FAIRPORT CONVENTION Unhalfbricking (Simply Vinyl)

Yet more wonderment from the hard-working Simply Vinyl crowd, this is a reissue of Fairport Convention's third album, originally released in 1969, when the band were in a transitional phase, no longer the English equivalent of Jefferson Airplane and not yet the fully-fledged pioneering folk rockers.

"Unhalfbricking" (the title apparently originating from a word game) is arguably the band's best album. It contains interpretations of three Bob Dylan songs then yet to be officially released by the Bard of Hibbing, including their only hit single, a ramshackle "Si Tu Dois Partir" (if you listen closely you can hear the stack of chairs that was being used for percussive purposes collapse towards the end of the song!), an equally rambunctious "Million Dollar Bash", and a transcendent take on "Percy's Song". Elsewhere there are two Sandy Denny compositions - the song that was destined to become her signature tune, "Who Knows Where The Time Goes", and the even finer, chilling "Autopsy" - a couple of Richard Thompson compositions, including the stunning "Genesis Hall", and the eleven minute "A Sailor's Life", powered by future member Dave Swarbrick's jazz folk fiddle playing, a portent of things to come with "Liege And Lief".

They may have fashioned more influential albums, but from this point on Fairport Convention narrowed their focus down to the fusion of folk and rock, a decision that would lead to the departure of the very people responsible for the whirligig of styles that makes "Unhalfbricking" such compelling listening. It's an album where folk dines out with rock, jazz, and country, a more stilted and English vision of the mad alchemy that Van Morrison was fashioning at around the same time on "Astral Weeks". The fact that you can almost see the joins here only adds to the album's knockabout charm. And Simply Vinyl's current run of fine-sounding reissues continues here: from the woody thump of the late Martin Lamble's drum fills during "Genesis Hall" to the almost spectral way you can follow Richard Thompson through the multi-part harmonies of "Percy's Song", Joe Boyd's unadorned but effective production work has rarely sounded this fresh.

FAIRPORT CONVENTION/NO WORRIES Weymouth Pavilion 7 June 2002

Although not a hardcore Cropredy-going Fairport completist, I have enough of their seminal late 60s/early 70s works, wherein they forged the British version of folk-rock, to make the opportunity of seeing them something I couldn't pass up. And the Pavilion appears to be something of a well-kept secret of a venue: a bit like a shrunken version of its metropolitan Bournemouth equivalent, from the inside at least, I kept thinking how brilliant it would be to see somebody like Van Morrison in such an intimate space…

…rather than support act No Worries, who were an object lesson in how disgustingly offensive the blandly inoffensive can be. They're a septet who play a kind of vaguely folky Fleetwood Mac-alike AOR precision tooled for accompanying the test card, music squeezed completely dry of any threat of originality or innovation. At one point the lead vocalist/guitarist says "We're gonna stay in the Caribbean for a while", which puzzled me greatly as nothing in their music had suggested they had left the Weymouth pub rock shift. And at all points the two ladies in the band gyrated as if they were on the rack in some satellite town's meat market discotheque. If No Worries' sole purpose was to lower expectations before the arrival of the main attraction they were a complete success. If they were intending to entertain on any level they were a dismal failure.

To Fairport then. Having not kept on top of the band's activities during the past 30 years (due, at least in part, to not being born for at least some of that time) I'm indebted both to Gavin Fuller's regular Fairport concert and album reviews and also to a marvellous tour programme (3? Are you sure?!) crammed with useful information. Tonight's line-up included founder member Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, who joined in 1970 and again in 1985 following a spell in Jethro Tull, Chris Leslie, a member since 1996, and Ric Sanders, once of Soft Machine and Fairport's violinist since 1985. Percussionist Gerry Conway, once of Steeleye Span and Jethro Tull (again, this folk-rock lark seemingly being something of an incestuous business) was absent tonight for what had been billed as an acoustic performance but which could more accurately be described as drummerless! So, this is as much of the real deal as could be hoped for from a Fairport line-up these days, certainly not the kind of neo-tribute Fairport Convention featuring nobody who remembers playing on the original albums that might be expected to appear in an out-of-the-way venue such as this!

