Their rapid transformation from (frankly not bad) Jefferson Airplane clones to leading...
Chris Jones 2002
Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Fairport Convention are unassailably the greatest folk rock band ever formed, with past alumni including legendary names within both folk and rock: Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings and a host of others. A Pete Frame-style family tree comes with this enormous set to really demonstrate the labyrinthine history that's being archived here and along with the huge book (that's book not booklet, note) it all forms a collection to make completists spontaneously combust with delight. And yet, like fifteen helpings of chocolate cake in a row it can get a bit much. For while the remarkable voice of Ms Denny or the wild guitar of Thompson never fails to thrill, the post-heyday material can pall quite seriously. Buyer beware, there's five hours of this stuff and your CD programming button may be needed...
Historically, Fairport have needed this amount of attention for years. Their rapid transformation from (frankly not bad) Jefferson Airplane clones to leading advocates of all things rustic and traditional is here told in a stunning patchwork of rehearsals, outtakes, live tapes and radio sessions. These go all the way from their jazzy debut "If I Had A Ribbon Bow" to tracks recorded at the institution that constitutes the yearly Cropredy reunion festival. The problem lies with the organisation of this box. In a brave attempt to break away from a chronological format the four discs have been grouped by theme. So we get a first disc which moves timewise, but the others are grouped as rarities, epic historical songs and a selection of their classic repertoire. Thus "Walk Awhile" from 1970 will sit next to "John Gaudie" recorded in 1998, and comparison isn't necessarily a good thing.
Lest this review seem churlish, it must be noted that a good two thirds of this box are from the pre-1972 era. While a lot of this stuff approaches roughest bootleg quality ("A Sailors Life" recorded live, appropriately enough, in Southampton) it shines out as incredibly adventurous. It was this period that saw the band forging new music by drawing on a rich heritage in much the same way that the Band were doing in America. This band saw no problem in mixing jazz with folk and psychedelia on such gems as "Autopsy". And when such archaeology unearths tracks as good as these it becomes clear that 1969's landmark Liege And Lief didn't just materialise out of thin air, but was the result of a unit inspired by each other's musical prowess and inquisitiveness.
Fairport these days often seem like a bunch of rural pub bores intent on mulling over past glories while permanently trapped in an anodyne aural comfort-zone. Yet who could deny that in their first five years they created a legacy so rich and varied that it's no surprise that it continues to support the ultimate cottage industry. Congratulations must go to Free Reed for setting this material loose on the world, but let's make it a double album next time shall we?