Fairport Convention has long been one of those bands with output so prolific and legacy so influential, its often hard to know where to begin listening. I came to appreciate them in a backwards sort of manner, first becoming a fan of original guitarist Richard Thompson and discovering his work with the group along the way. When I found out that their first hit -- Time Will Show The Wiser -- was written by one of my favorite pop songwriters, Emitt Rhodes, I was sold and started collecting their albums. Some of them are bonafide classics which have been reissued on and off over the years. A new reissue of their groundbreaking 1970 album Liege & Lief is out now from Universal Music Group as well as a fine seven CD boxed set (our focus for this review).
Housed in an appropriately woody-looking compact cardboard box, the set -- called Come All Ye -- The First Ten Years, available now on Amazon for a very fair $60 -- includes a hardbound and detailed book with much history and detail on the band and the set's contents. The seven CDs are individually wrapped in single-disc cardboard sleeves, each bearing lovely woodcut inlay styled artwork. And you even get a nifty poster for your... um... groovy teenage folk-rock-encrusted bedroom wall. Ok, so the poster is perhaps not the biggest appeal of this set but, hey, some of you might want to put it up in your office. Its quite attractive actually.
But the music within most certainly is the main appeal here. For the serious fan and newbie alike, Come All Ye -- The First Ten Years contains treasured rarities all housed in one place, culled from a variety of sources. You get a complete previously 1973 concert recording as well as a 1974 performance at LA's Troubadour (with one new previously unreleased track). There are a plethora of demos, outtakes, radio recordings from the BBC and even some tracks pulled from television appearances Its really a lovely collection.
The most valuable side effect of listening to this set is that it has prompted me to more fully reconsider and appreciate the post-Richard Thompson era. As I found myself listening to the 7th disc -- that 1974 Troubador show -- I initially didn't realize that Thompson wasn't on the recording. Curiously enough, with Sandy Denny back on vocals for this set, I didn't bother to look initially and just found myself enjoying the show and the guitar playing in particular quite immensely. I didn't realize I'd become such as snob about Richard Thompson's tenure with the band! No disrespect to Mr. Thompson -- who is one of my guitar heroes, for sure -- but it is nice to realize that when they want to, post-Thompson Fairport can rock just fine even without him in tow. Recorded a week after the Sydney Opera House shows that made up the Moveable Feast album, this performance is reportedly a more assured performance -- I have not yet compared them for myself, full disclosure. Whatever the case, Sandy and the band are in fine form -- this version of her classic "Who Knows Where The Time Goes" is wonderful. This set includes a previously unreleased performance from the show, a Richard Thompson tune called "Down Where The Drunkards Roll." The previously unreleased 1973 set (Fairfield Halls, December 16, 1973) is a high quality stereo soundboard grade recording that sounds real solid too --again the Richard Thompson comparison comes to mind on tracks like "Mathew, Mark, Luke & John" with its blistering guitar soloing and rock solid arrangements.
Some call Fairport Convention Britain's answer to The Band and there may be some truth to that conceptually as both blend rural folk sounds with good old rock 'n roll. But really, they were a very different thing. Intrinsically, British folk sounds hailing back to ye olde days of madrigals and all that sort of thing are simply not rooted in the same place as the sort of Appalachian / proto-Americana flavors Robbie Robertson and company were pursuing.
To that, the producers of Come All Ye -- The First Ten Years have struck a fine balance to present a quite complete showcase of all the facets that make up the Fairport Convention universe. So, here you will also find tracks from a Sandy Denny box set, songs that showed up on Richard Thompson compilations as well as numerous radio shows such as John Peel's Top Gear -- the latter sounding remarkably good for their age. Its really nice hearing a track like Roger McGuinn & Bob Dylan's "The Ballad of Easy Rider" -- featuring vocals by Sandy Denny and recorded at the time of Liege & Lief but not formally released until the 1976 Richard Thompson solo album Guitar, Vocal -- in context with music from the period. It makes much more sense here. The fine previously unreleased version of "The Deserter" (from Leige & Leif) is wonderful.
Overall the sound on this set is excellent, with nice rich acoustic guitar tones and a nice warmth surrounding the vocals -- there was probably no need for loudness wars styled mastering here, so there is a fair amount of dynamic range audible.
And so go things on this fine fine Fairport boxed set outing. If you know you like Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson, Come All Ye -- The First Ten Years is a great place to start a new Fairport Convention journey. If you know you like Fairport Convention, Come All Ye -- The First Ten Years is a great way to expand your collection of rarities in a thoughtful manner.
And isn't that the purpose of well curated collection like this? I think so.
(Fairport Convention band photos courtesy Island Records)