There's no roar of recognition as the house lights dim and the realisation strikes that the four roadies who have been tuning and plugging things during the interval are actually the band at the top of the bill: you wouldn't bat an eyelid if you saw this lot busking outside Woolworths on a Saturday morning, such is their man-in-the-street anti-image. But then they launch into a pert "Walk Awhile", in all its rattling, reeling glory, and it's pretty good, although it takes a longer while for Nicol's between-song patter to warm to the same level of appeal as the music. Over two sets they work through much of latest album "XXXV", interspersed with frequent reminders that it's "available in the foyer", which rather cheapens proceedings - it's the kind of tactic that No Worries might, and indeed do, employ, but from the headliners it seems out of place, although given that Fairport have established their own ferociously independent cottage industry it's just about excusable. From the new album they play "Madeleine", replete with Eddie Cochran circa "Something Else" stylings, "The Happy Man" (which I think was the song Dave Pegg referred to as being about the pleasures of drinking and smoking to excess and not feeling guilty, "which is why it's in our repertoire and not The Albion Band's!"), the instrumental "Portmeirion", Anna Ryder's "The Crowd", the remakes "The Banks Of Sweet Primroses" and "Now Be Thankful", "The Light Of Day", "Everything But The Skirl" and "Talking About My Love", all of which was perfectly presentable, even on a first listen, but not fantastic enough to have me picking up a copy on the way out.

Of course, they played some old material too, and despite the reduced line-up they performed it in a manner that scarcely diminished its greatness. "Who Knows Where The Time Goes" was as fabulous as ever it must have been since the lady who wrote it couldn't come around to sing it anymore, and "Crazy Man Michael" was possibly the only song of the evening that needed, and indeed received, no introduction, Sanders' violin playing (which was fabulous throughout) suggesting favourable comparisons with John Cale's droning viola work with The Velvet Underground. "Matty Groves" closed the main set, introduced as being composed of 19 verses and two chords. So said Simon, "Two verses and 19 chords…that'd be a Steely Dan album!" It remains a brilliant, full-blooded murder ballad of the kind even Nick Cave couldn't write, even when Nicol loses a guitar string early on. And they return for an encore of "Meet On The Ledge", unfortunately dragging one of No Worries' still-gyrating ladies with them, which is nevertheless utterly wonderful, a song that resolutely refuses to age and undoubtedly my favourite Fairport tune.

An evening that started in a depressingly humdrum fashion swiftly came good: Fairport Convention are still a fine live band, even when playing unfamiliar material, and should be applauded for their willingness to bring such enjoyable performances to venues so far off the beaten track.

FAIRPORT CONVENTION / TINY TIN LADY Guild Hall, Preston 9 March 2007

Kev has enthused about Tiny Tin Lady in these pages before now; a band newsworthy for their youth then, even in 2007 vocalist Beth Gibbins is still young enough to introduce one song as something she submitted last year as a piece of GCSE coursework. Any residual scepticism I might be experiencing is blown away immediately by the Spectorish wall of sound that is their opening four-part vocal assault: these ladies mean business. If their songs are mostly dark, troubled teenage things the subject matter has a freshness and vitality set alongside their modern folk stylings. If anything detracts from the Tiny Tin Lady live experience it’s their deportment on stage: the giggling, in-jokes and product placement seem all the more jarring against the sophistication of their music. Espers for Just Seventeen readers? Well, maybe.

