of new photos as well.

Of the three releases, Nine is unquestionably the jewel; strong from start to finish, it manages to reference the group's history through traditional songs like "The Hexhamshire Lass"—where the group takes an almost naively simply song and turns it into a tour de force of complicated arrangement that nevertheless flows effortlessly — while creating new classics, including Lucas' "Bring 'Em Down," which would become a highlight of their live performances, with Donahue and Swarbrick finally creating a creative and telepathic improvisational élan that hadn't been heard from Fairport since Full House.

Dave Mattacks has been known to call Nine Fairport's Heavy Weather, referring to fusion group Weather Report's best selling album from '77. While there was a world of difference between the two groups in terms of the music they created, from a production perspective, there were links as well.

For one thing, while the group managed to retain a remarkably "live" feel, the result of the material being so well-prepared that the basic tracks were recorded in short order at the start of the sessions, Nine arguably featured more production work than any previous Fairport release. As Donahue explains in his liner notes to the remastered edition, no idea was considered unapproachable. During the second verse of Donahue's short but dazzling instrumental, "Tokyo," he overdubbed his guitar part a second time, but with the tape running at half speed, so that when it was ultimately played against the original track it would be an octave above, effectively emulating a hammered dulcimer. Donahue's mind-boggling overdubbed guitar solo on the album closer, the Lucas-penned country-rocker "Possibly Parsons Green," is not just a highlight of Nine, it stands alongside Richard Thompson's best solos on earlier Fairport albums as a classic rock solo by any definition and in any context.

And while it seems as though there was an incredible attention to every detail on the record—whether it be how long a vocal phrase would sustain at the end of a verse or finding innovative ways to vary the rhythmic emphasis of a song to generate more interest — it never feels contrived. The best productions feel organic, and despite the broad array of studio invention Fairport used on Nine, it never feels anything other than completely natural.

The session also inspired performances that, on one hand, seemed out-of-character while, at the same time, making perfect sense in the overall continuum of the band members' stylistically broader purview. While Swarbrick's rough-edged fiddle is all over tunes like the powerful ballad, "Polly on the Shore" and the traditional instrumental "The Brilliancy Medley & Cherokee Shuffle," his impressionistic playing during the solo section of "Bring 'Em Down" is of a nature that must have surprised his fans at the time. Nine isn't jazz by any means, but there's a looser sense of experimentation that links it in aesthetic if not in style.

The bonus tracks include a studio version of "The Devil in the Kitchen (Fiddlestix)," a short instrumental that would prove to be a highlight of their follow-up recording, Fairport Live Convention. While it's interesting to hear, it's also a warning that one can go too far with production—a lesson that would have been well-heeded for Rising for the Moon. The edge of the live version on Fairport Live Convention is replaced with massive overdubs, and while the tune is never less than impressive, it inevitably comes a distant second.

The other three tracks are from a '73 live performance, and include a live take on Lucas' country ballad, "Pleasure and Pain," as well as versions of Bob Dylan's "George Jackson" and the Green/Montgomery staple, "Six Days on the Road." For the first time since Sandy Denny left Fairport in '69, the group was back to reinterpreting American folk music, and while the versions are solid enough, they feel somehow out of place with the imagination so clearly demonstrated throughout the original material of Nine.

Fairport Convention
Fairport Live Convention
Island Remaster IMCD311/982 796-8
2005 (1974)

As successful as Nine was, in terms of using the studio as almost an equal member, Fairport's reputation as a live band had always been equally, if not more important. With all of Fairport's current members working on Sandy Denny's solo album, Like an Old Fashioned Waltz, it just seemed like the right move to have her rejoin the band. While Fairport Live Convention didn't see the introduction of any truly new material—other than "Fiddlestix," the version on the reissued Nine having been previously recorded and released in Australia, and "Sir B. MacKenzie," an older instrumental piece from the Full House days by Swarbrick, Mattacks, Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol—it's still a strong album, as indicative of the breadth of Fairport's reach at the time, with three strong singers, an inventive instrumental front line and more writing potential than any Fairport line-up to date.

The only unfortunate aspect of the original release of Fairport Live Convention was that it didn't represent any of the material from Nine, but fortunately, for this reissue, Island Records has added nearly 30 minutes of additional music from a '74 performance in Sydney, Australia, including versions of "The Hexhamshire Lass," "Polly on the Shore" and "Bring 'Em Down" that proved just how capable Fairport was in translating the studio inventions of Nine into a live context.

