Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fair Port, Crop Ready (The Prequel)

The flood waters in England are receding, and the proper British getting on with it, shoveling out the damaged homes and inns. The sun has reappeared, however reluctantly, over weirs and moors. And the show will go on! Fairport and its thousands of friends will soon occupy the drying-out grounds of Cropredy once more...

I fly out on August 3rd, so I get to send this bloggin' stuff on leave too for a couple of weeks, lazy sod that I am. But first here's just one more bit of old Fusion writing, since it relates to some of the music that lies ahead in England:

By 1970 or so, the great Fairport Convention line-up including Sandy Denny, Ashley Hutchings, and Richard Thompson had splintered, and the other, and newer, guys had rallied behind fancy folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick. So, from June 1972, my review of A&M 4333, Fairport's then-new album "Babbacombe" Lee (and my opinion of the discs cited here would still hold today, except that Angel Delight yielded many Fairport old favorites as the years went on)...


Hard on the heels of Fairport's recent Angel Delight--a somewhat lackluster jumble of jigs and clogs rumored to have been released without the group's consent (and certainly advertised in a slipshod manner with even the song titles confused)--comes this odd accumulation of programmatic folky-rock called "Babbacombe" Lee. (Arriving almost to the day with the announcement of Simon Nicol's departure from the group, the drafty jacket even has a drawing of the boys with Simon standing apart--shades of Last Time Around!) I say "programmatic" because the songs all concern one John Lee, evidently a real man who was arrested for a murder he didn't commit. Convicted posthaste on circumstantial evidence and condemned to death, Lee was later unexpectedly reprieved when, on the morning of his execution, the gallows failed three times to function. Lee then lived on behind bars for twenty-odd years more (consignment to a worse tomb, he commented afterwards) until his final parole.

A bizarre tale indeed, and a curious choice for a "concept" album. Or is it? An 1880's setting, existential angst, a "terrible ordeal" (as the notes proclaim), an implicit message calling for prison and juridical reform--"Babbacombe" Lee has them all and more. The "more" fortunately being a disc-load of good, varied, invigorating music--plenty of mandolin and fiddle, vocals from all four Fairporters (for a welcome change), a multitude of intriguing and melodic, if untitled, songs.

The guys have clearly put in many long hours shaping these story-songs, polishing the lyric content to a glossy, yet feeling and intelligent gleam, especially the second side's Death Row ballads ("Dying's very easy, waiting's very hard"). I was prepared at first to be bored, since concept albums have become such a goddamned glut and drag. But now I'm most glad I listened and really heard. A distinguished, and enjoyable, piece of work from a group still to be reckoned with, split or no. So don't let the bland packaging put you off--don't pass "Babbacombe" Lee carelessly by.

(And if you can find it, get the English import called No Roses, by Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band--which is Miss Collins and, mostly, the old Fairport crew reunited for a folk-rocking good time that harkens back to watershed albums like Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief.)


Back to the present. As fans of Fairport know, Sandy died after a fall, Richard built a great career as songwriter and guitarist extraordinaire, restless Ashley became a one-man force for preserving English music of all eras, and Swarb led a version of Fairport for several more years, until the band sort of petered out... except that it didn't.

A new/old Fairport reconstituted itself with Simon back, and Dave Pegg, and Dave Mattacks, and various front men on guitar or fiddle or whatever, and the boys gathered for a nice Weekend in the Country, which became a yearly event, which grew to be three days of Fairporters old and new and their many musical friends and friendly rivals, and new albums appeared every year or so, and the band rolled on!

Forty years young this May, and up to nearly 30 years of Festivals, mostly called Cropredy. And all survivors are back this year for a special on-stage playthrough of Liege and Lief (the single most influential English rocking folk album of all time), as well as the usual all-hands-on-deck Saturday night with Fairport.

And I'll be there.

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