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Fairport Convention - Nine, Live Convention, Rising For the Moon

In my last review of the then-newest batch of Fairport Convention reissues, I mentioned that by the time of Rosie, the band were stuck without any original members and putting together an album consisting in part of left-over Fotheringay tracks. The result was a directionless album, and one wonders why any band would bother to go on after that experience. But go on they did, and being hard workers, it took them less than a year to come up with a much stronger follow-up, Nine. By then the five-piece line-up of Donahue, Lucas, Mattacks, Pegg and Swarbrick had settled in quite nicely, with Donahue in particular contributing some great musical ideas. The record starts off with Swarbrick singing over a hand-held drum in "The Hexhamshire Lass" which gradually goes crazy in its 2 1/2 minutes. Contrasting very strongly with that at first is Trevor Lucas's croak in "Polly on the Shore", a traditional lyric set to new music by Dave Pegg, which is in turn followed by a fast Donahue instrumental and the gentle ballad "To Althea From Prison". But although the album is rich in contrasts, it's at all times recognisably the work of one band, recording mostly live in the studio. The strongest aspect of the album throughout is the unison playing between the guitar, fiddle and occasionally the bass guitar. In the album's other instrumental "Tokyo" Pegg's bass keeps up with the fast, long melody introduced by the lead guitar, picked up by an overdubbed guitar recorded at half speed, and taken over by the fiddle which is joined by Pegg's perfectly articulated rumble.
After that track, the album begins to flounder a little. "Bring'Em Down" by Lucas is a decent Dylanish protesty kind of thing, but with "Big William" and "Pleasure and Pain" the songwriting begins to lose me. The original album at least closes with a good, country-esque song, "Possibly Parson's Green" but by then it has forfeited its claim to being anywhere near as good as the earlier Fairport albums. It's still in my personal Fairport top ten though.
The new edition has four bonus tracks, one of which is actually interesting: a frenzied version of the instrumental "Fiddlestix" recorded live with an orchestra. The orchestral arrangement is a good one, adding to the dynamics of this fast, furious piece.

During the flurry of short tours that followed the release of Nine, Fairport were re-joined by Trevor Lucas's wife and former Fairport singer Sandy Denny, who appears as a full band member on Live Convention. Given that Denny was the most popular front person Fairport had ever had, the live album has gone down in history as being a bit of a disappointment, but listening to the remastered edtion, I find that it's actually very good indeed. It's amazing what cleaning up a mixed-down tape can accomplish. The album has a mix of Fairport classics like "Matty Groves" and "Sloth" (clocking in at 11:32 on this recording), and tracks from the then most recent albums, and is overdue for a reappraisal. It's one of the stronger live Fairport albums out there.

What I'm going to say next will probably sound like blasphemy to many Fairport fans, but here we go: I'm not actually a big Sandy Denny fan. There. I've said it. Don't get me wrong: I own and like quite a few albums she's on, but I don't think her voice alone defines those albums, and I don't get the emotional connection to her singing that many other listeners have. Also, by the time she re-joined Fairport, she was in decline. It doesn't show on Live Convention, but it does on Rising For The Moon where the power and confidence of her voice are audibly diminished. Nevertheless, she is still a better singer than either of the two male vocalists, Lucas and Swarbrick, and she brought one other thing to the mix that had been missing since Richard Thompson left: great songwriting. On the previous four studio albums, the group did well overall, combining traditional material with the best new songs and tunes they could come up with, but Denny's songwriting outclasses them completely. Every one of her contributions to Rising is a classic. The album lacks instrumental pyrotechnics like the ones found on Nine, but edges that album out on the strength of the songs, even after one takes into account some of the contributions by the other band members.
The bonus tracks consist of one B-side and three demo versions of Denny songs from the album. Nothing special here.

There isn't a lot else left for Island to remaster. During the drawn-out recording sessions for Rising, the band began to fall apart again, with drummer Dave Mattacks leaving halfway through to be replaced by Bruce Rowland. Donahue, Lucas and Denny left after the American tour in support of the album, and Swarbrick, Pegg and Rowland were left to soldier on as best they could. The result was one more album for Island, Gottle O'Geer, a big mess of an album whose best characteristic was that it was over after thirty minutes. It wouuld be a shame to end the reissue program with that, but maybe Island can also remaster the 1987 "live" album In Reel Time which they released for reasons lost in the mists of time (the album was technically recorded live, but in a recording studio, with audience noise added in the mix). That, for all its deceptive marketing, was a listenable album by a cohesive band. We'll see in a year.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 28, 2005 11:17 AM.

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