What is Fairport Convention doing, releasing such a modern, rocking record this far into the band’s life?
Don’t they know groups are supposed to settle down into complacency certainly after they’ve been kicking around for decades?
Myths & Heroes, the band’s newest release, has blindsided some critics and plenty of fans with its contemporary, cultured sound, that ranges from the up-tempo and, yes, rocking, title track to the haunting ‘Weightless/The Gravity Reel,’ to the reflective instrumental ‘Jonah’s Oak.’ Even many traditionalists who nitpick the past 20 years of albums and grumble that the group should continually mimic hits from its infancy grudgingly admit this album is superb.
Dave Pegg, who became Fairport’s bassist in 1969, thinks this album is clearly among the group’s best if not its finest.
Fair enough. It’s tough to measure albums such as the much-lauded 1969 Liege & Lief, against this or other contemporary music for a myriad of reasons. most subjective.
It’s also unfair. Fairport is a very different band today than it was years ago. While some compare Fairport to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, there’s a clear distinction. The Dirt Band hasn’t deviated from its original sound. And although there have been various players in the line up, the current group has, more or less, been with the band since its 1966 inception with keyboardist Bob Carpenter joining about a decade later.
Pegg and guitarist, co-lead singer and founding member Simon Nicol were with Fairport in its earliest days but they each have worked with an array of musicians beyond Fairport including Art Garfunkel, The Albion Band, and Jethro Tull.
Add to that the additions of fiddler Ric Sanders (1985), multi-instrumentalist, chief songwriter and co-lead singer Chris Leslie (1996), and drummer Gerry Conway (1998) who each brought an abundance of top-flight musical experience and influences from playing with divergent artists as Simon Mayor’s mandolin quartet, Soft Machine, Paul McCartney and Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) and you understand why Fairport is unafraid to journey into new musical territory, despite some fans’ wish that they continually reinvent the past.
As Nicol consistently says, it was never their goal to become their own tribute band which is why, he always adds, the band never looks to replace a band member with an artist of similar styling. It’s also a fair guest that is why the band continually seeks contributions from outside songwriters including Ralph McTell and Anna Ryder whose songs are exquisitely featured on this album.
“Looking backward is fine,” said Leslie, whose love of early Fairport Convention music led him to teach himself fiddle and master it to such a degree that he eventually joined the band. “But a band really needs to move forward. That’s especially true of a band like Fairport. There have been some wonderful people that have come through the ranks.”
Leslie spoke with affection of songs from the band’s earliest albums and noted how daunting it was to reinvent them for the group’s 2012 release By Popular Request and Babbacombe Lee: Live Again.
“We pulled it off and it sounds like our current line up,” he said. “But it’s good to move forward.”
Of course that doesn’t mean that Fairport ignores its history. Every show includes classic hits and its newest release includes songs with heavy traditional vibes. Consider McTell’s ‘Clear Water’ – which includes a pretty darn contemporary beat behind Nicol’s robust vocals, jut a few tracks from Leslie’s acoustic, lilting ‘Theodore’s Song.’ And it’s difficult not to liken Rob Beattie’s ‘The Man in the Water’ which Fairport filled with luminous harmonies, light percussion and Celtic harp, to something a bit more new age in the best sense of the world.
It’s easy to understand why Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and other virtuoso talents in Fairport’s past are held in such high regard. But Myths & Heroes proves that Fairport’s current line up deserves just as much reverence.
Artists’ website: http://www.fairportconvention.com
Fairport Convention play the title track from Myths & Heroes:
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