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Matty Grooves MGCD054

There was a time, back in the day, when I was a serious festival goer. My old frame tent and I got weathered and decrepit simultaneously, down the years. And when I think of all the festivals I attended, from the organised chaos of The Isle Of Wight 1970, through 20 consecutive annual weekends at Cambridge, to favourite smaller festivals like Stainsby and Trowbridge, one festival ruled the roost when it came to atmosphere. And that was the annual Fairport bash at Cropredy. Quite unforgettable in its vibe: we all got to feel we were God’s chosen children for a few nights every year.

And so I regard it as an honour to review this CD: an album that marks a big birthday for Fairport. It seems incredible, but it is 50 years since they first performed in public. And 48 years since I sat in the audience at the Ian Campbell Folk Group’s club at Digbeth Town Hall, to see them bid a fond goodbye from the stage to bass player Dave Pegg, who was leaving them to join Fairport. I bet he never guessed he would clock up a near half century...!!

So then, this is a big moment. And to explain the album’s title, they have marked it with an album containing a 50/50 split between seven live tracks and seven studio recordings, and as befits a quality outfit like Fairport Convention, they have thus here provided a “must have” album for all their devoted fans.

Is it their greatest work? No, it is not, but it is unquestionably a serious attempt to mark the occasion with a memorable release. And if novelists rarely write their greatest novels a full half a century after their first, by contrast, the sole original member Simon Nicol, is in as good voice now as ever he was back in 1967. His live performances of Steve Tilston’s witty The Naked Highwayman and of that most touching song John Condon (about an Irish lad who became the youngest Allied soldier to die in WW1), are both top notch.

We have some new songs from the pen of Chris Leslie, and as you would expect, they are strong melodically. Nice to see Fairport tipping their hat to The Tradition with guest vocal from Jacqui McShee on The Lady Of Carlisle. And we have the dazzling Ric Sanders reviving his instrumental Danny Jack’s Reward with a recording that ropes in a number of stellar friends to guest on what he calls this “expensive version!”.

But the choice track of the 14, was for me, number six. Here we have a live version of that hillbilly spiritual, Jesus On The Mainline. And with another guest vocalist in Robert Plant: from way back, Led Zeppelin and Fairport were a mutual admiration society. And gee, doesn’t Plant really nail this fine old number (even if his harmonica playing does not really convince): this cut even has the edge on the Ry Cooder recording. And when was the last time you ever recall Ry Cooder taking second place?!

Dai Woosnam

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This album was reviewed in Issue 119 of The Living Tradition magazine.