Song of the Day, February 17: Crazy Man Michael by Fairport Convention

fapcollcrazyToday’s song sees a challenge result in a masterpiece. Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief is best known for pioneering the trad-rock genre. It also includes three smart tracks written by members of the band, songs that capture the traditional folk essence despite their modern composition. One began as a hybrid of the two and emerged as the perfect closer to the disc.

Richard Thompson wrote Crazy Man Michael, a tragic tale of doomed love and dark magic, setting his words to a traditional tune. Fiddler Dave Swarbrick loved the words but thought the tune weakened them. Thompson challenged him to come up with something better, and he rose to the challenge. Composing on piano instead of his usual fiddle, Swarb came up with brooding, haunting tune that suits the lyrics perfectly. The result was one of the handful of Thompson/Swarbrick compositions that mark some of the best of original Fairport.

The band were clearly inspired by the song, turning in one of the tightest performances on the album. Simon Nicol’s acoustic guitar shimmers around Swarb’s magical fiddle lines. Sandy Denny’s vocal is restrained and aching. Daves Mattacks and Pegg support things brilliantly, with a subtle but urgent rhythm. Thompson’s brief turns on electric lead — a solo in the middle and a bright closing figure — provide the perfect note of anguish. The result is a modern song that fits into the traditional settings and a clever closing to a masterful album.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, July 11: Listen, Listen by Sandy Denny

SandyListenToday’s song is a thematic capsule for a wonderful album. Sandy Denny’s second solo disc, simply titled Sandy, is a lovely overview of her vocal talents and musical styles. Right at the middle of the track list is Listen, Listen. A Denny original, it reflects her most common themes, weaving them together in a beautiful package.

Denny loves songs about travel and wandering, especially when they involve the water. The subject of this song is a traveller, who feels the “salty spray” in the second line. He’s also worth listening to, reflecting her passion for storytellers, especially those who weave their tales in music. The whole story has a nostalgic feel to it, engaging her interest in the timeless and traditional. The seamless fusion of these ideas, presented in one of her finest vocals, makes the song a standout in her all-too-brief career.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Song of the Day, May 23: Solo by Sandy Denny

DennyWaltzSoloToday’s song is a wonderful reflection on independence. After leaving Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny launched a solo career, with a mixed bag debut and a stunning second release. Her third effort, Like An Old Fashioned Waltz, is a bit of a disappointment, with husband Trevor Lucas’ production muddying the sound.

One track is a standout in Denny’s rich catalog, however. Solo features some nice observations, recognizing that in the end we all must own our lives. Denny observed in an interview, that it’s

A song which depicts, I think, that knowledge we all have inside, which is, that nobody can live your life for you. But at the same time, let’s try to help one another, all the same.

She also makes a fun jab at her own folk diva reputation with the line “I’ve always kept a unicorn and I never sing out of tune.” The whole package is stirring and elegant, a fine musical moment.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, April 6: The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood by Sandy Denny

SandyQuietJoysToday’s song is the finest version of a beautiful folk blend. Folk musician and poet Richard Fariña wrote The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood shortly before his death in a motorcycle accident in 1966. He intended to set it to the music of the Irish ballad My Lagan Love, and Pete Seeger recorded it that way on his 1966 album God Bless the Grass, remarking on the song’s “admiration for nature.”

Sandy Denny loved the song, and recorded a version with Fairport Convention for Liege and Lief. It didn’t fit the feel of the album and was shelved, finally emerging on the box set Who Knows Where the Time Goes a decade after her death. Sandy wouldn’t let it go, however, and crafted a mesmerizing version for her second solo album, Sandy. The track is the centerpiece of the powerful disc, lovingly crafted and hauntingly evocative. Denny multitracked her stirring vocals, creating an a cappella chorus of breathtaking beauty. The song slowly builds, capturing the majesty of Fariña’s lyrics, celebrating nature’s power and offering a warning if we treat it lightly. Long-time friend Dave Swarbrick provides a violin coda that wraps up the track on just the right note.

The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood is one of Richard Fariña’s finest lyrics, Sandy Denny’s most affecting vocals, and Dave Swarbrick’s most nuanced performances. That makes for true folk magic.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, March 3: John the Gun by Sandy Denny

DennyNorthJohnGunToday’s song is a standout on a complicated solo debut. After finding fame as a member of Fairport Convention and a brief attempt as a bandleader with Fotheringay, Sandy Denny finally struck out on her own in 1971. The North Star Grassman and the Ravens is a fascinating debut, a mixture of strong originals, a perfect traditional folk selection, and some odd experiments. Denny brought in many of her musical pals, notably Richard Thompson, and many former Fairport and Fotheringay members. Sometimes the gathered talent collided rather than collaborated.

