It’s almost tempting to use the old “waiting for a bus” analogy — you wait a while for a new Fairport CD and then two come along at once. These discs are quite different from each other in many respects, however; e.g., one is live with guests at the 2008 Cropredy festival, the other compiles the band’s own guest role in the work of a different artist, collaborating with other musicians they may not have worked with otherwise.
But maybe we can start with a definite similarity. The packaging of the CDs is superb; both sharing the same format of a gatefold digipak with enclosed informative booklet. It’s a professional look that gives a positive impression; the design of each cover is also entirely appropriate to the music the package contains.
Obviously, Live At Cropredy ’08 is a self-explanatory title. Live Fairport CDs are quite regular occurrences and therefore the risk exists that the same material will continue to be recycled ad infinitum. Does the world really need another version of ‘Matty Groves’ or ‘Meet On The Ledge’ for example, as good as both songs are? The band seems to understand this, as to large degree, the obvious tracks such as those mentioned are omitted and some quite rare material appears instead, in some cases for the first time in a few decades.
A band with 41 years of history at the time of recording obviously has a huge repertoire to draw from, and though they generally prefer to focus on newer material, there has been a recent willingness to perform hitherto little-explored songs from previous lineups. Insofar as the current lineup can do so, that is, as they lack a lead guitarist per se. It must be said though, that Simon Nicol plays electric guitar on a goodly number of tracks, and adds immeasurably to the overall texture of the sound.
But with some subtle rearrangement, the older material comes to life again in the hands of Fairport 2008. In fact, the three opening tracks ‘Ye Mariners All’, ‘Reynard The Fox’ and ‘Eynsham Poacher’ are from the late-’70s period when Simon was main guitarist as well, so it’s not too much of a leap to play them today. The main point of difference is the vocals of Chris Leslie rather than Dave Swarbrick; in fact, Leslie takes the bulk of lead vocals on the songs by the current lineup here.
Similarly, Simon was the main guitarist on the Babbacombe Lee album from ’71, so again the choices from that album are entirely apt. They are quite unexpected too, as they had not been performed live in many years, certainly for the past couple of decades. But here, a trio of songs from the project shows how well they stand up today. Nicol sings his own ‘Breakfast In Mayfair’, Leslie provides emotive and beautiful vocals for the ‘Cell Song’, and the longtime personal favourite ‘Hanging Song’ rocks along most effectively. On the latter, Ric Sanders walks the musical line between the original Swarbrick violin arrangement and his own more freewheeling style, and does so quite successfully.
His own ‘Mock Morris’ from 1990 makes its own welcome reappearance after a few years’ sabbatical from the set list. This time the dual fiddles of Sanders and Leslie make for a fuller live sound, and the tune set is still a great example of Morris-inspired folk rock.
The previous year’s festival saw the reformation of the classic Liege & Lief lineup to perform that album in its entirety. From it, the atmospheric ‘Reynardine’ has entered the current band’s repertoire, again with Chris Leslie on lead vocals. No one could expect Sandy Denny’s version to be surpassed but in his own way Leslie acknowledges the beauty of the song and is able to inject great emotion into it; little touches of echo on his vocals adding to he eeriness of the piece.
Speaking of Sandy, 2008 was the 30th anniversary of her death, and so a special portion of Fairport’s set was dedicated to her memory. A number of special guests came along to perform her songs, including Vikki Clayton (‘Fotheringay’) and Kellie While (‘John The Gun’). Kellie joins her mother Chris for ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’, similar to the version released as a single last year. An emotional Dave Pegg notes that Sandy would have been proud to hear this particular performance.
Jerry Donahue, who played with Sandy in Fotheringay (the group), also joins the band to add his distinctive lead guitar work, while his daughter Kristina teams with Robert Plant for a rare performance of ‘Battle Of Evermore’ from Led Zeppelin 4. Again, comparisons with the original are probably pointless but this comes across as no disservice to the memory of Sandy or Led Zep, and actually sounds quite comfortable as part of a Fairport Cropredy set.
Of course, Jerry isn’t the only person on stage with direct links to Sandy. Fairport’s drummer Gerry Conway also played in Fotheringay, while Dave Pegg was part of the mid-’70s Fairport that she rejoined. (As an aside, to say that Pegg’s melodic bass playing and Conway’s unique drumming are pretty much essential to the importance of the band’s sound throughout the CD would be stating the very obvious.)
