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'Sad deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving'. For several weeks I'd had that line from a song stuck in my brain and when I actually remembered what it was, a whole slew of memories came flooding back. The song was 'Who Knows Where the Time Goes' which I first heard at a Fairport Convention concert at the Festival Hall, too many decades ago to correctly remember the exact year. The singer and, indeed, the songwriter was Sandy Denny and I recall being blown away by the incredible beauty of her voice. It's the one and only time I've ever attended a concert where the entire audience fell into breathless silence and when she finished the song, it brought the house down.
I have a couple of vinyl Fairport Convention albums tucked away in the loft but nothing on CD so my memories prompted me to check out what was available on Amazon and I plumped for a couple of CDs, this one and also a compilation album of Sandy Denny's music.
Though Sandy Denny wasn't the original lead singer with Fairport Convention, she was certainly the most talented and the most memorable. The band which formed as a more or less traditional folk rock band back in 1967 (though the genre was known as electric folk back then) has had many incarnations throughout its history and, though still touring today, none of the original line up remain. Over the next couple of years plus one or two more line-up changes, the band morphed into one of the premier folk rock bands of the late Sixties and early Seventies, leading the way for the likes of Jethro Tull. Today, only Simon Nicol and Dave Pegg from that excellent line-up are still playing in the band.
Although this album is entitled The History of Fairport Convention, it should more correctly be called The Early History of Fairport Convention or even The Golden Years of Fairport Convention because this album only covers that golden period of a few short years between 1968 and 1972 when the band were at the height of their fame and boasted a line-up which couldn't be bettered.
I think it's fair to say that though all the band members were musically talented, the jewel in Fairport Convention's crown was Sandy Denny. This was a time when her voice was at its peak of perfection and she herself hadn't succumbed to the pressures of fame and all the insecurities which plagued her all too short life. Sandy's voice had a quality of such pure and haunting sweetness and it was never better than when singing her own compositions.
The album kicks off with 'Meet on the Ledge', the band's only Top Twenty single. Written by Richard Thompson, the track begins with acoustic guitar and the voice of Ian Matthews (later of Matthews Southern Comfort) before being joined by Sandy Denny and then a more mid-tempo rock-style accompaniment follows, though without losing that essential folk sound.
Sandy Denny gets her first solo on track two, Fotheringay, a song she wrote. This is definitely a song or, more correctly, a madrigal which owes its origins to English folk music. Although it isn't specific, I'm guessing by the title and the words of the song that this is about Mary, Queen of Scots. The whole composition is soft, gentle and regretful and, of course, the haunting quality of Sandy Denny's voice and the simple delivery emphasises the tragedy of Mary's situation. I have to say that I've never had much sympathy for Mary, Queen of Scots but the empathic quality of this song manages to reverse my opinion.
'How often she has gazed from castle windows all
And watched the daylight passing within her captive wall.
With no-one to heed her call.'
'Her days of precious freedom forfeited long before
To live such fruitless years behind a guarded door.
But those days will last no more.'
The Ashley Hutching song is a good deal more cheerful and upbeat. 'Mr Lacey' is definitely a rock number and though I guess to modern ears it will sound rather dated, it's an enjoyable track with the blend of vocals reminiscent of the Everley Brothers at times and some excellent guitar playing. If nothing else, it proved that Fairport Convention certainly weren't only about traditional folk music. The pace slows down for Book Song which, again, has elements of the Everley Brothers and has an American country sound with twangy guitar and an insistent drum beat. It's pleasant enough but doesn't come across as particularly memorable.
'Sailor's Life' is a traditional song given a Fairport Convention makeover. Sandy Denny became her career as a folk singer and this return to her musical roots is demonstrated here. If a voice can be described as both pure and husky, then she has it and it's perfectly suited to this song which sounds Celtic. The song which lasts for 11 minutes begins a capella before being joined by acoustic guitar. As the song progresses, more rocky elements are introduced though the Celtic sound is maintained by the rhythmic drumming and gradually the song gives way to a purely instrumental piece. One of the best tracks on the album to demonstrate the band's versatility.
'Si tu dois partir' translates, for those who've forgotten their French lessons, into 'If you gotta go'. This is Fairport Convention's take on the Bob Dylan song which they translated into French though they obviously had some difficulties as they've kept some of the English words, too. This isn't one of my favourites on the album though it's interesting as a comparison with the Dylan version. This rendition is given a much more traditional folk sound than the original.
Then comes the track which prompted me to buy this album, 'Who Knows Where the Time Goes' and it's every bit as lovely as I recall. Sandy Denny wrote this song when she was still a teenager and had already recorded a version with The Strawbs but this version is, to my mind, far superior because of the excellent musical arrangement which enhances the vocals but never overshadows them.
'Across the evening sky all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it's time for them to go
Before the winter fire I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time.
For who knows where the time goes
Who knows where the time goes'
This is a timeless classic and has been covered by many others who obviously agree. I could spend the entire review waxing lyrical about Sandy Denny's voice because it is remarkable and I count myself very fortunate to have seen her given that memorable live performance. I've given a link at the bottom of the review so you can hear for yourselves what a truly beautiful voice she had.
'Matty Groves' changes the mood. This is traditional folk song given a rock sound but, as with all Fairport Convention's arrangements, it retains the essential folk elements. The folk tradition is continued with the Dave Swarbrick/Richard Thompson compositions, 'Now Be Thankful' and'Walk Awhile', both of which are mercifully short. Their longer composition, 'Sloth' is much better, again blending folk and rock with the music providing the rock elements and the vocal delivery being that of a tradition folk song.
There are several tracks towards the end of the album which are unapologetically traditional folk music. If you aren't into badly dressed men with a finger in their ear, warbling about farm workers starving or sowing the barley, you won't enjoy them. Some other tracks, mainly with a contribution from Dave Swarbrick, also have strong elements of the folk tradition from which he came, though given a slightly modern (or at least for those days) twist.
The 18 tracks on this album given a wonderful flavour of the early days of Fairport Convention and folk rock in general. There are only a few tracks I tend to skip and they're the ones that are purely folk songs and were anachronistic even back then. Fairport Convention were an important band in the development of British folk rock music, although eventually their resistance to leaving behind the traditional elements allowed the takeover of bands such as Jethro Tull, who managed to blend the two and who also progress the genre.
By the early Seventies, Sandy Denny had left Fairport Convention to join Fotheringay, though she did return to the band later on, but her absence is felt and her more commercial songs make the later tracks on the album less appealing and the balance becomes rather uneven between traditional folk and modern folk rock. This is probably an album for folk rock aficionados. For fans of Sandy Denny, I suggest buying a compilation album of her music such as 'No More Sad Refrains' which is the one I bought.
The History of Fairport Convention is currently available new for £6.74 in CD format or slightly less for the MP3 download.
YouTube link: Who Knows Where the Time Goes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNJmDuNOMxs&feature=related)