Fairport Convention,
Liege & Lief
(Island, 1969;
Island Folk Remasters, 2002)

"Come all ye rolling minstrels
And together we will try
To rouse the spirit of the Earth
And move the rolling sky."

So Sandy Denny opens Fairport Convention's fourth album, Liege & Lief. "Come All Ye," an anthem of sorts for the band, also immediately set forth exactly what Fairport wanted to do with this brand new album, which avoided the cover material found on their earlier releases, focusing instead on traditional music or newly composed original songs made to sound traditional.

Although they used electric instruments, the idea was to move towards a new tradition fusing folk and rock -- a bit of a shocker for the time. The line-up was the band's third. Original band members Judy Dyble and Iain Matthews had left; Martin Lamble had died in a van crash. Fiddler Dave Swarbrick had recently joined the group. At this point, the band consisted of Denny, founder Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks and Swarbrick. Hutchings and Denny would leave after this album; Hutchings went on to found Steeleye Span and later the Albion Band. Denny focused on solo work and later temporarily rejoined the band prior to her premature death in 1978.

While the album was a departure for the time, some of its songs generally are revered as classics by Fairport fans. Most Fairport shows nowadays end with the ballad "Matty Groves." Vikki Clayton sometimes adds her vocals to help the band perform "Tam Lin," another long, intricate traditional ballad originally recorded here. While Fairport's version is not the most detailed one, those opening drumbeats certainly can run a chill down the spine. Denny's voice serves as the authoritative narrator of the story of young Tam Lin, prisoner of the Faerie Queen, and his love, Janet. Denny just sounds as if she should be singing these songs. On "Reynardine," there's almost a musical mist about the story of the foxman/werewolf.

Richard Thompson's original compositions, "Farewell, Farewell" and "Crazy Man Michael," the latter co-authored with Dave Swarbrick, are both bittersweet songs of love and leaving. There are conjectures that both songs somehow concern the infamous van crash, which injured several members of the band, and killed drummer Lamble as well as Thompson's girlfriend. Regardless of their origin, both songs sound as if they could fit into a fantasy medieval time period, such as something out of Tolkien.

The new 2002 re-release features two additional tracks: a version of "Sir Patrick Spens" with vocals by Denny, different than the one Fairport recorded later on Full House, and a cover of Richard Farina's "The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood," featuring Denny's vocals again. "Sir Patrick Spens" fits in well with the album's traditional theme, and this version is welcome. The latter new song seems more significant for historical reasons; it's the first take of a previously unreleased song. Unfortunately, although it is part of the Island Folk Remaster Series, the sound quality still rings of 1969; it's tinny here and there.

However, this album definitely was groundbreaking material when it was first released. While numerous electric folk bands have come and gone over the years, Liege & Lief remains a seminal example of the power of excellent storytelling and musicianship.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 21 September 2002

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