The original release of Fairport Live Convention had a couple of missteps, specifically the Christopher Kenner soul tune, "Something You Got" and Dylan's "Down in the Flood." When placed in context of strong performances of Fairport classics like "Sloth" and "Matty Groves," one wonders why they didn't stick with the British-centric material that, by this time, was really both their strength and defining characteristic. The three instrumentals—including a version of "Fiddlestix" that put the studio version to shame, with both Donahue and Swarbrick in truly staggering form, and the medleys "Dirty Linen" from Full House and the aforementioned "Sir B. MacKenzie"—continue to demonstrate how energetic and inventive they were. Swarbrick's take on "Rosie" turns the tune into an anthem that continues to be played at Fairport's annual Cropredy Festival whenever he sits in. Denny's "John the Gun" supersedes the version on her The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, with Donahue's supporting lines and Swarbrick's processed fiddle raising the temperature throughout.

In addition to the three bonus live tracks from Nine's repertoire—with "Bring 'Em Down" joining "Sloth" and "Matty Groves" as a true show-stopper—there is a relatively lacklustre version of John Prine's "Far From Me" and a soulless take on Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day" that really should never have been included. While there's no question that Fairport Convention have always been informed by rock and roll, when they actually get down to performing a bonafide rock and roll tune, they invariably fall flat. Still, out of a live album that has been expanded to nearly 78 minutes, well over an hour of it is classic Fairport, with material dating as far back as Liege and Lief and as recent as Nine proving that this incarnation was as vital and creative as the classic Thompson/Swarbrick/Denny line-up.

Fairport Convention
Rising for the Moon
Island Remaster IMCD312/982 796-7
2005 (1975)

Unfortunately, while this expanded version of Fairport was as, in many ways, as good as it got, it was not to last. With the recruitment of Glyn Johns—a producer who was responsible for classic recordings by groups including The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, The Who and The Clash—Fairport was looking for new ideas for their next project, Rising for the Moon and they got them—but, unfortunately, not all of them were good ones.

While Nine was equally a studio creation, it still felt vibrant and alive. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, Rising for the Moon suffers from the kind of excessive over-production that literally sucks the life out of what could have been a much better record. Part of the problem was within the group itself. Gone were any traces of traditional British folk music, as were contributions by Swarbrick—with the exception of the curious collaboration with Pegg, "Night-Time Girl," that felt completely out of character, and the Ralph McTell/Swarbrick "White Dress" which, while pretty enough, lacked the kind of compositional strength of Swarbrick's best work.

Additionally, there was dissention in the ranks. While Fairport was seeing many of its contemporaries reach greater levels of popular acceptance; they remained something of a niche band, struggling to make ends meet from album-to-album, and tour-to-tour. Hopelessness began to set in, with Mattacks the first to succumb; leaving the band after a tour that followed some of the sessions for the new album. Mattacks' ability to combine both a deceptive simplicity with an imaginative ability for rhythmic displacement that elevated even the simplest of songs—not to mention his instantly recognizable drum sound—would prove impossible to replace.

The difference between the tracks that feature Mattacks—specifically the Denny/Donahue collaboration "Dawn," with Donahue's evocative 7/4 figure separating Denny's melancholy verses, and Denny's "One More Chance," another defining Fairport Convention moment that, despite Rising for the Moon's shortcomings, is worth the price of admission—and those with new drummer Bruce Rowland is impossible to ignore. Rowland is a capable enough drummer, but lacks the kind of musical personality and presence to lend the music its own character; a good timekeeper, but nothing more.

But even the better tracks like "One More Chance" suffer from Johns' over-production, which include unusual mixing choices. The second half of the tune is essentially a showcase for Donahue, and yet his guitar is so heavily-treated with reverb that it is, at times, lost amidst everything that is going on around it, and that's a shame, because it demonstrates a different side to Donahue's playing that is in contrast to his more countrified image on Nine.

Overall it's Denny's writing that ultimately saves the day. "Stranger to Himself" and "After Halloween" are both lyrically rich and musically more personal than Lucas' rock-and-roll aspiration of "Iron Lion" and predictable folksiness of "Restless." But with the few noted exceptions, the whole album feels somehow flat. A decent folk-rock album, but lacking the kind of distinction that lent Fairport its own unique complexion.

