Album of the Week, December 30: What We Did On Our Holidays by Fairport Convention

With one change in lineup, Fairport Convention’s second album became one of their finest and set the stage for the influential — if commercially frustrated — powerhouse band they would soon become. The full transformation of Fairport was just hinted at with this album; it would require another three discs to cement their status as the premier British folk-rock band. nevertheless, the addition of singer, songwriter, and traditional music enthusiast Sandy Denny after the departure of Judy Dyble was one of the most significant band changes in 60s British music. Known for her work on the coffeehouse circuit and on the BBC, as well as a short stint with the Strawbs, Denny was a perfect addition to the band as they began to stretch their wings.

Title What We Did On Our Holidays
Act Fairport Convention
Label Island Release Date Jan. 1969
Producer Joe Boyd
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Fotheringay
  2. Mr. Lacey
  3. Book Song
  4. “The Lord Is In This Place…
    How Dreadful Is This Place”
  5. No Man’s Land
  6. I’ll Keep It With Mine
  7. Eastern Rain
  8. Nottamun Town
  9. Tale In Hard Time
  10. She Moves Through the Fair
  11. Meet On the Ledge
  12. End of A Holiday

Just to make things confusing, the band’s U.S. label, A&M, retitled the album Fairport Convention (just like its predecessor) and changed the cover art significantly. (Personally, I prefer the charming band photo of the American release.) Fortunately, unlike many other trans-Atlantic release disparities, the track listing was unaltered, so listeners got the same brilliant disc no matter where they bought it. It’s a diverse set of songs, including traditional music and covers of American folkies but expanding the focus on original compositions.

On the band’s first album, nearly half the tracks were written by outside talent, including songs by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. On this disc there are only two covers, one each by those stellar composers. The Mitchell track is Eastern Rain, a song she never recorded herself. It’s a beautiful, naturalistic song featuring shared vocals by Denny and Ian Matthews. The Dylan cover is a better known song, I’ll Keep It With Mine, which he also never committed to disc himself. It has been covered by dozens of artists — before and after Fairport — but Denny’s powerful reading is perhaps the finest. The band turn in great performances behind her, showing how fully each member contributes to the success of their sound.

The two traditional songs are equally masterful choices. While Fairport wouldn’t fully rise to the folk challenge until 1969’s Liege and Lief, Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings’ interest in traditional music gets a firm footing here. Nottamun Town was collected from Kentucky singer Jean Ritchie. It’s seemingly nonsensical lyrics are part of a long tradition of lyrical riddles protecting the good magic of the song. Delivered in tight harmony, it’s a powerful harbinger of things to come and a fine performance in its own right. She Moves Through the Fair is much more Denny’s vehicle. While the band support her nicely, her vocals carry this sad song of ghosts and lost love.

With eight of the twelve tracks written by the band, every member but drummer Martin Lamble contributes at least one song. Bassist Ashley Hutchings provides two of the more unusual songs. Mr. Lacey is a tribute to an offbeat British inventor. It features the mechanical sounds of Lacey’s machines and feels like a folky ancestor of She Blinded Me With Science (without the romance). Hutchings and guitarist Richard Thompson penned another oddity together, the haunting The Lord Is In This Place… Recorded live at St. Peter’s, Westbourne Grove, it features just Thompson on acoustic slide guitar and otherworldly humming by Denny.

Thompson co-wrote another track with singer Ian Matthews, the stunning Book Song. A charming song about love and art, it is one of the finest vocal performances on the album, with Denny and Matthews providing another delightful shared vocal. Thompson was truly coming into his own as a writer, contributing a further three songs that he wrote alone. No Man’s Land is a song of independence in the face of oppressive powers that be, sung wonderfully by Matthews. Meet On the Ledge is a powerful anthem of friendship which would become one of the band’s signature songs throughout their long history. It features Denny on piano and vocals alternating between Matthews and Denny. Recorded numerous times by the band and Thompson, this remains the seminal version. Thompson’s finest contribution is one of his darkest songs — and that’s saying something. Tale In Hard Time sets the stage for his future solo career with a hard look at the difficulties of life.

The song opens and closes with two quiet, meditative songs.Guitarist Simon Nicol wrote End of A Holiday which aptly closes the affair. It’s a pretty instrumental featuring Nicol’s fragile guitar work. The album kicks off with a more powerful quiet, Denny’s stellar Fotheringay. A meditation on loneliness and loss — framed around the last days of Mary Queen of Scots — it’s a wonderful look at the contributions she would make to folk music in the coming years. It serves as one of her signature songs and is one of the strongest tracks in this powerful set.

After this wonderful album, the band continued its accidental tradition of changing lineups with every disc. Ian Matthews, frustrated with the direction of the band, left after contributing only one song to Unhalfbricking. Just before that album was released, the band was in a van crash which killed drummer Martin Lamble. They regrouped, adding new drummer Dave Mattacks and fiddler extraordinaire Dave Swarbrick, who had played on ill-fated album. Liege and Lief was a watershed in folk rock, but Denny and Hutchings left right after it. Bassist Dave Pegg joined for Full House, after which Thompson departed, leaving Nicol as the only founding member. The band continued with a shifting lineup, breaking up briefly in the late 70s and regrouping in the 80s to perform the now-legendary annual Cropredy Festival. Their lineup since 1984 has been much more stable with Nicol and Pegg serving as its heart.

FURTHER LISTENING:  Liege and Lief is the band’s unquestioned masterpiece (and will be a future Album of the Week). When Denny left the band, she formed Fotheringay with husband Trevor Lucas and three other strong folk-rock musicians. Their one album, Fotheringay, isn’t quite as powerful as her early Fairport work but is a strong disc in its own right. By 1973, Fairport had largely absorbed Fotheringay, and their best album post-Thompson and pre-Cropredy is that year’s Nine. Any album that features Sandy Denny’s vocals is worth a listen. Her other two Fairport albums are spottier affairs, but feature some strong material. Unhalfbricking includes her other signature song, Who Knows Where the Time Goes and A Sailor’s Life, the song that launched their folk career in earnest.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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