Fairport Convention,
Fairport unConventional
(Free Reed, 2002)

You could never lay all the credit for the modern folk music revival, much less the integration of folk and rock styles into a new tradition, at the feet of a single band. Yet if any one entity deserved credit for initiating such sweeping changes and bringing a fresh look to the time-worn face of folk music, it would be Fairport Convention.

It's been 35 years since the British band's humble beginnings, and in those years they've numbered some of the genre's finest musicians in their ever-changing lineups, forging ties along the way to some of the greatest singers, instrumentalists and bands on both sides of the folk and rock fences. Most folk-rock enthusiasts have at least one Fairport CD in their collections, if not many. Now, the band has issued a much-anticipated box set celebrating its rich history.

This is not your typical "greatest hits" collection that throws a quantity of readily available tracks together with a few bonuses to lure the diehard completists. Nearly everything on these four CDs is rare or unreleased material, and it's sheer magic to sit back and listen to the years roll by as pretty much every variation in the band's fluid membership makes an appearance.

The band got its start in 1967 with Judy Dyble, Ashley Hutchings, Martin Lamble, Ian Matthews, Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson. In 2002, it's Gerry Conway, Chris Leslie, Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg and Ric Sanders. In the intervening years the band has worked with the likes of Martin Allcock, Martin Carthy, Sandy Denny, Trevor Lucas, Dave Mattacks, Robert Palmer, Robert Plant, Bruce Rowland, Dave Swarbrick and many others in a variety of long- and short-term, official and unofficial arrangements.

Each of the four CDs has a theme: "Fairport -- A History," 35 years in 22 tracks, summing up the various stages of band evolution; "Rareport Convention," providing 19 tracks of particularly rare and hard-to-find selections; "A Fairport History," comprising 16 tracks of British history in folk form; and "Classic Convention," the cream of the crop in Fairport's mutable set list, presented here in nonstandard and unreleased versions.

All told, it adds up to more than five hours of music representing every year, every lineup and every label (Polydor, Island, Vertigo and Woodworm) in the band's 35-year history.

It would be difficult indeed to narrow the contents of this set down to just a few highlights. The material presented here is uniformly excellent, even though the strengths of the band's personnel and the quality of the recordings vary widely.

Of particular note, however, is the Fairport anthem "Matty Groves." Unable to settle on just one version from the band's long love affair with this song, Don Walker and Nigel Schofield compiled a "megamix" rendition, piecing together a snippet here, a phrase there, from the just about every recorded version of the popular ballad. The effect is spectacular as the well-known narrative unfolds in the hands of so many Fairport regulars and alumni.

Other highlights range widely across the Fairport spectrum, including "If I Had a Ribbon Bow," a track recorded in '67 and spotlighting Dyble's lovely, gentle voice; the classic "Meet on the Ledge" from a 1968 BBC recording; a '68 bootleg of the band performing "Suzanne," a song by Leonard Cohen featuring dual lead vocals; the uncharacteristically bouncy "Rubber Band" from '79; and an epic, 18-minute-long live recording of "Sloth" from a 1975 performance. It would be too easy to go on listing track after track, but I'll stop myself there before I reproduce the entire catalogue of tunes in this wonderful collection.

The 169-page companion book by Schofield is a treasure in itself. Packed with biographical details, historical trivia and photos, it's a wealth of information designed to bring even the rawest of Fairport neophytes into the fold with the band's complete heritage, beginning with their first gig on May 27, 1967 in St. Michael's Hall.

There's a lot to cover -- the band has had 11 lead vocalists, 11 lead guitarists, seven drummers, six fiddlers, five keyboard players and two bassists, plus countless session and guest musicians. After wrapping up a year-by-year history on page 99, the book delves thoroughly into the background of each track on the four CDs. The book concludes with a series of interviews and other useful information.

The box set also comes with a delightful and informative array of bonus materials. Among them is a souvenir booklet detailing the history of Fairport's famed Cropredy Festival, as well as a booklet marking Martin Carthy's 60th birthday concert at the Oxford Apollo, a Beatlesesque poster recasting the extended Fairport family in a Sgt. Pepper motif, and an April 2002 Fairport newsletter.

Also not to be missed is the highly detailed family tree by Pete Frame, linking Fairport members to their roots and branches in bands from the Brumbeats, Roy Everett's Blues Hounds and Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra to Eclection, Fotheringay and Etchingham Steam Band and, of course, Steeleye Span, Jethro Tull, Pentangle and the various incarnations of the Albion Band.

Whether you're a Fairport fan from way back or a raw recruit just making the band's acquaintance, the box set will provide many hours of joyful music appreciation. This exceptional package exceeds all expectations, giving proud service to Fairport's past and keeping hopes for the band's future from ever growing dim.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 7 June 2002

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