"Tears," another Lucas original that is the first of four bonus tracks and was the B-side of the single "White Dress," is another generic piece of countrified folk. More interesting, however, are the remaining bonus tracks, which are solo demo versions of the title track, "Stranger to Himself" and "One More Chance." The title track is good, but her solo versions of "Stranger to Himself" and "One More Chance" are, along with about half the original release, what really make this reissue worth the investment. Denny had the uncanny ability to be both powerful and vulnerable at the same time, and nowhere is this more evident than when she performed solo. That Denny would ultimately suffer an untimely death in '78 from injuries resulting from a fall, means that any glimpses available into her writing process are worth hearing, and the demo tracks on this expanded reissue of Rising for the Moon are absolutely worth having. Coincidentally, and equally tragically, Lucas would also die, in '89 at the age of 46 from heart failure.

And so these three reissues are, in many ways, a self-contained unit of a specific point in time for Fairport Convention. Following Rising for the Moon Donahue would return to the US, Denny would continue on with her solo career until her untimely death, as would Lucas. The remaining trio of Swarbrick, Pegg and Rowland would go on to record '76's Gottle O'Geer, with Simon Nicol rejoining for '77's Bonny Bunch of Roses, '78's Tippler's Tales, and the '79 live album Farewell, Farewell, which would be the curtain call for Fairport Convention.

Well, almost. While the group retired from recording after Farewell, Farewell, they would begin an annual festival event in Cropredy, near Dave Pegg's home, that continued to build in success year-after-year, ultimately convincing Pegg, Mattacks and Nicol to reconvene in '85 for their first studio effort in seven years, Gladys' Leap. The trio would recruit violinist Ric Sanders, beginning a new era for the group that, while never reaching the kind of creative highs seen during their run from '69 through '75, has seen them finally evolve into a self-reliant cottage industry of sorts and, despite continued personnel shifts including Mattacks leaving for good in '97, has kept their own personal brand of British folk/rock alive and well into the 21st century.

Visit Fairport Convention on the web.

Personnel and track listings


Personnel: Jerry Donahue (electric and acoustic guitars); Trevor Lucas (acoustic guitar, vocals); Dave Mattacks (drums, percussion, keyboards, bass guitar); Dave Pegg (bass guitar, mandolin, vocals); Dave Swarbrick (violin, viola, mandolin, vocals).

Tracks: The Hexhamshire Lass; Polly on the Shore; The Brilliancy Medley & Cherokee Shuffle; To Althea from Prison; Tokyo; Bring 'Em Down; Big William; Pleasure & Pain; Possibly Parsons Green. Bonus Tracks: The Devil in the Kitchen (Fiddlestix); George Jackson; Pleasure & Pain; Six Days on the Road.

Fairport Live Convention

Personnel: Jerry Donahue (electric guitar); Trevor Lucas (acoustic guitar, vocals); Dave Mattacks (drums); Dave Pegg (bass guitar, mandolin, vocals); Dave Swarbrick (violin, mandolin, vocals); Sandy Denny (piano, acoustic guitar, vocals).

Tracks: Matty Groves; Rosie; Fiddlestix; John the Gun; Something You Got; Sloth; Dirty Linen; Down in the Flood; Sir B. MacKenzie. Bonus Tracks: The Hexhamshire Lass; Polly on the Shore; Bring 'Em Down; Far From Me; That'll Be the Day.

Rising for the Moon

Personnel: Jerry Donahue (electric, acoustic and slide guitars); Trevor Lucas (acoustic guitar, vocals, harmonica); Dave Mattacks (drums, percussion); Dave Pegg (bass guitar, electric guitar, backing vocals); Dave Swarbrick (fiddle, viola, mandolin, autoharp, acoustic guitar, dulcimer, vocals); Sandy Denny (piano, acoustic guitar, electric piano, vocals); Bruce Rowland (drums, percussion).

Tracks: Rising for the Moon; Restless; White Dress; Let It Go; Stranger to Himself; What is True?; Iron Lion; Dawn; After Halloween; Night-Time Girl; One More Chance. Bonus Tracks: Tears; Rising for the Moon (Denny demo); Stranger to Himself (Denny demo); One More Chance (Denny demo).

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