An exception is John the Gun, one of Denny’s best-known songs. It’s an eerie original, a compelling epic with a strong trad-folk feel. Denny had been working on it for a couple of years, intending it for the shelved second Fotheringay album. With a searing Thompson lead guitar, solid backing from Fotheringay pals, and a great fiddle line from Barry Dransfield, this time the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Enjoy this stirring epic today.

Song of the Day, February 5: If You Saw Thro My Eyes by Ian Matthews with Sandy Denny

MatthewsDennyThroToday’s song is a showcase of former Fairport Convention talent. Singer Ian (later Iain) Matthews departed the band after their second album, wanting to pursue the pop side of folk rather than the traditional tunes that the band had begun to explore. He formed Matthews’ Southern Comfort and recorded three albums mixing his original songs with well-chosen covers (including Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, which hit #1 in the UK). Realizing that the band format was too restrictive, he quickly recorded his first true solo album, 1971’s If You Saw Thro My Eyes. While the album is definitely Matthews’, he does get some help from Sandy Denny — who left Fairport two albums after he did — and Richard Thompson — who would leave the band before Matthews’ disc hit the racks.

The title track is a quiet pop gem. Matthews sings it a  duet with Denny, their gorgeous voices intertwining over her fragile piano work. A pensive track on relationships, it shows off the folky side of Matthews’ pop strength and the pop side of Denny’s acoustic power. It was also the last time their two amazing voices were recorded together, a reminder of how charming and sympathetic their partnership could be.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, January 8: The Lady by Sandy Denny

SandyDennySandyToday’s song is The Lady by Sandy Denny. It appears on her second solo album, Sandy. After the occasionally brilliant but uneven The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, this disc was a powerful musical statement. Denny was in fine voice and assembled a strong set of songs mixing traditional, covers, and her lovely originals.

One of her finest songs, The Lady is a moving tribute to music. It has an autobiographical feel, with Denny easily standing in for the lady of the lyrics. She plays a subtle, moving piano under a clear vocal, delivering the kind of clean emotional honesty that marks her best work.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Album of the Week, December 27: Sandy by Sandy Denny

SandyDennySandyAlexandra Elene MacLean Denny was born in London in 1947. She developed a love of music listening to her grandmother sing traditional songs and was trained in classical piano, but her parents insisted she pursue a practical career. That backfired when she headed off to nursing school, where she quickly began singing in folk clubs and dropped out to pursue her passion. She developed a reputation as a singer of traditional songs and modern folk and began writing her own songs. She recorded an album with prog-folk band the Strawbs, demos for which included an early version of her masterpiece, Who Knows Where the Time Goes. (Judy Collins quickly covered it as the title track of her 1968 release.) When Judy Dyble left Fairport Convention after their first album, Denny easily won the audition to replace her and helped shape the band’s foray into folk rock. After three albums in little over a year — including the brilliant What We Did On Our Holidays and the trad-rock foundation Liege and Lief — Denny left to form Fotheringay with future husband Trevor Lucas. That project only lasted one album, and Denny launched a solo career. Her debut, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, was a delightful mess on which she played with a variety of sounds, supported by her legion of talented friends. For the follow-up Lucas took over production duties and tightened things up a bit. The result is a fine set that shows off the legendary vocal and musical power of Sandy Denny.

Album Sandy
Act Sandy Denny
Label Island Release Date September 1972
Producer Trevor Lucas
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  #132
Tracks
  1. It’ll Take A Long Time
  2. Sweet Rosemary
  3. For Nobody to Hear
  4. Tomorrow Is A Long Time
  5. Quiet Joys of Brotherhood
  6. Listen, Listen
  7. The Lady
  8. Bushes and Briars
  9. it Suits Me Well
  10. The Music Weaver

Denny and Lucas recruited a great backing band — Dave Swarbrick on fiddle, Richard Thompson on guitar and mandolin, Pat Donaldson on bass, Timi Donald on drums, John Kirkpatrick covering keyboards, and Linda Peters (soon to be Thompson) on backing vocals. Sneaky Pete Kleinow pitches in from time to time with his slide guitar magic. That much talent could overwhelm a lesser performer, but Denny is clearly the star of the show, writing eight of the ten tracks. She plays piano and acoustic guitar, but her voice is the magical element that holds the album together.

Things start off with familiar territory, exploring themes of the sea. It’ll Take A Long Time is s a wonderful track that feels timeless and traditional, a clear successor to her Fairport work (including a great Thompson guitar line). Wistful and cautiously optimistic, it captures the essence of Sandy Denny’s music. Sweet Rosemary is a lovely ballad, a story song that fits snugly into the folk canon. For Nobody to Hear is the most like Grassman, a rambunctious song that shows off Denny’s looser musical side without detracting from the album’s overall flow. It also features a fun brass section arranged by Allen Toussaint. Denny was a big Dylan fan, often singing his songs live. Her cover of Tomorrow Is A Long Time is a wonderful interpretation, featuring a great contribution from Kleinow. It’s a testament to Denny’s skills — both as a singer and writer — that this song fits in so well.

