Album of the Week, April 19: Liege and Lief by Fairport Convention

FapCoL&LRBHSJDIDBadgeFairport Convention had a very busy 1969. They released their brilliant second album — the first to feature vocalist Sandy Denny — in January. Singer Ian Matthews left shortly after that, not interested in the band’s musical direction. In summer they released Unhalfbricking, which featured the traditional song A Sailor’s Life, folding Denny’s interest in folk music into the mix. A van crash traumatized the band, killing drummer Martin Lamble. They regrouped, bringing in powerhouse percussionist Dave Mattacks and adding veteran folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick who had guested on Unhalfbricking. Bassist Ashley Hutchings was fascinated by traditional folk and began digging for material that would suit the band. Lead guitarist Richard Thompson was writing more of his own songs and adapted his style to fit the traditional tone of the pieces Hutchings and Denny were providing. Rounding out the sextet, stalwart rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol — who would become the single constant in decades of changing lineups — shared his bandmates’ enthusiasm. The result was a set of eight songs that adapted traditional material to the group’s solid rock foundation and added smart originals that fit in seamlessly.

Title Liege & Lief
Act Fairport Convention
Label A & M Release Date December 1969
Producer Joe Boyd
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  17
Tracks
  1. Come All Ye
  2. Reynardine
  3. Matty Groves
  4. Farewell, Farewell
  5. The Deserter
  6. Medley:
    The Lark In the Morning
    Rakish Paddy
    Fox Hunter’s Jig
    Toss the Feathers
  7. Tam Lin
  8. Crazy Man Michael

Come All Ye is one of the smartest opening tracks in rock. It’s a stirring dance march, introducing the band members one by one and inviting the listner to the party. Traditional in tone and structure, the Denny/Hutchings composition shows them taking what they found in the archives and making it their own. Everyone joins in, building a stirring, joyous celebration.

Denny provides a stark, haunting vocal on the traditional Reynardine, a staple in British folk circles. She captures the dark essence of the lyrics nicely as the band provide subtle, sympathetic backing. It’s a masterpiece of dramatic restraint, showing just how much the group had grown as a unit during their busy year. Another trad standard follows, the lust / betrayal / revenge epic Matty Groves. The first half is a stirring, urgent recitation of the story, with another fine Denny vocal. After that, Swarbrick and Thompson take over, weaving electric guitar and fiddle into a frenzy of musical power. The song provides the finest example of folk rock on the disc, clearly respecting the original material while making something distinctly new.

Side one ends with the lovely Thompson original Farewell Farewell. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet track that finds him coming into his own as a writer. The band create a quiet backdrop for Denny’s poignant delivery, perfectly suited to the folk themes of the disc.

Side two opens with another traditional track, The Deserter, an ironic look at betrayal, freedom and authority. Swarbrick provides a perfect fiddle line to hold the track together while the rest of the band simmer with barely restrained tension. Denny’s vocal is stately and almost detached, a nice touch that fits the lyrics and shows off her varied sonic palette. An instrumental medley follows, a fun romp through a variety of traditional dance tunes. It’s smartly sequenced, amping up the energy while staying true to the spirit of the proceedings.

Tam Lin is another mini-epic, a traditional tale of magic and true love. While it lacks the brilliant frenzy of Matty Groves, it’s an equally important statement of folk rock, fusing the two together in a beautiful, compelling package. Swarbrick’s fiddle is much more traditional but no less compelling and Thompson shows off his virtuosity with a lead line that embellishes without dominating. Mattacks really comes into his own as well, with his drumming providing a critical element to the glorious mix. Thompson and Swarbrick collaborated on the final tune, the tragic Crazy Man Michael. Thompson wrote a lyric that fits into traditional themes of magic and lost love nicely, setting it to a traditional tune; Swarbrick thought the tune weakened the song and rose to Thompson’s challenge to write something better. The result is a fine piece of acoustic folk rock and a perfect ending to a stirring musical journey.

Fairport Convention didn’t really invent folk rock. One form was already brewing in the U.S., where the singer-songwriter tradition — already one step removed from traditional songs — was being fused to rock forms by the Byrds, Dylan and others. What Fairport did on Liege and Lief was create something distinctly British, crafting the first full outing of trad-rock. They invigorated the burgeoning traditional folk revival, stirring interest in acts that stayed truer to the original material and also provided a template for building on those traditions within a rock framework. The trail they blazed resulted in many other acts adapting original material while inspiring others to write rock songs that used traditional folk elements.

Awarded the distinction of “Most Influential Folk Album of All Time” at the 2006 BBC Radio Folk Awards, Liege and Lief was truly something old and something new. It was also the last work of a classic lineup as the headstrong, independent talents began to pull in different directions. Bringing a close to a powerful, tumultuous year, Fairport Convention proved their talent, dedication and vision and left a stunning legacy.

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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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