Fairport Convention – Liege & Lief

Fairport Convention – Liege & Lief
Released December, 1969

Fairport Convention are a band whose reputation proceeds them. Touted by many fans and critics alike as the quintessential British folk rock group, this album is arguably their crowning achievement. In 2006, the audience of BBC 2 voted “Liege & Lief” the “Most Influential Folk Album Of All Time” at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. The fact that it managed to reach No.17 on the British album charts is further proof of the album’s crossover appeal. Although this record was recorded only two years into their career, the band had suffered many line-up changes, most notably the arrival of original singer Judy Dyble’s replacement, Sandy Denny, who became synonymous with the group despite leaving them in 1970. In early 1969, founding member and guitarist Ian Matthews left them and drummer Martin Lamble died later that year in a road accident involving the band’s tour bus. This event also claimed the life of guitarist Richard Thompson’s girlfriend, which understandably cast a shadow over the band. Remaining members Denny, Thompson, guitarist Simon Nicol and bassist Ashley Hutchings recruited drummer Dave Mattacks and fiddler Dave Swarbrick, which is the line-up that plays on “Liege & Lief”.

The band delved deeper into their folk roots and the result is an album of mostly traditional works, arranged and electrified for the folk rock market. It is an amazingly cohesive record with the group’s compositions complementing the traditional ones. Indeed, it is easy forget which are which. Apparently it was Hutchings who favoured digging up the old folk stuff, while Denny yearned for the band to write more original music. This tension saw them both leave Fairport Convention soon after this album was completed; Hutchings joined fellow folk group Steeleye Span and Denny went on to form the short-lived Fotheringay. Richard Thompson would also leave the band in 1971 and enjoy a successful career both as a solo artist and as a duo with his wife Linda.

Kicking off with their own ‘Come All Ye’, the bands’ cards are laid on the table straight away. The crunch of the electric guitars over the acoustic arpeggios; the gentle, lilting plod of the rhythm section; Swarbrick’s upbeat violin work and Sandy Denny’s gorgeous vocal floating over the all-male background chorus. This was a great mood setter for me, and I don’t think I can pick a song on the album that I liked more than this. It feels like a call to arms with lyrics like “So, come all ye rolling minstrels/And together we will try/To rouse the spirit of the earth/And move the rolling sky”. This is compounded by the fact that “Liege & Lief” are two Middle English words that mean loyal and ready respectively.

Dave Swarbrick was well known on the UK folk scene before joining Fairport Convention, and his musical prowess is showcased on the album’s medley of four jigs and reels. The last of these, ‘Toss The Feathers’ was covered by The Corrs on their debut album “Forgiven, Not Forgotten’ which I was familiar with. I really enjoyed listening to the way he played it and how the arrangement differed between versions. The medley is another highlight for me. I also really like ‘The Deserter’ which sees the song’s narrator repeatedly flee from his involuntary service in the military. It has a cyclical story arc and an ending that suggests the deserter will keep trying to escape. Richard Thompson’s wonderful ‘Farewell, Farewell’ and the band’s arrangement of ‘Matty Groves’ are also great moments.

The most dominant ingredient in the band’s sound, for me, is Sandy Denny. Her vocals are amazingly versatile, sounding a little like Grace Slick in ‘Come All Ye’ and then warbling like a minstrel in Arthurian times on ‘Reynardine’. Considering this was the first time I’d listened to Fairport Convention, I was puzzled as to why she sounded oddly familiar. There are similarities in her voice to other female folk singers, but hers is quite unique…where had I heard her before? Surprisingly, it was on Led Zeppelin’s wonderful ‘The Battle of Evermore’ from their fourth album, which benefits greatly from her vocal contribution. Sadly, she passed away under tragic circumstances at the age of 31 in 1978. This isn’t an album for everyone, but I enjoyed it.

