In matters related to Fairport Convention, the 40-year-old wellspring of the British folk-rock movement, it’s probably best to declare one’s biases at the outset. With that in mind, I’ll go on record as saying that my favorite Fairport albums are What We Did on Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking, and that both are among the most beautiful, engaging, and enduring records I’ve ever heard. I also think Liege and Lief, the much-vaunted classic on which the band made the great leap toward amplified traditional music, is mostly dull. As I see it, what made Fairport special was their eagerness to try out all kinds of music, singing Bob Dylan (in English and French), traditional ballads, and most especially their own compositions. Having a number of strong songwriters and vocalists made the group special, and the instrumental prowess of everyone on board was such that what should’ve seemed like a grab bag of musical styles came out sounding unified, powerful, and joyous.
Most distinctive among Fairport’s early members was Sandy Denny, who brought such songs as “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” and “Come All Ye” to the repertoire, and sang with a mixture of control and abandon in one of the more beautiful and clear voices in pop history. Denny’s departure after Liege and Lief to form Fotheringay—named for another of her fine original songs—ushered in a new era for Fairport and produced a sometimes brilliant, sometimes bland eponymous album by her new group.
Allow me to confess to two more biases. First, I’m just not that interested in Fairport post-Denny (even less so post-Richard Thompson), and I’ve never particularly loved Fotheringay. So it goes.
Fotheringay was plagued by two problems that early Fairport never had. One was that Fotheringay was considerably more polished and straightforward. Although the rhythm section deserves some of the blame for this, the primary source of blandness seems to be singer/songwriter/guitarist Trevor Lucas, who I also generally classify as problem number two. That Lucas was fond of conventional rock with a dash of country is not a problem in and of itself. The problem is that he doesn’t complement Sandy Denny very well at all.
Part of the appeal of Fairport was that so many personalities worked their way into the group. Fotheringay’s problem was that Denny’s only real foil was Lucas, who was simply no match for Richard Thompson, Ian Matthews, or Ashley Hutchings, much less the combination of the three. Lucas’s only lead vocals on the group’s first record were on his own “Ballad of Ned Kelly” and two covers (he also sang a duet with Denny). “Ned Kelly” is a competent rocker with a standout guitar solo from Jerry Donahue, whose style is occasionally reminiscent of Thompson’s. But the covers are pedestrian, and as a result Fotheringay is extremely uneven. The Denny tracks are much better, particularly “The Sea” and “Banks of the Nile”, and it’s fortunate that hers is the primary presence on the album.
Fotheringay’s record did well enough, but Denny left midway through the sessions for the follow-up, effectively breaking up the group. Fotheringay 2 remained incomplete until now, assembled by Jerry Donahue from backing tracks and vocal run-throughs. Taking into account the rough nature of what he had to work with, Fotheringay 2 sounds remarkably finished, and benefits from the alternating of Denny’s songs with Lucas’s.
On the surface, it’s evident that Denny wasn’t entirely on board, since she only composed two songs, “John the Gun” and “Late November”, both of which she would re-record for her solo debut. The version of “John the Gun” that opens Fotheringay 2, though, sounds anything but tentative. It’s a muscular performance, with a blazing contribution from Donahue and one of Denny’s best vocals. There’s also a saxophone solo, of all things, which is completely incongruous and shouldn’t work, but somehow does. Elsewhere, “Wild Mountain Thyme” gets off to a shaky start but turns out pretty, and “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” is simply beautiful.
So it comes as something of a surprise that what allows this belated follow-up to hold together seems to be one Trevor Lucas. Although his cover of Dylan’s “I Don’t Believe You” is monotonous—I’d love to hear Denny tackle that one—Lucas’ other contributions show real improvement over his stuff from the debut. His songs still don’t have the emotional heft of Denny’s, but they have an easy charm. Even better than his originals is his take on the traditional “Bold Jack Donahue”. The moody, ominous guitar intro gets the Australian outlaw’s tale off to an appropriate start, and both singer and band keep things interesting for close to eight minutes. It’s probably his finest moment as a member of this band, and it would’ve made a great album closer. Instead, the weak “Two Weeks Last Summer”, a boring song which not even Sandy Denny can redeem, brings the Fotheringay story to its conclusion.
The sour taste of “Two Weeks Last Summer” is really too bad, because Fotheringay 2 deserves a much better finale. Ultimately, a second Fotheringay album is little more than a footnote to the larger stories of Fairport Convention and British folk-rock, but a pleasant and lovingly-assembled footnote. It’s quite possibly better than their first album, and a worthwhile addition to any Fairport fan’s collection.
// Notes from the Road
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