Fairport Convention,
Meet on the Ledge:
The Classic Years 1967-1975

(A&M Records, 1999)

I've been trying to remember when I purchased my first Fairport Convention compilation album (and yes, I do mean album). Although The Fairport Chronicles was released in 1972, I don't think I bought it until 1976. I do remember, however, being pleased with what I felt was truly the "best of" one of my favorite groups.

Why then, 23 years later, would I want to own a new compilation of early Fairport material, besides the fact that my vinyl truly is showing its age? Well, for starters, this 2-CD set contains more music: 32 songs here compared to Fairport Chronicles' 20 (even double albums were limited then). The new collection also showcases three more years, ending with 1975's Rising for the Moon release, features songs from all of the group's albums from 1967-1975, and includes a previously unreleased song, "Bonny Bunch of Roses."

Working in chronological order, the first disc opens with Judy Dyble's voice covering Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning." (Interestingly enough, the CD booklet notes that Mitchell's first UK dates were opening for Fairport in 1968.) In another year, the group's line-up had changed. Sandy Denny had replaced Dyble, and this CD's second track -- "Fotheringay," Denny's haunting song about the last days of Mary, Queen of Scots -- demonstrates the change not only in lead vocalists but also in the band's material. Although covers of Mitchell and Bob Dylan, among others, still would appear (two Dylan covers, "Percy's Song" and "I'll Keep it With Mine" are included on disc 1), Fairport started to veer towards performing more of their own compositions and traditional ballads. Three of these ballads, "A Sailor's Life," "Tam Lin" and band standard "Matty Groves," are also featured on disc 1. (Other traditional pieces, including "Polly on the Shore," can be heard on disc 2.)

Disc 2's sound initially seems different. Iain Matthews' vocals disappeared when he exited the band in 1968. Sandy Denny left in 1969 to pursue a solo career. All vocals were assumed by the men: Richard Thompson, Dave Swarbrick, Simon Nicol and Dave Pegg. Pegg also took over on bass for co-founder Ashley Hutchings, who had moved on to form Steeleye Span. More changes came after Richard Thompson too departed in 1970.

Fairport Convention's line-up has shifted over the years, and while the band's sound has changed slightly with it as members came and went, it also has remained solid. Sandy Denny's return for 1975's Rising for the Moon does not evoke the same sound as when she sang with the band in the late '60s. However, the band still was irrevocably Fairport Convention; its style merely had evolved with both time and changes in line-up.

Not every song on this release is wonderful. Hearing this CD reminded me of how much I've personally never been fond of "Mr. Lacey." The musical arrangement to "One More Chance," while featuring Denny's stunning voice (once again I find myself mourning the untimely deaths of Denny in 1978 and her husband and bandmate, Trevor Lucas, ten years later), reeks of the mid-'70s and overdone electric guitars. However, there are so many personal favorites represented here ("Fotheringay," "Tam Lin," "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," "Crazy Man Michael," "John Lee," etc.) that I really can't complain. In fact, my only true complaint concerns the photo reproduction in the CD booklet.

Derek Humphries' booklet notes, however, are of particular interest to new Fairport fans who have not yet delved into Fairport's early material. The compilation is invaluable to these newcomers. I can also highly recommend this CD set to long-time Fairport Convention fans, especially those, who, like me, have vinyl collections that have seen better days.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]

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