A transitional album for the British folk-rock pioneers now comes in a posh expanded edition.
Fairport Convention seems to have been around forever, under differing line-ups and playing rather different variations on the English folk-rock they pretty much invented. But while the current version of the band may have its admirers, I imagine most unbiased sources would cite the version of the band that was around in the first half of the 1970s as the best.
This 1975 release was the end of that particular era, being the final album to feature Sandy Denny – though, in fact, this was something of a reunion with Denny having previously quit the band to form Fotheringay – and other members of that band (Trevor Lucas and Jerry Donahue) joined Fairport regulars Dave Swarbrick, Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks (replaced midway through by Bruce Rowland) for this line-up. The resulting album isn’t the band’s best but does include plenty of solid tracks and the odd classic.
Devoid of any traditional numbers, this perhaps feels a lot more like Seventies soft rock than the folk-rock style you’d associate with the band, thanks to the rather too smooth production. But don’t get me wrong – if this is close to mainstream Seventies rock, then it is at least top-notch mainstream Seventies rock. Opening with the title track, sung by Denny, the album moves through a selection of solid numbers – Restless, Dawn and What is True – marked by Denny’s remarkable, emotively beautiful vocals and first-rate musicianship.
The album is at its folkiest with Let It Go and Night Time Girl, while the band take on a country blues feel, not entirely successfully, with Iron Lion. While these tracks might be the closest to what we might think of when we think of Fairport, they are not the album’s highlights.
The best numbers include the wistful White Dress, the wonderful After Halloween and the lovely, haunting album closer One More Chance, all of which are showcases for Denny’s vocals (and, in the case of the latter track, Donahue’s guitar work). It’s tracks like these, arguably outside the Fairport tradition, that perhaps confused some fans at the time – was this, they wondered, essentially a Sandy Denny solo album featuring her former bands as backing groups? It’s true that the non-Denny fronted tracks do pale in comparison, but to me, this is as much a Fairport record as any – slicker perhaps, but the sign of a band moving forward (not something I can honestly say about the band, good as they remain, since the 1980s).
Like many a classic album, this has now been issued in a special edition, and this is one well worth seeking out.
Disc one has bonus tracks – a live TV version of White Dress, a longer, arguably superior version of Dawn and demos of What is True, After Halloween (both much more effective as stripped back, acoustic numbers) and non-album demo The King and Queen of England. These unpolished versions are a lot better than the main content of the album, and a lot less dated in their sound.
Disc two is probably more interesting than disc one, at least if you’re a long time fan who already owns the album, as it features a previously unreleased sixteen-track live recording from the LA Troubadour featuring this line-up. What’s interesting is that none of the material from this album is included.
The album opens with the funky blues of Bob Dylan’s Down in the Flood – closer to Janis Joplin than traditional Fairport – and continues with a mix of Fairport numbers, traditional songs and tracks from Denny’s post-Fairport projects. One of these is Fotheringay track The Ballad of Ned Kelly, a fantastic country tune that brings to mind The Band, while Denny performs an extended version of Crazy Lady Blues, and a trio of tracks from her most recent solo album, recorded before she rejoined Fairport but released afterwards – It’ll Take a Long Time, Solo and title track Like an Old Fashioned Waltz are all fantastic, low key ballads that are filled with a sense of longing, loss and regret.
There are more traditional Fairport (and, for that matter, traditional folk) numbers like the fantastic She Moves Through the Fair, The Hens March Through the Midden and The Four Poster Bed and The Hexamshire Lass, but just when you think it’s settling down to folk jigs, we get an astonishing stripped back, piano-led version of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door that Denny makes her own.
Just to keep you on your toes, the band then rocks out with Six Days on the Road, which could be a Lynyrd Skynyrd number, moody folk number John the Gun, a great cover of Richard and Linda Thompson’s Down Where the Drunkards Roll (given that Thompson was a former Fairport, it seems a fair track to tackle), folk classic Matty Groves – arguably the definitive Fairport traditional folk number – and a wonderfully loose version of That’ll Be the Day.
And to cap things off, there’s a seven-minute version of Who Knows Where the Time Goes – a heartbreakingly brilliant song here delivered with genuine passion. It’s depressing to think that time went all too quickly for Denny, who was dead a few years after this performance.
What’s remarkable about this live recording is just how un-folky and un-English much of it is. In fact, it’s probably the most unlikely Fairport Convention gig you can imagine – this really is the multi-band/artist collaboration that some thought Rising for the Moon was. And it works. It’s a fantastic collection of roots-inspired music, be it folk, blues, country or whatever. Denny’s emotive solo songs suit the band well and the mix of traditional folk and more commercial balladry is more effective than you might expect.
Rising for the Moon is a pretty decent album with some great moments, well worth owning on its own. But this bonus disc is unquestionably great and worth the price of the album by itself. If you think you know what to expect from Fairport Convention, this could possibly make you think again.
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