Fairport Convention – 50:50@50
Matty Grooves Records – 2017
Back in 2012 when Fairport Convention were touring material from By Popular Request, the album they made to celebrate their 45th anniversary, Simon Nicol remarked “We had to do something to mark our 45th birthday… Not sure of making 50, but if the Stones can bloody do it…” Well, the hot, but hardly surprising, news for 2017 is that yes, they made it and they’ve produced 50:50@50 to celebrate.
For the 2012 album, the band re-recorded classic tracks taken from releases ranging from 1969’s What We Did On Our Holidays to 1995’s Jewel in the Crown, the originals all dating from before the current line-up stabilised in 1998. The resulting compilation served the dual purpose of giving long term fans a fresh take on old favourites and of introducing these gems to more recent fans. 50:50@50 takes a different approach, the 50:50 refers to the 14 tracks being split into seven live recordings taken from recent concerts and seven studio recordings, all but one of which are new to the repertoire.
The album opens with Eleanor’s Dream, a new Chris Leslie song revisiting a topic that has clearly fascinated him for many years. Eleanor was the wife of Lord Franklin, the commander of the ill-fated expedition to find and navigate a passage around the north of Canada linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This is the third song Chris has written concerning the expedition, starting with I’m Already There from 2004 and continuing with 2011’s Mercy Bay, included as a live track later on 50:50. Eleanor’s Dream opens with Chris’s vocal over a little light percussion, but the rest of the band quickly comes in to give the song the full Fairport folk-rock treatment. A strong opening song but, at a little over three minutes, it tends to leave you wanting more. There’s a contrast with the included version of Mercy Bay, recorded, like the majority of the live tracks, during Fairport’s traditional Cropredy warm-up gigs at The Mill in Banbury. At seven minutes, it’s a great showcase of Fairport’s skill at taking a long song and decorating Simon Nicol’s rock-steady voice with instrumentation both behind and between the vocal lines. Dave Pegg’s bass and Ric Sander’s fiddle handle most of the fills, Chris’ bouzouki keeps a steady riff throughout and Simon adds electric guitar as the song builds. The ending is left to Gerry Conway’s drums with a tom-tom sequence that adds a real chill to an already icy song. A masterclass of an arrangement that keeps all the instruments clearly defined while building the full sound.
The remaining live tracks sample an enormous range of Fairport’s back catalogue. The most recent, John Condon, from 2015’s Myths and Heroes certainly qualified for that album as there is now considerable uncertainty regarding the long-held belief that he was the youngest Allied soldier killed in World War I. Traditional song, Lord Marlborough, on the other hand, can be traced all the way back to 1971’s Angel Delight when Dave Swarbrick took lead vocal. In the 2017 version, Simon’s rich baritone, initially blended with Chris Leslie’s higher vocal register, is probably the most prominent difference. The song is ageless, the band may have, inevitably, aged but in terms of quality, you’d be hard pressed to slip a cigarette paper between the two versions.
Jesus on the Mainline is a live track of quite a different character. Robert Plant’s association with members of Fairport goes back to 1971 when Sandy Denny famously became the only vocalist to guest on a Led Zepplin recording, duetting with Plant on The Battle of Evermore. In more recent times, he’s often been seen at Fairport’s annual Cropredy Convention, sometimes making a stage appearance. Jesus on the Mainline figured in one such appearance in 1993 and last year he joined in the Banbury warm ups to sing the song again. That’s the performance included on 50:50, Robert Plant on vocals and harmonica with backing from Fairport Convention. A bit of a treat that.
Two of the studio tracks also feature guest musicians. Traditional song, The Lady of Carlisle, has Jacqui McShee revisiting the song she recorded with Pentangle back in 1972. A song with a long history and known in many versions, this one hails from the Appalachians and gives Chris Leslie the chance to showcase his banjo and harmonica skills before he’s joined by the full band. Although hardly a ‘new’ song, it is new to the Fairport repertoire, in fact, only one of the seven studio tracks has previously been recorded by the band. Danny Jack’s Reward is a Ric Sanders composition that featured on 2011’s Festival Bell. Here it gets a big band treatment with Joe Broughton, Paloma Trigas and half a dozen members of the Birmingham Conservatoire Folk Ensemble making up brass, string and woodwind sections to swell Fairport’s ranks.
With 50 years of music making and the release of getting on for 70 albums if you include studio, live and compilation, you’d be hard pressed to define a ‘typical’ Fairport album. One thing you can be sure of, though, as befits such a milestone, is that 50:50 @50 isn’t it! The mix of studio and live, the special guests, together provide something for everyone. Anyone who’s been captivated by the band over their long history will find something to enjoy.