As the standard-bearers for British folk-rock since the late 1960s, Fairport Convention has proven itself both the least stable and the most stable of musical institutions. Now well into its fourth decade, Fairport has run through almost a dozen lead singers and a similar number of lead guitarists, while sustaining a legacy and building an exceptionally loyal fan base. This exhaustively annotated labor of love celebrates that legacy, rewards the fans, and reminds those of us who have tended to forget Fairport what a special band this is.
Or at least was, for the career-spanning selection notwithstanding, most of what’s extraordinary in this set comes from the band’s first four years, when guitarist Richard Thompson and fiddler Dave Swarbrick were turning folk music into fireworks and the late Sandy Denny was establishing herself as Britain’s premier vocalist (after sharing vocal duties with Iain Matthews, who also contributes highlights here). For me, Denny remains the gold standard, the comparison I invoke to offer the highest praise to singers from Rosanne Cash to Caitlin Cary.
Previously available as a higher-priced import but recently issued Stateside, Fairport Unconventional gives each of its four discs a theme (historic ballads, core repertoire, etc.), while digging deeply into the vaults of broadcasts, rehearsal and live tapes, and studio outtakes. A remix of the classic “Matty Groves” presents an aural collage of performances across the band’s career, while the epic “Sloth” and “Tam Lin” suggest musical dynamics that owe as much to early Jefferson Airplane as they do to the Band and the Byrds, whose revivals of American traditions inspired Fairport to try the same with its own country’s music. (In the process, Fairport also established itself as Britain’s foremost interpreters of Dylan.)
With 168 pages of bound liner notes, the box puts the band’s achievement in monumental perspective.