FAIRPORT CONVENTION ‘What We Did On Our Saturday’ (Matty Grooves, 2018)
Reviewed by Michael Hunter
Saturday, August 12 2017 to be precise. The final evening of Fairport’s Cropredy festival in their 50th year. It was always going to be a special occasion, and the likelihood of a recording was strong, after releases of similar previous anniversaries. The pun of the title, referring back to the band’s 1969 ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ album, is carried over to the design of this new set, echoing the blackboard drawing of a now different and older grouping of band and friends.
I guess there’s at least a couple of ways to approach this – the music and the performers, and how it all relates together. Considering a full half-century of existence has graced the band so far, the sad inevitability of members “blown off the mountain by the wind” increases over time and indeed, if one chose to focus on it, it is noticeable in several ways here. For example, the mid-70s ‘Rising For The Moon’ era line-up now only has a couple of members still around and/or able to participate. Yet the original 1967 line-up is here in full flight, with the only difference being Dave Mattacks substituting for Martin Lamble on drums.
Then of course, the current Fairport Convention celebrates its own 20th anniversary in 2018. It’s always been the case of the “concept” of a band transcending time, almost regardless of who is actually in it – and this double live CD proves as well as anything could that this is a band where each unique formation with their various commonalities and differences has its own strengths, and the musical skill and personal trust to provide some quite astonishing music – today as much as any previous time.
It might be noted that there are no songs per se that haven’t already been released by the band, even in various live formats, several times already. But it also becomes apparent very quickly that each member is relishing the chance to be part of the moment and, more often than not, this makes for maybe an even more subtle effort to do it as well as possible (this may just be my imagination!)
The original line-up with Iain Matthews, Judy Dyble, Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol and guest DM manage to make songs they recorded a lifetime ago such as Time Will Show The Wiser and Reno Nevada sound fresh and exciting even now, and when they are joined by Chris While to sing for the later line-up, the choice of Suzanne is inspired – While possibly being the best choice to sing “the Sandy part” to date.
The songs appear in more or less chronological order to original release, and when it comes time to ‘Liege & Lief’ and ‘Full House’, the first obvious change is the lack of Dave Swarbrick and the addition of Chris Leslie on violin, mandolin and vocals. He is clearly respectful of his place in this setting, and stays quite true to Swarb’s original vocals and fiddle parts on eg Tam Lin, Poor Will and The Jolly Hangman and Sloth – all of which soar to great heights, aided as usual by Richard Thompson’s phenomenal improvisations and a unique, collective energy that comes across well in the audio-only format of this set.
I couldn’t help noticing not just Dave Mattacks attacking his drumkit with seemingly more power than on the later Fairport live anniversary CDs, but also Simon Nicol leaning more towards lead electric lines than usual nowadays, and Chris Leslie fitting in well in the “fiddler in a folk-ROCK band” role. The generosity of spirit and commonality of purpose makes itself apparent in cases such as Now Be Thankful – now sung by its surviving co-author who otherwise steps back and lets others take the lead role instrumentally; RT being just part of a band rather than “FC featuring Richard Thompson”.
The recording does not include a great deal of talking between songs, other than some helpful comments as to who had just sung, so the flow is quite smooth between tracks. The production as expected is excellent, though occasionally instruments and voices one would expect to be louder are buried a little in the mix, for example Ric Sanders’ final fiddle parts in The Hiring Fair – which itself is another example of a song performed so many times before that, with a few tweaks, sounds as if it is a fresh new addition to the set.
As previously mentioned, the mid-1970s line-up is the one needing most substitutes – which is not the best way at all to describe talents such as Sally Barker (from the later line-up of Fotheringay) who performs a fine Rising For The Moon and PJ Wright (also from the latter Fotheringay, TradArrr etc) who sings Trevor Lucas’ Ballad Of Ned Kelly in a respectful, appropriate and enjoyable way. Ralph McTell also joins the band for a poignant rendition of his version of the Dave Swarbrick song White Dress. Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks, survivors from that Fairport line-up, reprise their roles as if it was only yesterday.
The current Nicol / Pegg / Sanders / Leslie / Conway line-up mostly performs the songs from the band’s earlier catalogue that they still perform today – beautiful versions of Farewell Farewell and Crazy Man Michael for example – and are joined by other guests elsewhere. Chris While returns for a magnificent vocal duet with Simon Nicol on the dual-violin arrangement of Who Knows Where The Time Goes (a song that probably becomes more apt each time it is sung). Maartin Allcock makes a very welcome return to add some more strong folk rock with A Surfeit Of Lampreys. In this case, it is in effect a combination of the two most recent Fairport line-ups together, making up over half of the band’s overall lifespan to date.
The only original, recent song performed by Fairport 2017 is Our Bus Rolls On from the latest album, and unfortunately it’s a bit of a sore thumb both musically and lyrically. Its theme of the continuation of the band as an updating of Angel Delight is appropriate though, and it does its folkish-rockish thing pleasantly enough.
Next thing you know, it’s back to the mix of old and new members for the usual concluding set of Dirty Linen / Matty Groves / Meet on the Ledge. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but while they are all excellent versions that reach their own heights, there are moments where it seems a little tired and not quite so enthusiastic. Maybe literally, just a bit tired by that point! But all very good and the finale, always bittersweet with its collective talk of all coming round again, becomes all the more relevant at a half-century celebration such as this.
The approach taken of performing a few songs from each line-up as authentically as possible is very effective, and there is no particular sense of the evening being a mere history lesson. At the most basic level, it’s just great and unique music, performed freshly by the band that wrote and recorded it sometime in the last few decades but which stands up in its own right here and now.
A collection of excellent “off the screen” videos from the Saturday night performance are also up on the official ‘Fairport’s Cropredy Convention’ YouTube channel – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMzMcRsGBw4h6wIR8WYLW_g
‘What We Did On Our Saturday’ is available from the Fairport Convention shop via www.fairportconvention.com