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I've recently been rediscovering some of my early record purchases whilst going through my old LPs and converting them to MP3 files. One of these LPs, which sadly doesn't play anymore because it's become so warped, is "What We Did on Our Holidays", the second album from Fairport Convention. This was originally released in early 1969 but is still available in CD format and with an additional three bonus tracks. For anyone who enjoys early British folk rock, this is well worth the £5 outlay, as it's definitely one of the band's best albums. It not only highlights Fairport Convention's folk credentials but also demonstrates just how versatile their playing style could be, moving from traditional folk songs, through straight pop, American country and blues to folk rock, a musical genre which Fairport Convention more or less invented or were there at its conception at any rate.
By 1969 the original female singer (whose name escapes me) had left the band and had been replaced by Sandy Denny who had previously been singing with the Strawbs. She was an inspired choice by the band as her sublime voice surely contributed to their success. The band's line up (which has undergone several changes over the years) was Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Iain Matthews, Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol and Martin Lamble, who was tragically killed in a road accident only a few months after the album's release.
The album begins with one of Sandy Denny's best compositions, "Fotheringay", which is a hauntingly beautiful song about Mary, Queen of Scots, who was held prisoner in the castle of Fotheringay until her execution. As befits a song about such a tragic sixteenth century figure, it has a strong medieval sound, enhanced by the simple acoustic guitar accompaniment and the quiet simplicity of the lyrics, played and sung in a minor key. Sandy Denny's voice is perfectly suited to this style of song. Her clear tones with just a hint of huskiness wring every ounce of emotion from the song.
In sharp contrast, the second track "Mr Lacey", written by Ashley Hutchings, is pure folk rock with a strong bluesy feel. It begins with a solid, insistent rock beat enhanced by some pretty nifty guitar playing. Most of the vocals are delivered in a close harmony which give the song an almost Everley Brothers sound.
The Iain Matthews/Richard Thompson composition "Book Song" follows. After a brief few rather Indian sounding chords, the song gets underway and morphs into a slow country waltz. Once again, this is sung in harmony with no single voice standing out. This is one of my least favourite songs on the album but that could be because I'm not a huge fan of American country music.
"The Lord is in this Place" is a song without words and is totally different from anything else on the album. This is a very short piece of pure blues guitar picking with Sandy Denny humming an accompaniment. It's pain and suffering put to music and the sound conjures pictures of a shack somewhere in the bayou or of slaves picking cotton under a blistering sun.
Richard Thompson's "No Man's Land" manages to meld an almost Cajun sounding accordion playing with traditional English folk and a dash of pop producing a moderately pleasant mid tempo ditty but it's quickly forgotten as the bands cover of Bob Dylan's "I'll Keep It With Mine' begins. This is very much in the accept Fairport Convention style with acoustic guitar and piano intro before being joined by gentle percussion but once Sandy Denny's vocals join in, the song is taken to another level. Her range moves from a soft and gentle start to really belting it out and yet her voice never loses its sweetness. I guarantee this is one of the best Dylan covers you're ever likely to hear.
"Eastern Rain" is another cover, this time of a Joni Mitchell song and although it follows pretty closely to the original which is a bit hippy drippy, the sound here is altogether stronger and is vastly improved by Sandy Denny's vocals. This very Sixties sounding folksy song is followed by a far more traditional folk song, "Nottamun Town" and then a more poppy though rather dated sounding "Tale in Hard Times", both of which are fairly standard fare.
One of the standout songs on the album is the traditional Irish song "She Moves Through the Fair", surely one of the most hauntingly lovely folk songs of all time. Although this traditional air possibly doesn't require any embellishment, it's given the trademark Fairport Convention treatment here beginning with soft and gentle percussion and some excellent acoustic guitar playing, all of which enhances rather than takes away from the beauty of the song and, of course, the incomparable Sandy Denny's vocals. She injects a slight vibrato into her voice which gives this sad tale of bereavement an extra poignancy. This is a knockout interpretation.
"Meet on the Ledge", still a staple of most Fairport Convention gigs, is a Richard Thompson composition which harks back to his childhood days and perfectly marries traditional folk sounds with pop making it one of the band's most commercially successful songs.
The sweet and gentle "End of a Holiday" is where my LP finished and this beautifully understated guitar instrumental was the perfect end to an excellent album. The CD, however, has a further three bonus tracks, the first of which, "Throwaway Street Puzzle" was originally the B side of "Meet on the Ledge". To be honest, it sounds very dated now and a bit of a mish-mash of sounds, with discordant harmonica and voices which don't seem to blend well, almost as though it doesn't know quite what musical genre it should belong to. It was fine as a B side but really doesn't add anything to this album. "You're Gonna Need My Help" on the other hand is a real treat which includes some particularly fine slide guitar work by Richard Thompson. This is great bluesy number and definitely worthy of inclusion. This extended album ends with "Some Sweet Day", another mid-tempo American country sounding song which I could well have done without.
Although there are a couple of duds, this is a great album and marks the beginning of Fairport Convention's heyday which ended when Sandy Denny left the band. To my mind, this is one of the band's best albums in its original vinyl format. Although I don't think it was originally produced as a concept album, there seemed to be a synchronicity to the tracks which I feel is diminished by the inclusion of the bonus tracks. Apart from "You're Gonna Need My Help", these bonus tracks don't really add much to the overall listening pleasure and if nothing else I would certainly have changed the order in which they were included so that the album still ended with the gentle little instrumental "End of the Holiday" which properly rounded things off.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
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
13 Throwaway Street Puzzle
14 You're Gonna Need My Help
15 Some Sweet Day