Few artists ever make it as high up the mountain as Fairport Convention did with Liege & Lief.
The road to Fairport Convention’s 1969 album Liege & Lief was fraught. That summer, the group were on the verge of disbanding. They started out as just another British groups looking to cop the American folk-rock, covering Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell on their self-titled debut of the previous year and trying to sound like The Byrds. But after that initial release (which was good, if somewhat forgettable), the band had a few lineup changes that resulted in singer Sandy Denny joining. In January of ’69 they released What We Did On Our Holidays. While it retained some of the cover songs the band was known for, it also introduced more original material – among which Denny’s “Fotheringay” stands out – and re-workings of traditional folk and blues songs.
The band’s profile grew and in June of ’69 they released Unhalfbricking, scoring a minor hit off a Dylan tune the band had translated into French while bored on tour as “Si Tu Dois Partir.” Two other then-unreleased Dylan songs were on the record, too, as well as Denny’s brilliant and ethereal “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” The real coup, however, was the epic, 11-minute re-working of the traditional English folk song “A Sailor’s Life.” A swirl of cymbals and guitars, it centers Denny’s voice and introduced a new and vital component, violinist Dave Swarbrick. The song marked the band’s turn from the American song tradition to that of their homeland, and both it and the album garnered acclaim.
Yet in the midst of this artistic maturation and critical praise, the band considered ending things. And for good reason. On the way home from a gig in May of 1969 the group was involved in a car accident that took the life of band member Richard Thompson’s girlfriend, fashion designer Jeannie Franklyn, and the group’s 19 year old drummer, Martin Lamble. The rest of the band were beat-up physically and mentally, and wondered if calling it quits wasn’t the best way to honor the dead and begin to deal with the psychic trauma of the accident on those who survived.
Taking one last page from Dylan, in the wake of the wreck Fairport Convention found their own Big Pink, a Queen Anne house in Hampshire. They found a new drummer, brought on Swarbrick as a permanent member and began to plunge the depths of the deep and eerie English folk songbook. The result was Liege & Lief, and it was a startling rebirth.
Opener “Come All Ye” reflects this process. An original composition by Denny and bassist Ashley Hutchings, but written in a traditional style, the track is an invocation. The electric guitar chugs along with violins swooping in and out as Denny’s voice hovers above, singing “Come all ye rolling minstrels/ And together we will try/ To rouse the spirit of the air/ And move the rolling sky.” On the subsequent choruses, the male vocalists join in with her. This coming-together is a magic spell, auguring the music that follows.
The only other wholly original composition on the album is the closer, “Crazy Man Michael.” A collaboration between Thompson and Swarbrick, the song is something like a cross between Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” and Greek myth, drug through the fog of Celtic myth. The piling up of folkloric referents – sorcerers, ravens, lovers, madmen – never lapses into kitsch because the band plays it straight, even as the collapse of time depicted in the song is reflected in the off-kilter rhythm of its waltz. Given no liner notes, a listener would not be able to pick out the original compositions from the traditional ones.
One reason for this is that Fairport Convention were pretty much the first English folk rock band to devote an entire album to their own country’s traditional sounds. They had to figure out not just how to play these songs well – many had done that before them – but how to apply a rock sensibility. What kind of percussion to use, how far to push the electric guitars, what to do with the bass – Fairport Convention were the first group to seriously consider these questions as they relate to English folk songs. The original compositions were a way of reverse-engineering this process, but the hybrid “Farewell, Farewell” splits the difference between old and new. Pristine electric guitars ring out the backing for a traditional melody given new lyrics by Thompson. Denny’s vocals, again, are what carries it off, though. The fragile delicacy of her higher register is undergirded by the surprising power of the lower. Her voice sounds by turns tired, melancholy, wistful and hopeful.
On one of the more recognizably “rock” tunes, the nevertheless traditional “Matty Groves,” Denny’s vocal power matches the rollicking musicianship as she unravels the tale of adultery and murder. Elsewhere the group rollicks, sans vocals, through a medley of traditional tunes led by Swarbrick’s ecstatic violin.
The haunting dirge of “Reynardine” – all floating cymbals and endlessly rung guitar chords – turns things more sinister. Though less salacious than “Matty Groves,” the song builds an impending sense of danger and leaves off at the moment of highest suspense, though the fate of the character’s prey is all but certain. “The Deserter” tells the story of a victim of 17th century “press gangs” which would travel from town to town and recruit young men as soldiers against their will. The soldier’s story is told via Denny’s voice as he deserts the army again and again, only to be ratted out and pressed back into service. Another waltz, the band finds interesting ways to escalate the tension even as the story repeats, the guitars and percussion doubling-time as the vocals remain steady.
“Tam Lin” is unrepentantly a rock song. It presages Fairport Convention’s countrymen Led Zeppelin and Comus even as it fits seamlessly with Liege & Lief’s folk sensibility. Distorted guitar and violin duel epic but not over-the-top solos in between some of Denny’s most powerful vocals on the album as she sings the traditional story of the prince rescued by his lover Janet from the evil Queen of the Fairies. Percussion and bass form a driving through line underneath it all. Imitating the traditional reel, the verses are broken up with a circular, descending guitar riff.
The album as originally issued ended with “Crazy Man Michael,” but the reissue includes the contemporaneously recorded traditional “Sir Patrick Spens,” which contains some of Swarbrick’s best violin work and ends with “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood.” The latter – and if you listen on certain streaming services, it will be the last track – deserves special consideration. Built atop the droning ambience of what sounds like a digeridoo, the subdued percussion gives it a Celtic cast. The violin follows Denny’s vocals as she sings another hybrid work: a traditional melody with words by American poet Richard Fariña. The son of an Irish mother, Fariña’s contribution closes the loop on Fairport Convention’s across-the-pond circumnavigation. There and back again. The lyrics call the band back to the earth to meditate on rolling tides and ancient trees, back and back to that ancient past “when love was lord of all.”
The music fades out after seven minutes and gives way to silence before giving the listener a brief glimpse of the recording process of Liege & Lief. Studio chatter, a playful violin, Denny says “take three,” the track begins – but it’s a false start. Denny has gotten the words wrong. She insists that she’s “got to get them right.” She knows they are much older than any of the people in the room. Coincidentally, the album title translates from Middle English as “Loyal & Ready.”
After the band had toured the UK, including a date at the Royal Festival Hall supported by Nick Drake, but before Liege & Lief was released in December, Hutchings and Denny had left the group. Denny wanted to focus more on performing original compositions and Hutchings wanted to further explore the traditional English songbook. The band, exhausted by the events of 1969, lost both members in their inability to resolve this artistic tension. While Denny would return briefly before her untimely death in 1978, Fairport Convention’s history in the intervening decades (up to this year’s Shuffle and Go) has been one marked by near-constant lineup changes. That some inconsistency in quality should result from this is not surprising, but it would be reductive to discount the music the band has made in the wake of their masterpiece. And it’s worth pointing out that few artists ever make it as high up the mountain as Fairport Convention did with Liege & Lief.