I understand that folk music is one of those genres that you either love or hate. As a fan of folk music and murder ballads I absolutely adored “Liege & Lief”. Of the eight songs only three were original, the rest being traditional folk songs. My favourite kind of songwriting is one that tells a story. However it’s one thing to have the lyrics, you need to back it up with the music too as that will tell as much of a story as the words. The fact that “Liege & Lief” was recorded with electric instruments, and the sublime vocals of Sandy Denny at the forefront just added to it for me. Can I mention again how much I love folk songs? I really love folk songs. Favourite tracks are ‘Reynardine’ and ‘Farewell, Farewell’. I love how musically they hold back on these tracks, yet it still says so much. So often musicians forget how important space can be in songs. The guitar work by both Thompson and guitarist Simon Nicol is sublime. In fact all the musicians on all tracks are very strong, with not one standing out more than the other. There’s a certain melancholy to “Liege & Lief”, that I imagine exists because of the tragic circumstances leading up to the recording, which I really connected with. It’s not an easy album to listen to. If I had it on as background music I more often than not found it a bit annoying. It was when I allowed myself to be still with my headphones and allowed myself to become immersed in the music that I was able to connect with it. It is a challenging album in the same way that I found “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” by Charles Mingus to be challenging. You have to work at it a bit, but if you get past the first few listens it’s worth it.

I do not like folk music. Fairport Convention is not an exception. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t dig it. I know it should work; all the musicians are excellent, the vocals are great and there’s nothing wrong with the song writing, but it doesn’t sit with me at all. Something about “Liege & Lief” makes me think of people playing lutes in a castle’s courtyard with jousting going on in the background. It’s the kind of thing my mum would dig. I think that’s the kind of thing they’re going for though. ‘Matty Groves’ tells the story of a young bloke who is seduced by a nobleman’s wife and the adulterous pair are busted. The nobleman challenges the young fella to a sword fight and kills him. It’s actually not an objectionable song, except for the weird, self indulgent ending. I think ‘Come All Ye’ is a solid way to start this album. It’s a *bit* less folky, if you ignore the lyrics about minstrels and fiddle players. It rolls along nicely, and has some nice song dynamics. Also features a shout out to the bass player. Nice. Unfortunately, the songs like ‘Reynardine’, ‘Farewell Farewell’, ‘the medley’ and ‘Crazy Man Michael’ are maximum folk and I can’t handle it. There’s also some bizarre old timey syntax: “as fast as go can she” is one in ‘Tam Lin’ that drove me nuts. Though the whole song is full of it… Fairies and knights feature heavily. I can’t help but be angry at Fairport Convention because I believe that modern hipster music like Gotye and The Bon Ivers wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for bands like this. Needless to say, the Convention shan’t be staying on my iPod, and can, to coin a phrase from Clay, “folk off”.

To quote the cool kids,  ‘O.M.G’,  where has Fairport Convention been all my life? I never realised how awesome English folk-rock music could be, and I suspect that’s probably what all the cool kids were saying in 1969 when “Liege & Lief” was released!  It baffles me that I’ve listened to so many other musical acts of this band’s time, and of current times, and not even known that Fairport Convention existed, but when I listened to “Liege & Lief”, I felt like some of the dots connected and I understood straight away what this band did for the development of Folk Rock, and wondered how I had never really heard of them before. I’ll be taking this matter up with my Dad next time we speak, cos clearly he dropped the ball on this one. Although most of the songs on “Liege & Lief”  are traditional folk songs it was what the musicians did with these songs – using electric instruments where they had never been used before – while still maintaining the folk elements,  that brought folk rock into the forefront of the live music scene at the time.   The combination of Sandy Denny’s hauntingly beautiful vocal paired with the fiddle and electric guitar just works and modernises the traditional folk songs that were practically retrieved from the archives and revived (respectfully) on “Liege & Lief”. Dare I say it,  I immediately thought of the Corrs listening to Fairport Convention, and yes, a quick search revealed that Richard Thompson, a member of Fairport Convention, has written and recorded tracks for The Corrs – well there you go!  Lasting legacy box checked! I think it goes without saying that I am certainly now a ‘”Liege & Lief” (Loyal and Ready) fan of Fairport Convention.

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