One more guest is included in the Sandy section, namely Maartin Allcock on keyboards. The rest of the CD, however, is purely the present day band, performing the rarities mentioned and just a couple of songs from the contemporary repertoire. Lest we forget they also play the rarely performed live Full House track ‘Doctor Of Physick’, sans Richard Thompson but still with the sense of foreboding and mystery that the original 1970 recording engendered.
The final two tracks are ‘John Gaudie’, a staple of the set for more than a decade now, and Steve Ashley’s ‘Best Wishes’. The former flows reasonably comfortably into Ric Sanders’ great instrumental ‘The Bowman’s Retreat’, while ‘Best Wishes’ is the most recent piece by far, having appeared on their latest studio CD. Without a ‘Meet On The Ledge’ to finish proceedings, it’s the nearest to a “statement of intent” by the band, combining lyrical themes of music, laughter and harmony. There’s also a bit of confusion with the lyrics in a couple of places, but to no great detriment.
Live At Cropredy ’08 is certainly a well recorded and consistently enjoyable recording of the event. There’s a lot of fun to be had, and a lot of beauty to be savoured as well. Being very listenable many times over, it could also quite possibly be one of the best of the many live Fairport CDs.
A different approach needs to be taken for the second release, Fame And Glory. As previously alluded to, its genesis comes from Fairport’s work for “visionary Breton composer Alan Simon, from 1998’s gold disc winning Excalibur song cycle through to 2008’s Anne de Bretagne. OK, I got that bit from the cover!
In their original context, the tracks were therefore interspersed with other artists’ work. Here, they are given their own new Fairport-only context which of course is inextricably linked to the original, but now performs the task of showing the band in an unfamiliar format, drawing on the work of just one outside composer.
It would be reasonable then to expect a consistency of sound, which is certainly apparent throughout the 15 tracks. Probably the main description for the music itself would be that it is strong and powerful with obviously ancient roots, lyrically and musically. That power can come from full-on folk rock on tracks such as ‘Castle Rock’ (the only piece to include ex-drummer Dave Mattacks) and ‘Pilgrims’ (with Jethro Tull’s Martin Barre on guitar), or from sweeping arrangements on other songs like ‘Morgane’, which is a rare collaboration between Fairport and Pentangle lead singer Jacquie McShee. One of Brittany’s best-known artists, Dan Ar Braz, also plays guitar on this track. “All star” therefore seems an appropriate description here.
The guests differ from those on the Live At Cropredy ’08 set in that these were chosen by Alan Simon to work with Fairport. However, the choices were wise and appropriate, and it affords the band the chance to work with a wider range of people. For example, ‘Lugh’ features guest vocals by John Wetton (of Uriah Heep, Roxy Music, etc.), along with more lead guitar from Martin Barre. It is also an example of the CD’s overall clear production, with instruments well recorded and balanced.
Simon Nicol still provides most lead vocals, and sings particularly strongly on ‘The Gest Of Gauvain’, ‘Behind The Darkness’ and the title track ‘Fame And Glory‘. The latter is a ballad with a lovely melody and has recently made its way into the current general live repertoire of the band.
There are various instrumentals that feature different textures than one might normally expect with Fairport, including vieille a roue by Laurent Tixier on ‘Danza del Crepuculo’, wherein Ric Sanders manages to add a jazzy tinge to an otherwise medieval sounding melody. Alan Simon himself provides atmospheric flute on a handful of songs.
By contrast to the Cropredy CD, Chris Leslie has only one turn at lead vocals, on the closing track ‘The Soldier’. It’s a slow and atmospheric piece that suits his style well. Like everything else on the disc, it is musically appropriate to the overall themes that Alan Simon explores.
But does one need to be particularly au fait with the myths / stories of Excalibur, Anne de Bretagne, et al, to appreciate the music that celebrates them? Not at all. I find one’s own word pictures can do just as good a job, and perhaps the majesty of the music — for majesty is not too strong a word — can take you to where it wants to go regardless.
So in one way, it’s a Fairport CD like any other in that it is still the longstanding lineup of Nicol, Pegg, Sanders, Leslie and Conway but in a way, they are taken out of their comfort zone, placed in a whole other environment, and prove adaptable enough to rise admirably to the occasion.
Taken together, both albums show a couple of important aspects to the current Fairport Convention. They salute their past music and members on the Cropredy CD, and rediscover some long lost highlights from their previous repertoire, adjusted easily to fit the band as it is now. On Fame And Glory, they show how they can adapt to the work of other composers as well.
However, it’s interesting to note that the only examples of songwriting by present members amount to just three tracks on the live album. So how is that side of the band progressing? I guess we’ll need a new studio album at some point to be sure.
(Matty Grooves, 2008)