Fairport Convention, as it existed in the mid-to-late ’60s, may be the best folk-rock band you’ve never heard of. This is especially true if you’re one of those Americans who tend to avoid British bands that seem too British (the Kinks for instance), but just as true if you happen to be a fan of the current Fairport line-up. It doesn’t help that albums like Unhalfbricking and What We Did on Our Holidays go in and out of print.
While The Best of Fairport Convention will not replace the group’s second through fifth albums, it does offer a good introduction to these classics as well as a chance to hear a handful of the band’s best songs. Three songs each are pulled from Unhalfbricking (1969), and Liege and Leif (1969), while two are taken from What We Did on Our Holidays (1968) and the band’s Full House (1970) period, following Sandy Denny’s departure. Historically, then, the collection begins when Denny joined the band on their second album and ends when Richard Thompson left after their fifth.
It’s easy to point to Thompson and Denny as the linchpins upon which the early band rested, though it’s only partly accurate. Thompson does play on every cut on this collection and Denny sings lead on seven of the ten songs. They both also played a major role as writers. But Ian Matthews also sang lead on Fairport Convention (not represented on this collection) and What We Did on Our Holidays, while Dave Swarbrick’s role went from guest on Unhalfbricking to full-fledged member on Liege and Leif. The other names — Simon Nicol, Ashley Hutchings, Martin Lamble, David Pegg, and Dave Mattacks — are also worth mentioning. The point is, Thompson and Denny may have been leading lights, but there was no deadwood in this folk-rock unit.
While there’s nothing wrong with Fairport’s debut, the band found its niche on What We Did on Our Holidays. Denny proved a more powerful vocalist than Judy Dyble and better yet, a good songwriter. The minor key, acoustic guitars, and background vocals on “Fotheringay” give the song a mystical air, evoking the past (the song was written about Mary Queen of Scots). The song’s construction, in fact, has a great deal in common with “Stairway to Heaven”, which makes it interesting that Denny would later guest on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (on “The Battle of Evermore”). Thompson also came into his own as a writer on What We Did On Our Holidays with “Meet on the Ledge”, a song that would become a Fairport anthem.
“Meet on the Ledge” begins very simply: A high-hat cymbal and acoustic guitar on the left track, a bass and Sandy Denny’s voice in the center. The electric guitar on the opposite track doesn’t kick in until right before the first chorus. A piano eventually joins in (also on the right track), but even as the climax builds, the instruments remain individually defined. The extreme panning — placing a guitar or the drums — to the left or right track will also seem a little ’60s-ish to some . . . though I’d argue that Fairport’s approach leads to a less cluttered, more defined sound. While I’ve always found Fairport’s arrangements and production in the best of taste, they may sound a bit lean for contemporary listeners. “Meet on the Ledge” clocks in at a short two minutes and 49 seconds, while the lyric is even sparer with only two verses. Thompson, however, perfectly evokes the thin spiritual line between the living and dead in just a few words.
The material from Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief also sparkles, with extra special nods going to “Genesis Hall” and “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”. Denny’s deep, emotional vocals are as good as they’d ever get here, and Thompson’s country-flavored guitar offers a lovely counterpoint. “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” is one of the band’s best moments, and while it’s easy to say that it’s a great song, it would be a mistake to believe that great songs just happen. Indeed, Denny had to write and sing it, which admittedly is a good start, but part of the song’s greatness — as with all of these songs — lies in how Fairport put the pieces — arrangements and production — together. I’ve heard at least two other versions, one by Judy Collins and the other by Nanci Griffith, and while neither is bad, their vocal ability and accompaniment fail to support the grandeur of the lyric, making these versions seem a bit sacrilegious. Fairport’s spare setting — acoustic and electric guitar, bass, and light percussion — provides a warm, though somber, setting for Denny’s vocal. The timing is a bit tricky on the chorus, with a meaningful pause before delivering the crowning, “For who knows . . . ” The lyric, delivery, and accompaniment all match, intensifying the overall effect and bringing the song to perfect fullness.
It seems incredible in retrospect that Fairport Convention accomplished so much in the span of three years. While The Best of Fairport Convention: the Millennium Collection only scratches the surface of the riches of those three years, it’s a fine place to start for anyone who’s heard good things about the band but never got around to checking them out. Fair warning, though. Fairport Convention may be the best folk-rock band you’ve never heard, and while buying this CD will probably cost you no more than $15 bucks, you’ll eventually have to spend $60 more to buy the original albums.