Tuesday, June 9, 2009
F - Fairport Convention - "Liege & Lief"
My obsession with Led Zeppelin during my teenage years awakened me to a whole host of seemingly unrelated elements: Aleister Crowley, fishing for sharks out of hotel room windows, Roy Harper, giving lip service reverence to blues pioneers while blatantly ripping them off wholesale, etc. The one I’m most grateful for was the introduction to the joys of Fairport Convention, which came about due to singer Sandy Denny duetting with Robert Plant on “The Battle of Evermore” off “Led Zeppelin IV”. I knew this song backwards & forwards for years before even learning the mysterious female singer’s name. By that point, I’d also heard about this great-underrated guitarist Richard Thompson who had come from the same band. At one of the many record conventions I attended during the late 80’s, I found a double LP compilation of theirs, and was enchanted immediately.
Fairport Convention played electric folk music with a decidedly British/Celtic feel to it. A cop out description would be to call them the English Byrds, in that they modernized folk music using Dylan as a springboard (their classic second album “Unhalfbricking” contains 3 Dylan covers, including one in French), plus they modernized old-school folk while simultaneously playing tribute to its origins. The initial focal point of the band was its vocal harmonies, though by their 3rd & 4th records, that expanded to include the unique guitar playing of Thompson and violin of Dave Swarbrick.
Their forth album, “Liege & Lief”, was the last with Denny in her original stint with the group (she rejoined a few years later for a couple of good albums), and captures the band at its peak. Apart from three originals, the songs are old madrigals and auld story songs whose spirits remain despite the electric trappings. Sandy sings absolutely beautifully on every song, whether it be a soft folk number (“Farewell Farewell”) or a strident epic (“Tam Lin”). She could sing with a gentle touch like Judy Collins or with powerhouse command like Grace Slick. Swarbrick also dominates the record, particularly on the showcase medley of Irish jigs on side two (sometimes in jaw-dropping duets with Thompson on guitar). I love the introductory song “Come All Ye”, which seems like Fairport’s nod to “Sgt. Pepper’s LHC Band”, in that it essentially says “hi there! We’re the band! We’re gonna knock your socks off!” and proceeds to do so. Though I don’t care much for the album closer, Thompson’s “Crazy Man Michael”, and murder ballad “Matty Groves” goes on a little bit too long, this is otherwise a wonderfully evocative record from a band proud to show the folk music was so much more than Woody Guthrie.
Verdict: you can’t go wrong with any of the first 5 Fairport records; this one is neck & neck with “Unhalfbricking” as their finest (also, most of the solo albums by Sandy Denny & Richard Thompson (especially the ones done with wife Linda) are worth looking into if you like this)
Video: as there doesn’t seem to be any decent live footage of the original band with Sandy singing, here's the recording of “Farewell Farewell” with a slideshow, while the film Maidstone 1970 features an excellent gig done soon after Sandy’s departure. Great stuff (though I’m not sure why the guy who posted this video didn’t cut out the helicopter departure).