Fairport Convention,
Old New Borrowed Blue
(Green Linnet, 1996)

It's nice to know that, after nearly 30 years of performing in various combinations, Fairport Convention still has something new to say.

The band's newest album, Old New Borrowed Blue, is a master mix of live and studio tracks. As the name suggests, it includes a blend of new material and old standards ... but, familiar as some of these tunes may be, Fairport has managed to tweak their arrangements enough to make the old tunes new again.

Fairport pulled itself together in '67 and, in three decades hence, have drawn on the talents of a fair number of Britain's folk-rock giants. Band alumni include the likes of Richard Thompson, Iain Matthews, Dave Swarbrick and the late Sandy Denny, and the band has musical ties to groups such as Steeleye Span, the Albion Band and Jethro Tull.

Although the most devoted Fairport enthusiast needs a scorecard to keep track of the band's permutations during its colorful history, it's held on to the current lineup since 1986. (That's Simon Nicol on vocals and guitar, Ric Sanders on fiddle, Dave Pegg on bass guitar and mandolin, and Martin Allcock on guitar, mandocello, bouzar and accordian, plus drummer Dave Mattacks, who is absent on the new recording.)

A decade of familiarity hasn't hurt their creativity, however, and the easy comfort of the band mates adds to the charm of the live tracks.

As always, you can't talk about Fairport without waxing on about the warm, mellow singing of Simon Nicol (who, despite a five-year hiatus in the '70s, remains the only founder in the ensemble). The lyrical treatise on war and peace, "The Deserter," is one of the album's best showcases for his rich vocal style, rivaling the Fairport standard, mournful "Crazy Man Michael."

Another longtime favorite, "Widow of Westmoreland's Daughter," gains new life on this album. Even more than Nicol's fine storytelling vocals, it is the spritely dance of Ric Sanders' fiddle that captivates the attention.

There are a few surprising moments on the album -- the somewhat bitter "Men," for instance, and James Taylor's "The Frozen Man" -- and traces of American country and jazz give evidence of the band's versatility.

The whimsical "The Swimming Song" is a great lighthearted romp and sing along which reminds us that Fairport has never had the problem of taking itself too seriously.

Possibly the album's best moment, however, is found in the emotional frenzy of "Matty Groves." Nicol's raw vocalization -- I defy anyone to say they don't get chills when he barks "And I'll kill you if I can!" -- is again matched by the fever pitch of Sanders' strings. Their passion is perfectly complemented and capped by a whirlwind rendition of the instrumental "Dirty Linen."

Fairport's last studio album, Jewel in the Crown, was a fine addition to the band's discography. But, good as it is, Jewel in the Crown just doesn't inspire me to put the CD player on repeat the way Old New Borrowed Blue has in the past few days. And, compared to In Real Time, the band's 1987 live stadium recording, the new release carries a warmer, down-at-the-pub feel better suited to the folk milieu.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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