Sunday, 5 March 2017

Fairport Convention 50:50@50 - an album of two halves


Fairport Convention is fifty years old and to mark the golden anniversary the founders of British folk-rock have released the tongue-twistingly-titled 50:50@50 — which proves to be an album of two halves in more ways than one.
Seven of the 14 tracks were recorded in the studio, and the remainder come from live performances recorded during recent concerts. 
It's an unusual and brave idea which I had some misgivings about prior to my first listen, because I couldn't help but think that interspersing live and studio tracks would spoil the flow of the album. However, I'm glad to report that this concern was totally unfounded. 
50:50@50 (surely a Twitter nightmare!) starts with new song Eleanor's Dream, a rousing tale from the band's principal songsmith Chris Leslie, and from the same inspirational source as previously recorded songs Mercy Bay and Lord Franklin — the historical search for the North West Passage. At just a shade over three minutes Eleanor's Dream only just starts to get going before it's over, but it's nicely done, Mr Leslie; more of the same, please! 
This is followed by the first live track, the rollickingly jolly drinking song Ye Mariners All, which could easily pass for a studio version but for the slightly raw feel that is always such a delight with live recordings.

Fairport at 50: (l-r) Gerry Conway, Simon Nicol, Ric Sanders, Dave Pegg, Chris Leslie
The album flits between brand new songs and older favourites – I'm particularly pleased about the inclusion of live cuts of  The Naked Highwayman and the stunning Mercy Bay, showcasing Gerry Conway's wonderful drums towards the end. 
But – and I'm afraid there is a but – it is mostly the already familiar tracks that are the standouts here, and the majority of the new numbers are lightweights.
Devil's Work is a promising title but turns out to be a very middle-of-the-road, ho-hum song about D.I.Y! Our Bus Rolls On is an unbelievably cringeworthy autobiographical piece about Fairport's touring life that deserves to be quickly forgotten.
I'm a longstanding and outspoken fan of Chris Leslie's songs but his Step By Step is forgettably bland — though I hope I may change my mind once I hear it played live on the Cropredy festival field on Saturday evening in August. 
An exception to the rule that 'new songs' aren't as good as old favourites is the new take on the traditional song The Lady Of Carlisle, and here it is guest Jacqui McShee's beautiful vocals rather than the song itself that have made an impression on me. Another old friend of Fairport, Robert Plant, makes a rather laidback guest appearance on the live, country-tinged cover of oddball trad. spiritual Jesus On The Mainline.
The inclusion of Joe Broughton's Conservatoire Ensemble on a beefed up version of the Ric Sanders instrumental Danny Jack's Reward feels like something of a missed opportunity; don't they – and the fans – deserve an entirely new track to get their teeth into? 
In the main this album certainly feels more folk than rock and, too much of the time, more M.O.R. than folk. I find that disappointing because, although I've been a follower of the band for only twenty years (I've never known any other lineup of the band and, like with Doctor Who, you tend to love the one you saw first!)  the 2017 version of Fairport is short of the folk-rock power they once exhibited. It's sad that the complaints I've long heard from fans who first experienced Fairport during the heyday years of Liege and Lief now suddenly make sense!
However, despite the niggling feeling that this album is lacking a certain something, I can forgive Fairport almost anything for their inclusion of the final track, the beautiful and tragic John Condon, about the youngest Allied soldier to die in the First World War. From the first notes to the final heartbreaking conclusion this live track is a triumph and brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it. For this reason alone, this album will get the thumbs up from me. 
But oh, Fairport! You had the perfect opportunity to produce a truly great album, and instead we merely get a souvenir that marks a significant anniversary.

50:50@50 is released on the Matty Grooves label on March 10th 2017.

Review by 'Captain Swing' for FolkCast

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