Fairport Convention are a British folk rock band, formed in 1967 by Richard Thompson (guitar, vocals), Simon Nicol (guitar, vocals), Ashley Hutchings (bass guitar), and Shaun Frater (drums, percussion), with Frater replaced by Martin Lamble after their first gig. They started out heavily influenced by American folk rock and singer-songwriter material, with a setlist dominated by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell songs and a sound that earned them the nickname ‘the British Jefferson Airplane’. Vocalists Judy Dyble and Iain Matthews joined them before the recording of their self-titled debut in 1968; afterwards, Dyble was replaced by Sandy Denny, with Matthews leaving during the recording of their third album.
Denny began steering the group towards traditional British music for their next two albums, What We Did on Our Holidays and Unhalfbricking (both 1969); the latter featured fiddler Dave “Swarb” Swarbrick, most notably on the song “A Sailor’s Life”, which laid the groundwork for British folk rock by being the first time a traditional British song was combined with a rock beat.
However, shortly before the album’s release, a crash on the M1 killed Lamble and Thompson’s then-girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn; this resulted in the group retiring most of their prior material and turning entirely towards British folk music for their seminal album Liege & Lief, released the same year, with this style being the band’s focus ever since. For this album Swarbrick joined full-time alongside Dave Mattacks on drums. Both Denny and Hutchings left before the year’s end; the latter replaced by Dave Pegg, who has remained the group’s sole consistent member to this day; and Thompson would leave after the recording of 1970’s Full House.
The 1970s saw numerous lineup changes around the core of Swarbrick and Pegg – Nicol being absent for the middle of the decade – and declining fortunes as folk music fell out of mainstream favour. Denny, whose partner Trevor Lucas had been a guitarist in the group since 1972, returned for the pop-orientated Rising for the Moon album in 1975 in a final bid to crack America; this effort failed, and after three more albums minus Denny or Lucas, the group disbanded in 1979. They played a farewell concert in the village of Cropredy, Oxfordshire, where they had held small concerts since 1976, and this marked the beginning of the Cropredy Festival (since 2005 known as Fairport’s Cropredy Convention) which has become the largest folk festival in Britain, with annual attendances of 20,000. The band was reformed by Nicol, Pegg, and Mattacks in 1985, joined by Maartin Allcock (guitar, vocals) and Ric Sanders (fiddle, keyboards), and they have remained active since. Allcock was replaced by Chris Leslie in 1996, and Gerry Conway replaced Mattacks in 1998, with this lineup remaining unchanged since and marking the longest-lasting of the group’s history. Their 28th studio album, 50:50@50, released to mark their 50th anniversary, was released in 2017, and they continue to headline Cropredy each year.
Despite little mainstream success – with their only top 40 single being “Si Tu Dois Partir”, a French-language cover of the Dylan song “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” from Unhalfbricking – Fairport Convention remain highly influential in British folk rock and British folk in general. Liege & Lief was named the “Most Influential Folk Album of All Time” at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2006, and Pegg’s playing style, which incorporates jigs and reels into his basslines, has been imitated by many in the folk rock and folk punk genres. Additionally, many former members went on to form or join other notable groups in the genre, including Fotheringay, Steeleye Span, and the Albion Band; along with solo careers, most notably Thompson and Denny. Hers ended with her death in 1978, though she is now regarded[by whom?] as Britain’s finest female singer-songwriter, and her song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” – recorded by Fairport on Unhalfbricking – has become a signature song for herself and the band. (by wikipedia)
Across the Decades is an apt title for a band that’s as much an institution as anything. With more than 35 years under their belt, Fairport have a huge catalog to cherry-pick from for what’s essentially a best-of release. Be warned, however, that there’s nothing from the classic Sandy Denny/Richard Thompson lineup that helped invent British folk-rock. Instead, this picks up in 1971, although there are cuts from Denny’s second, mid-’70s stint with the band. However, the bulk comes from later on, although many of the names are familiar, as is a great deal of the material; the pieces are played with plenty of energy and skill — probably more skill than when some of them were first rolled out.
But they stand the test of time, as do many of the songs, several of which are written in styles influenced by the tradition. Purists might well turn their noses up at some of this, and demand compilations that trawl all the way back in the band’s history, and, to be fair, there was a magic about some early lineups that’s not completely evident here. However, that’s not to decry any of this, especially at a budget price for a double-CD set. It’s not the perfect introduction to Fairport, but for those curious about the slightly later years, this is a good way to sample that. (by Chris Nickson)
Various Fairport Convention line-ups
01. The Hexamshire Lass (Traditional) 2.37
02. Hens March Through the Midden/The Four Poster Bed (Traditional) 2.46
03. Sloth (Swarbrick/Thompson) 13.03
04. It’ll Take A Long Time (Denny) 5.31
05. Firs An Feathers (Swarbrick) 4.50
06. Cell Song (Mattacks/Nicol/Pegg/Swarbrick) 3.58
07. Who Knows Where The Time Goes (Denny) 6.29
08. Ballad Of Ned Kelly (Lucas) 3.46
09. The Deserter (Traditional) 4.31
10. Both Sides Now (Mitchell) 3.08
11. Walk Awhile (Swarbrick/Thompson) 4.09
12. Rosie (Swarbrick) 4.10
01. How Many Times (Thompson) 3.30
02. My Feet Are Set for Dancing (Lesurf) 4.03
03. Angel Delight (Mattacks/Nicol/Pegg/Swarbrick) 4.32
04. Red And Gold (McTell) 6.43
05. Open the Door Richard (Dylan) 4.59
06. It Takes A Lot To Laugh (Dylan) 5.44
07. I’ll Keep It With Mine (Dylan) 6.27
08. Tam Lin (Traditional) 7.58
09. Who Knows Where The Time Goes (Denny)
10. Doctor Of Physik (Swarbrick/Thompson) 3.50
11. The Naked Highwayman (Tilston) 4.44
12. Meet On The Ledge (Thompson) 5.31