Fairport Convention’s new album, Myths & Heroes, is finally out, and it’s a welcome return to the contemporary originals that the band does best.
Although some Fairport fans from its earliest days rightfully cheered the 2012 album By Popular Request and its companion album, Babbacombe Lee Live Again, this lineup is too talented to constantly reimagine music from its earliest incarnations. Leave that to musicians whose talents or interest have grown stale. That’s not today’s Fairport.
The best proof is this 13-track album, released March 2, that includes five songs by chief songwriter Chris Leslie, two by fiddler Ric Sanders and the remainder by bassist Dave Pegg and much-loved folk masters including P.J. Wright, Anna Ryder and Ralph McTell.
“My whole life has involved Fairport Convention,” says Pegg, who joined the group in 1969 and, for a time, simultaneously served as bassist for Jethro Tull. “It’s very important to have a great songwriter in the band, and Chris Leslie has developed into a fantastic writer in the footsteps of Sandy, Dave and Richard. It took a lot of courage for him to have a go at the writing. For us, it kind of justifies our existence.”
And what a storied existence it is.
Ashley Hutchings, the mastermind behind Steeleye Span and The Albion Band, Fairport guitarist and co-lead vocalist Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson joined with friends to start the band in 1967 when they were little more than kids.
The songs of Thompson, preeminent vocalist Sandy Denny, and storied fiddler Dave Swarbrick—all members of the earliest origins of Fairport—are loved and heralded as among the most important in British folk-rock history.
It’s almost a shame to remind listeners of the group’s backstory, though.
Think of it this way: The modern-day lineup of Fairport Convention came together in 1996, the same year Linkin Park and Coldplay formed.
That’s the year Chris Leslie joined. As a child, he became so infatuated with Fairport Convention’s music that he taught himself to fiddle and eventually became so expert that he was invited to join Whippersnapper, led by Swarbrick.
Leslie credits his time with Swarbrick’s Whippersnapper as “the best apprenticeship I could have had,” giving him the savvy to establish a niche in Fairport, which already had master fiddler Sanders. Although Sanders welcomed a second fiddler, Leslie developed an array of musical expertise ranging from mandolin to Celtic harp as he developed his songwriting prowess.
Credit the current members with recruiting Leslie—a wholly different player than the departing rock-tinged guitarist Martin Allcock—and allowing him a measure of freedom that has grown during his time with the band.
“Fairport allowed me to be who I am,” Leslie says. “I think Fairport’s longevity is because it’s never looked to replace any particular musician who left. Maybe what I have done is brought a lighter, more acoustic vibe to the band.”
And a much wider range, as proven again on Myths & Heroes.
The album is a banquet of sounds, from the high-spirited, rock-infused title track by Leslie, to his spirited, mid-tempo folk-rock “Grace & Favour,” and the banjo-filled, Native-themed Anna Ryder original “Bring Me Back My Feathers,” to Rob Beattie’s “The Man in the Water.” Just the instrumentation and arrangement—that includes Leslie on Celtic harp and bouzouki, Sanders on an array of violins, and Pegg on a 1973 Fender Precision fretless bass—on this Clannad-meets-Alan Parsons work with a traditional foundation is worth the price of the album.
Standout tracks such as Sanders’ sumptuous gypsy swing folk song, “The Gallivant,” which features guests including sax players, two violinists and a trumpet player brought together by Joe Boughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble, lose none of their richness when they are played live.
“It was lovely to have that collaboration,” Sanders says. “The song was quite a tricky one [the first time Fairport played it live] but it went great and went over quite well.”
Expect Sanders’ second contribution to this album, “Jonah’s Oak,” to become an instant fan favorite as a salute to the late friends of Fairport. The delicately evocative fiddle-and-strings tribute is perhaps as close to classical as Fairport has recorded in recent memory. Sanders discusses the evolution of the song, which he knew would resonate with fans that have adopted a tree on a Cropredy field as an almost sacred area.
“The first version was not really something that could [easily be] played live by those that wanted to cover it,” he says. “I withdrew it and worked it into a much simpler tune somebody could play at a loved one’s funeral.”
Band members are quick to credit producer-engineer John Gale (Amy Winehouse, PJ Harvey, Florence + The Machine) for the album’s sound.
“He is just essential to our recording process,” Leslie says. “He knows the band’s music so well and he knows us individually as well. More importantly, he knows how each member wants to work. With him, it all goes exactly as it should. He has very modern ears and that…gives the album a crisp, uncluttered, clear sound.”
That’s a difficult line to walk, considering the myriad of genres that need to be melded into a cohesive whole. Yet the band with Gale is successful in tipping their caps to the past while moving forward into fresh, contemporary music.
“Fairport exists and audiences know what it is and what to expect, yet they can still be creative and change the band up and achieve musical potential,” Thompson says, commenting on the success of the band with its sold-out performances, annual 25,000-plus attended Cropredy Convention music festival and new albums. “I turn up on the big anniversaries—the 20th, 30th, 40th—and I always enjoy it,” he says. “They’ve had a lot of success that has nothing to do with me.”