Richard Farina wrote the poem Quiet Joys of Brotherhood and set it to the music of the Irish traditional ballad My Lagan Love. Denny loved the song, recording a version with Fairport that wound up being cut from Liege and Lief. On Sandy, she sings it a cappella, multi-tracking her vocals to great effect. It’s a powerful centerpiece, gaining extra grace from Swarbrick’s beautiful fiddle coda.

Listen, Listen is a traveling song, a pretty ode to music and its magic. Classic Denny, it’s one of her strongest songs and features a sweet, clear vocal. The Lady continues in that vein, feeling somewhat autobiographical. Wistful and quiet, it captures Denny’s essence well. Bushes and Briars conjures up a wintry landscape and the quiet desolation of the English churchyard. With a nod to the rose and briar of Barbara Allen, the dissection of a relationship contrasted with the setting is one of Denny’s most complex lyrics, carried off effortlessly.

On It Suits Me Well, Denny channels the spirit of a series of travellers and the stories they tell. It’s the most explicit exploration of side two’s power-of-tales theme, honest and moving. Things wrap up with The Music Weaver, a tribute to Richard Thompson that could easily refer to Denny’s own talents.

Sandy Denny recorded an amazing variety of songs in her sadly short career — including a Led Zeppelin lead vocal — and took part in some of the finest early moments of trad-rock and the British folk revival. Sandy lets her soar on her own, capturing her rich talents in ten moving tracks.

FURTHER LISTENING: All of Denny’s 1968-69 work with Fairport Convention is essential for fans of folk rock. Fotheringay isn’t quite as magical, but their one eponymous release lets the singer find her feet as a band leader. She only recorded four solo albums, interrupted by a brief return to Fairport in 1975-76 for the lackluster Rising For the Moon. North Star Grassman and the Ravens has some splendid moments but never quite comes together. Like An Old Fashioned Waltz tries too hard and is frequently buried by Lucas’ heavy-handed production, a disappointment after his skillful work on Sandy. Rendezvous is solid but clearly suffers from the singer’s personal demons.

She died in 1978 after falling down a flight of stairs, leaving behind an impressive legacy. Almost everything she ever put on tape has been preserved, so many compilations and deluxe editions of her work exist (including the daunting, 19-disc box set Sandy Denny). Most of the tracks not included on the main albums are curiosities or items of interest to serious fans. The two-disc No More Sad Refrains provides a nice overview of her career.

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.

Song of the Day, November 18: Matty Groves by Fairport Convention

FapCoMattyToday’s song is one of the most compelling moments in the early days of the British folk rock movement. Matty Groves is a very old traditional British ballad (Roud 52, Child 91). There are references to it dating back to 1613 making it likely that it’s been around since as early as the 14th Century. It’s a classic murder story, which accounts for much of its appeal, and exists in multiple versions with the names of the players changed but the basic events surviving surprisingly intact.

The wife of a nobleman takes advantage of his absence to invite a young man (Matty Groves) to share her bed. A servant overhears their plans and runs off to warn his master. The master returns and catches the pair in flagrante, challenging Matty to a duel. After allowing the young man to dress, lending him a sword, and giving him the first strike, the master kills Matty, only to find that his wife still prefers the dead man. He kills her in a rage and orders the pair buried together, but with “my lady at the top, for she was of noble kin.”

Fairport Convention were in a period of significant transition when they took up the song. Drummer Martin Lamble had been killed in a van crash that injured the rest of the band; the brilliant Dave Mattacks came on board to replace him. Singer Ian Matthews departed, not interested in the band’s move toward traditional music. Veteran folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick joined full-time after pitching in on the second album. Vocalist Sandy Denny, bassist Ashley Hutchings, and guitarists Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol kept the push for more traditional songs, with Hutchings doing significant research before the recording sessions. Wedding that music (plus some very folky originals) to their growing rock confidence, they created the masterpiece album Liege and Lief.

Matty Groves is perhaps the finest track on the disc, a perfect merger of a beloved song with long traditions and the band’s superb chops. The rhythm section of Hutchings/Mattacks/Nicol is amazing, propelling the whole song along with a driving beat. Sandy Denny is in fine voice, a clarion call of urgency as she tells the tragic tale. Thompson, already known for his guitar pyrotechnics, found the perfect foil in the brilliant fiddling of Swarbrick. The two coil around each other, adding a sneaky, sinister groove to the track. After the story is complete, things break into a three-minute jam with Thompson and Swarb’s instrumental work rivalling Denny’s vocal delivery on the first half. It’s folk rock at its finest, establishing Fairport as a force to be reckoned with.

Enjoy this musical masterpiece today.

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