Few bands can claim as illustrious a history as Fairport Convention while still finding themselves relegated to such relative obscurity as far as the general public is concerned. They have their followers to be sure — as evidenced by the annual festival they host each August in their native Oxfordshire in the UK — and yet considering the fact that literally dozens of distinguished alumni have traveled in and out of their ranks (Richard Thompson and the late, departed Sandy Denny to name but two ) they remain to much of the world a mere footnote, a group vaguely recognized for their fusion of traditional British folk and the electricity of rock ‘n’ roll. That they’ve received such short thrift despite a history that spans nearly half a century and a musical style that’s both distinctive and distinguished in equal measure is criminal to say the least and absurd to say the most.
While that’s a sad commentary on the inability of most Americans to look beyond their borders, it’s sadder still that many of their countrymen either have no clue as to their accomplishments or, if they do, appear willing to overlook them entirely. Indeed, the band’s fabled legacy includes such hallmarks of English folk rock as the fabled Liege and Lief and singular songs like “Matty Groves” and “Meet on the Ledge”. However as most folks even vaguely familiar with Fairport will tell you, those highlights mark only the very tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Unfortunately, as many devotees will also attest, the Fairport of late is mostly viewed in light of diminishing returns. Because most of their albums of the past decade or so have consisted of archival live packages of varying need and importance, studio sets from the current incarnation of Fairport Convention mostly pale in comparison to the classic outings of their initial period of productivity during the late ’60s. Regardless, any new release provides a compulsory listen, if for no other reason than to keep track of current circumstance.
In some ways, Fairport’s new album, Myths and Heroes is a bit of a throwback to their hallowed legacy. For one thing, it appears to replicate the iconic cover that adorned the aforementioned Liege and Lief. For another, it effectively taps tradition, given the abundance of jigs and reels so effectively reinvented by the band’s prime instrumentalists Chris Leslie and Ric Sanders. That leaves the veteran members — guitarist Simon Nicol, bassist Dave Pegg and drummer Gerry Conway — mostly playing support.
Nevertheless, given their wealth of sources — fellow folkies Ralph McTell and Anna Ryder, among them, not to mention the original contributions from Leslie and Sanders — they always seem to find material capable of complementing their signature style. So while it’s easy to quibble as to whether the music measures up, there’s no doubting their determination to remain true to their muse. That leaves room for rocking (“Myths and Heroes”), for balladry (“Clean Water”, “Theodore’s Song”) and for simply kicking up their heels in the manner of the Fairport of old (“The Flyde Mountain Time/Roger Buckhall’s Polka”, “Weightless/The Gravity Reel”). While it may not be the best introduction for the novice, it offers more than a hint of early treasures well worth uncovering.