If there was any justice – and music taste – in the world, Fairport Convention would be treated in the U.K. with the same reverence as, say, The Band in the U.S. After all, they have been with us for 50 years, and have helped keep British ‘roots’ music alive and rocking for 48 of them. They have also seen pass through their ranks some of the most iconic British musicians of the last half-century – the guitar wizard Richard Thompson, the tragic and brilliant singer/songwriter Sandy Denny and the impish demon fiddler Dave Swarbrick among them.
The current line-up may all be heading rapidly towards their 70s but they still exhibit musicianship of the highest order. Dave Pegg’s bass playing is still fluid and inventive, Ric Sanders has total mastery of fiddle and bow and Chris Leslie seems able to play every instrument known to Humankind. And Simon Nicol is still there, the only founding member from 1967. Yet, as I know from experience, Fairport are virtually unknown to the majority of people with ears. But everyone has heard of One Direction. Go figure.
Of course, Fairport are a long way from their glory days and the albums that I think every Prog fan would acknowledge as essential folk-rock classics – Unhalfbricking, Liege And Lief and Full House. They were created during one of the most fertile and exciting periods of British music by youngsters barely out of their teens and filled with ambition, energy and arrogance.
One cannot expect the same cutting-edge approach 25 albums later so the latest release, celebrating their 50th anniversary, is not a patch on the early, groundbreaking work. Fairport are a gentler, more sedate band now, their repertoire filled with pretty but sometimes forgettable ballads.
With 50:50@50 what we get is, as the title suggests, a game of two halves – 50% studio and 50% live. The studio tracks are mostly Chris Leslie compositions – he has a good ear for melody, some interesting lyrics and a nice voice but his songs struggle to escape a general sense of pleasant blandness. Only with Devil’s Work, an amusing and spirited warning about the perils of DIY, does he create something that sticks in the musical memory long after the others have faded.
Among the live tracks, Ye Mariners All and Lord Marlborough have become too polite and Jesus On The Mainline is lacklustre and cheesy, despite featuring Robert Plant on vocals, but The Naked Highwayman is great fun and John Condon, about the youngest Allied soldier killed in the First World War, is a moving ballad sung with real feeling by Simon Nicol.
For me, though, Fairport’s most interesting work is being provided by violinist Ric Sanders. His instrumentals range from the languid, jazzy Portmeirion to the sprightly Danny Jack’s Reward – tunes that frequently stretch the band’s musicianship further than anything since those rocked-up jigs and reels of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Ric is the one who is still creating challenging, interesting music for his colleagues to get their teeth into.
But us Fairport fans don’t really follow them for the occasional studio albums that we probably buy out of a sense of loyalty, play once and then tuck away in the CD collection, never to be heard again. It’s the joy of seeing them live on their winter tours or at the annual Cropredy Festival, the warm glow of nostalgia, the feeling of being with a bunch of people you have virtually grown up with.
And it’s the bitter-sweet poignancy of Meet On The Ledge, Richard Thompson’s stately anthem that some interpret as a reference to the afterlife – “When my time is up I’m gonna meet all of my friends”. As we all join in the chorus we think not only of those band members who have gone to the great gig in the sky – Sandy and Swarb, Martin Lamble, Trevor Lucas, Bruce Rowland – but also our own dear departed family and friends, and our own mortality.
Blimey, this has got depressing, hasn’t it? And it shouldn’t be, because Fairport have given me a lot of joy over the years. So all together now: “Away with the buff and the blue, and away with the cap and the feather! I want to see my lass who lives in Hexhamshire!”
I feel better now.
01. Eleanor’s Dream (3:12)
02. Ye Mariners All [live] (4:37)
03. Step By Step (4:36)
04. The Naked Highwayman [live] (4:46)
05. Danny Jack’s Reward (expensive version!) (4:36)
06. Jesus On The Mainline [live] (3:43)
07. Devil’s Work (3:33)
08. Mercy Bay [live] (7:02)
09. Our Bus Rolls On (4:53)
10. Portmeirion [live] (5:38)
11. The Lady Of Carlisle (4:55)
12. Lord Marlborough [live] (3:25)
13. Summer By The Cherwell (3:16)
14. John Condon [live] (6:05)
Total Time – 64:19
Simon Nicol – Vocals & Guitars
Dave Pegg – Bass, Mandolin & Backing Vocals
Ric Sanders – Violins & Keyboards
Chris Leslie – Vocals, Mandolin, Bouzouki, Banjo, Ukelele, Whistle & Harmonica
Gerry Conway – Drums
…and loads of guest musicians playing fiddles, flutes, clarinets, trumpets and saxes on Danny Jack’s Reward
Record Label: Matty Grooves
Year of Release: 2017