VARIOUS ARTISTS Meet On The Ledge: An Island Records Folk-Rock Anthology (Island) 

The same friends who bought me the John Farnham album for Christmas that I whinged about elsewhere more than atoned for their behaviour by also gifting me with this glorious three CD box set. You can probably grow the tracklist from the title yourself, which is predictably laden with the work of Fairport Convention and alumni and John Martyn both with and without Beverley. However, it also explores the label’s more esoteric and psychedelic highways and byways, finding room for Traffic, The Incredible String Band both together and apart and Dr Strangely Strange. Only one track apiece by Jethro Tull and Cat Stevens and a mere two by Nick Drake seems a bit miserly, though.

Martyn’s youthful efforts “Cocaine” and “Seven Black Roses” are pure folk club, but Fairport’s version of “She Moves Through The Fair” captures the widening weirdening of the nascent genre, Sandy Denny’s icy, imperious vocals hovering over music that hasn’t quite outpaced their San Fran influences just yet. Traffic’s ecologically-minded b-side “Withering Tree” is a welcome, far-sighted inclusion. “A Sailor’s Life” finds Fairport’s expanding remit gathering pace in all directions, creaking and heaving like a ship on the waves. That band’s influence also seems to have thoroughly seeped into John & Beverley’s similarly nautical “The Ocean”, and Dr Strangely Strange’s “Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal” is charming, almost like a more approachable ISB. As for that Jethro Tull track, can you guess what it is yet? “Living In The Past” is no less awesome for being so familiar, though, and it seems sadly impossible to imagine from 40 years’ remove the kind of free-thinking, open-minded cultural climate in which something this delightfully weird could become a top three single hit. Traffic’s “John Barleycorn (Must Die)” hasn’t lost an atom of its ethereal acoustic magick, and it’s always a pleasure to hear the chiming beauty of Nick Drake’s “One Of These Things First” again.

Post-Fairport Convetion’s groundbreaking epic album “Liege & Lief”, the styles huddled under the umbrella of folk-rock fragment and diversify, as the second disc documents. There’s Cat Stevens’ slightly sugar-coated pop-folk, surprisingly represented not by one of his hits but album track “On The Road To Find Out”. Sandy Denny is gradually drawn towards the rockier end of the folk-rock fusion through the likes of “Late November” and “Bushes And Briars” (a haunting evocation of a barren, empty countryside), not that it diminishes her songwriting talent a jot, and even the ISB turn in some of their most commercial, straightforward work for Island (“Dear Old Battlefield”, for instance). New artists rush in to fill the void, such as Claire Hamill and Bronco, who, on the evidence of “Time Slips Away”, are something of an anomaly here, with their fine but foursquare Black Country-rock. Amazing Blondel bridge the old and the new on “Siege Of Yaddlethorpe”, mixing crumhorns and Jim Capaldi’s thunderous military drumming. Richard Thompson’s “Poor Ditching Boy” is drawn from his unique and mysterious solo debut, “Henry The Human Fly”; he’s also, almost inevitably, a member of folk-rock supergroup Morris On, who electrify the traditional “The Nutting Girl”. The metronomic thud of The Sutherland Brothers’ “Sailing” is oceans away from Rod Stewart’s cover; distinctly non-anthemic here, it sounds practically trussed up next to the freewheelin’ splendour of John Martyn’s “Over The Hill”, one a song anticipating arrival, the other celebrating departure. Behind and beyond all this, Nick Drake has become a hushed and haunted shadow of himself, as “Things Behind The Sun” attests.       

Disc three documents the genre discovering the attraction of really loud electric guitars. John Martyn presides over “Eibhli Ghail Chiuin ni Chearbhail”’s bracing battle of Celtic air and rotating Leslie, Richard Thompson turns in an epic 13-minute live performance of “Calvary Cross” in which his splendid, spindly guitar soloing delicately entwines John Kirkpatrick’s steadfast accordion rhythms, and even the Albion Band engineer a stabbing electric attack into “Hangéd I Shall Be”. But there’s also a more delicate, modernising approach to trad arr on display here, such as Martyn’s narcotic slur through the beauteous “Spencer The Rover”. Another almost-ran, Bryn Haworth plays, on “Darling Cory”, a kind of Celtic country rock that deserves a wider audience, and Ronnie Lane & Slim Chance’s “Stone” has a rustic, getting-it-together-in-the-country vibe that The Small Faces attempted at times but never made as easily and loosely swinging as this. “Dimming Of The Day / Dargai” finds Richard & Linda Thompson rapidly accelerating towards a kind of songwriting perfection, and, somewhat more traditionally, Ashley Hutchings & Chums’ “Upton-upon-Severn Stick Dance” is accompanied by the distracting but, I suppose, necessary sound of real live Morris dancing.  Sandy Denny’s “I’m A Dreamer” is glossy balladry from the twilight (or swansong, depending on how you prefer to look at it) of her career, almost buried under luxurious orchestration and massed backing vocalists. Somewhat contrasty is a Peel Session version of John Martyn’s “May You Never”, proving that sometimes a voice, an acoustic guitar and a song is all you need. Slightly disappointingly, the set closes with a 1987 remake  of Fairport Convention’s epochal near -title track rather than the 1968 original, which bathes Dave Mattacks’ drumming in unlovely cavernous 80s echo. It’s one of this collection’s few missteps, though, the others chiefly being the booklet’s assertion that Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright” was a top 10 hit (not on this planet, baby) and that Sandy Denny is “revered as the premier female singer-songwriter of her generation”, which, Sandy’s brilliance notwithstanding, seems something of a slight against Joni Mitchell and Carole King, at least.               

Otherwise, though, this is a sensitively curated and annotated and musically thrilling collection. If you folk-rock, it’s pretty much self-recommending.