I’m not one of the Cropredy-circling Fairport faithful – in fact, before purchasing their latest, “Sense Of Occasion”, in preparation for this evening the most recent album of theirs that I owned was 1969’s “Unhalfbricking”. Nevertheless, it would be churlish not to pay homage to arguably England’s most important folk-rockers (much as they bridle at the description) when they were considerately performing a short bus journey from my home, and tonight certainly delivered enough to justify the decision. Half of “Liege And Lief” was aired, including, for those who feel that what Fairport would really benefit from is choreography, a Tiny Tin Lady-assisted ”Tam Lin”, alongside the evergreen magnificence of “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” and traditional encore “Meet On The Ledge”. With the aforementioned more than justifying the entry fee for me, the remainder of the set – career-spanning pleasantries spiked with senior comedy – was an amiable bonus as far as I was concerned. As with the support act, there was an amount of product pushed during the set, various members plugging t-shirts, CDs, side projects and, inevitably, the Cropredy Festival. On one level such self-promotion is something of an unseemly distraction, but it does serve to emphasise how much Fairport Convention exist, and even flourish, with absolutely no help from (or collusion with) the mainstream; these days they’re practically a cottage industry. A good, if not great, night, then, but more power to them for bothering to include the (sparsely attended, unfortunately) Guild Hall on their tour itinerary.

FAIRPORT CONVENTION Sense Of Occasion (Matty Grooves)

Perhaps unfairly, my expectations for Fairport’s latest, bought in preparation for the Preston leg of their winter tour, which obliquely celebrates the forty years since their formation, were not high. Initially, my fears seemed justified: there’s that appalling cover art, for a kick off, and when opening track “Keep On Turning The Wheel” revealed itself to be a paean to a vintage Volkswagen camper van, well, I’m as fond of singing about my car as the next person (who’s as fond of singing about their car as I am) but never in public. Sonically “Sense Of Occasion” is pretty poor for a 2007 release: ropey recording or careless mastering has left the album peppered with moments of distortion that had me concerned about the health of my iPod until I realised that they occurred at exactly the same point on a particular song. And, of course, being a modern days album there’s oh so much of it: at 68 minutes it’s almost twice the length of “Liege & Lief”, and you’d have to be a pretty dedicated Cropredy-goer not to wonder whether that time couldn’t be better spent almost listening to “Liege & Lief” twice, especially when eight of those minutes are consumed by an inferior remake of “Tam Lin”. Alrighty, maybe it has some historical validity given that the 1969-model Fairport will be reassembling as far as is possible to perform that album in its entirety at this year’s Cropredy, and this version has a droning darkness to it that I don’t recall from the original, almost as if John Cale were guesting on viola (now there’s an idea!), but otherwise it’s a totally unnecessary indulgence. Even some of the new material is undone by the band’s performance: Chris Leslie’s vocals on his “Edge Of The World” are insipid where lines such as “I’m tired of the rock and I’m unsteady with the roll” demand a measure of backbone to them, his harmonies at times seasickening. (Individual performances aren’t signposted in the booklet, unfortunately, but whoever sings the following track, “Hawkwood’s Army”, should’ve given Mr Leslie a few tips.)

And yet, despite these considerable demerits, “Sense Of Occasion” is a pretty good album. No masterpiece, of course, but one that contains enough evidence that the band are far from content to luxuriate on their laurels. Perhaps the greatest surprise, to me at least, is their embracing of exciting new sounds from outside the folk-rock tradition (even if some of those exciting new sounds are themselves pushing the quarter century). XTC’s sprightly “Love On A Farmboy’s Wages” sounds tailor-made for them, and on Chris Difford’s “Untouchable” they sound almost like Squeeze with fiddles. These raise the tantalising prospect of what a whole album (well, a 10-track album, no need to get carried away now!) of similarly carefully selected modern songs might sound like. There are also some pleasant, self-penned instrumentals scattered through the album, culminating in the lovely “Your Heart And Mine”: sometimes a song doesn’t need words to say what’s on its mind.

So, as the band enter their fifth decade, there’s enough evidence here to suggest that they’re still trying; no over-reliance on past glories for them. It’s perhaps unfortunate that those past glories cast such a long, defining shadow.

Judy Dyble


Richard Thompson