To mark their 50th anniversary, Fairport Convention has released Come All Ye – The First 10 years. Far from being a simple box set compromising of their first 13 albums from 68-78 or even a greatest hit compilation, this seven-disc set is a real collector's piece that says more about the band and their music than a standard release ever could.
Compiled by Andrew Batt, the curator behind the successful Tribute to Sandy Denny which toured in 2012, this compilation takes in tracks across their seminal albums, but they are a mix of un-released tracks, B-Sides, alternative takes, sessions and live concerts.
Often credited for creating folk rock and setting traditional English music alongside electric instruments, but they are far more varied than that. Over the years the evolution of their lineup has ensured their longevity and musical versatility. Perhaps the most defining element of Fairport's early days is the distinctive and passionate vocal of Sandy Denny. Denny's aptitude as a vocalist has always been evident for all who heard her distinctive and angelic voice. Now revered as the English Joni Mitchell, even Kate Bush has cited her as a formative influence and she was also the only musician to make a guest appearance on a Led Zeppelin album.
Many of the tracks on offer are much more typically rocky than you may imagine. Sweet Little Rock N' Roller, Down In The Flood and Think It Over are classic blues rock fare that could easily have been covered by Vinegar Joe and other stablemates. Only Time Will Tell has all the pop stylings of a typical 60s chart song. One Sure Thing and Jack O' Diamonds hint at the band's evolution by mixing elements of psychedelia, further adding layers to their music. An alternative version of Who Knows Where The Time Goes? (voted favourite folk track of all time at the 2007 BBC Folk Awards) reveals the human vulnerability and frailty in Denny's vocal and is perhaps one of her best performances of a much-loved song.
The raunchy Mr Lacey from The Sandy Denny Box Set is pure rock and roll and takes Sandy's vocals into a different arena. Her English rose tones come to the fore once again on the wonderful previously unreleased track Eastern Rain. B-side, Throwaway Street Puzzle could easily come off one of The Beatles' early releases. A surprising cover of Leonard Cohen's Suzanne (from John Peel's Top Gear programme in 1968) is lifted from the maudlin tones of the original to more of a carefree folk-pop with Denny offering a sensitive feminine approach on the second verse with her pure, unwavering vocal.
On disc seven - Live at the LA Troubadour 1974, Denny's vocals are really tested in a live sphere. They have an edgy, theatrical feel during the live set, that is often overlooked on the softer studio recordings. Her self-penned track, Solo, from her third album is masterfully delivered whilst the John The Gun packs a punch with Denny's folk lilt riding over the heavier backing. The track draws comparisons to some of the work of the band's contemporaries, The Strawbs, who Denny also worked with. Long Before Guns N' Roses sassed up Dylan's Knocking On Heaven's Door, Fairport gives the track a beautiful makeover, with Denny's rich vocals brimming with ecclesiastic sincerity alongside the country-tinged backing.
Disc 5 tackles Dylan once again with a version of All Along The Watchtower – live in Oslo in 1975; there's nothing soft about this gloriously dynamic version, repeat with the furious tension of the strings driving the track alongside a climbing electric guitar. Jerry Reed's challenging classic The Claw on Disc 6 (Live at Fairfield Hall 1973) and demonstrates Jerry Donahue's incredible skill as a guitarist. His other instrumental piece Tokyo also adds an unexpected country-Celtic flavour to their music following Donahue's finger picking technique and again creating a different sound for the band. Sadly Donahue suffered a stroke in 2016 leaving him unable to play the guitar and Sandy Denny's life was sadly cut short from a brain haemorrhage at the age of 31 in 1978. Other members of the band have also passed away since those first ten years drummer Martin Lamble (who only played on their first album), the influential fiddle player Dave Swarbrick, Bruce Rowland, Roger Hill and David Rea; this collection is as much a tribute to their talents as it is to chronicle the history of the band.
Fairport Convention has not only spanned the decades but several different musical styles too. From blues to rock, from country to folk, here is a band capable of mixing them all up without losing their focus. Their legacy, collective musicianship and songwriting abilities from the members are staggering, having written some of the most engaging and honest music in modern British music. Come All Ye is the definitive box set of Fairport Convention's music and one of the most exciting periods in music.
Groupie Rating 5/5