While most people hardly noticed, Fairport Convention, the musical institution that adapted traditional British folk to the electric pulse of rock ‘n’ roll, has reached the half century mark. The obviously titled 50:50@50 marks a celebration of sorts, one that attempts to tie together the various strands of their earlier endeavors and reboot them for the future.
That’s accomplished in ways both apparent and self-congratulatory, as manifest in the live remakes of standards from the Fairport catalog and the shout out to themselves that reaches its crux on “Our Bus Rolls On” (“The time it goes/And comes around/50 years and counting/Here’s to the Fairport family…”). Then again, Fairport has always acknowledged their ardent fans and the band’s own populist edicts, making this particular song their own version of the Dead’s self narrative “Truckin’” —sans the drug busts and accompanying chaos.
If their self-referential ballyhoo seems over the top, it’s also well-deserved. Five decades is a mighty impressive accomplishment for any band, and while numerous members have come and gone over the years, they’ve retained one founder in singer/guitarist Simon Nicol and another player who’s been there nearly since the beginning in bassist Dave Pegg. Fiddler Ric Sanders can claim a 30-year tenure while even the “new” guys — singer/multi-instrumentalist Chris Leslie and veteran drummer Gerry Conway are pushing 20 years at this point. Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny may have had more formidable stints, but their time in the fold pales by comparison.
As far the songs themselves, all of it suits the Fairport formula: mostly giddy fiddle tunes with their usual wry humor (“Eleanor’s Dream,” “The Naked Highwayman”), an occasional tender respite (“Portmeirion,” “John Condon”) and the sturdy folk finesse that is, after all, the band’s signature (“Lord Marlborough,” “Summer by the Cherwell,” “Ye Mariners All”). And while it may have been tempting to revisit some of their better known standards like “Walk Awhile” or “Meet on the Ledge,” it’s to their credit they don’t necessarily depend on past glories.
There’s been plenty of that anyway, thanks to the steady onslaught of reissues and live recordings that have dwarfed the number of new studio albums in recent years. So too, with Chris Leslie taking over the bulk of the singing and songwriting duties, the Fairport sound has managed to find a hint of variety within their core sound. Still, the biggest surprise here is a take on the old gospel standard “Jesus on the Mainline,” featuring a lead vocal by their old Brummie buddy Robert Plant. Sung with the Americana form he adopted for his bluegrass foray with Alison Krauss, both singer and song defy the norm.
Ultimately, while some might complain about the lack of original material offered in deference to so many concert inclusions, Fairport fans can cheer the fact that 50:50@50 is the band’s best effort in at least two decades. Hopefully the next 50 will build from here.