The Fairports MK3
Listen/Download – Fairport Convention – Reynardine
Welcome to another week here on the good ship Iron Leg.
Fairport Convention, long one of my favorite groups is one of those late-60s UK bands that deserves a lot more respect than they get from rock/psyche heads.
Though they are best known for their rural, folk-rocky travels, with the Morris Dancers and the twenty-sided dice and what not, what they started out as, and what they did best (at least on my opinion) was make some superb rock music.
That the band was at their peak a veritable Murderers Row of UK talent, with the almighty Richard Thompson wrangling the guitar and writing some brilliant songs, Sandy Denny (preceded by Judy Dyble, the Signe Toly Anderson of British rock) and Iain Matthews on vocals, Ashley ‘Tyger’ Hutchings on bass, Simon Nicol on rhythm and Dave Mattacks (himself preceded by Martin Lamble) on drums, Fairport made their mark as part of the UK underground, taking a sort of Jefferson Airplane-ian vibe and wrapping it in the Union Jack.
Though many seem to think that the UK rock scene of the day was solely the playground of laughing, treacle coated gnomes, there was a strong undercurrent of a West Coast US influence at work.
The group’s first four albums, recorded between 1967 and 1969 are as solid a block of great music as was made in those heady days. ‘Fairport Convention’, ‘What We Did on Our Holidays’ and ‘Unhalfbricking’ can stand proudly alongside just about anything released during those years.
Unfortunately, after the third album, the band’s van overturned, killing both original drummer Lamble, and Richard Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn.
The band went into a period of seclusion and inactivity (with Matthews leaving to start Matthews Southern Comfort), after which they gathered to regroup.
It was during this period that they were joined by fiddler Dave Swarbrick and began to morph into the more folky Fairport of the 70s.
The album that resulted, 1969’s ‘Liege and Lief’ is an important transitional artifact joining the earlier, psyched out Fairport with the later, traditionalist incarnation of the band.
The album is uniformly superb, but in my eyes (and ears) its finest track, and in many ways the linchpin on which their evolution turned, was ‘Reynardine’.
A reworking of an old traditional song that dates to the late 18th century (it had apparently migrated to the US by the 1830s), ‘Reynardine’ is the tale of a mystical creature that could metamorphose into a fox and lure maidens back to its castle.
It sounds like the kind of thing Led Zeppelin might have tackled in the depths of their Tolkien worship (which intersects with this era of Fairport in style, as well as in the borrowing of Sandy Denny for Led Zep IV), but Fairport manage to turn it into a hypnotic, almost completely drumless meditation.
It is in turns psychedelic, bucolic – it is hard to listen to it without passing back and forth between visions of hippies standing barefoot in the mud, and pre-Victorian peasants…standing barefoot in the mud) – floating along like a ghost on the pure air of Denny’s voice.
The song is almost over before you realize it. The sensation is almost as if you’d been caught eavesdropping on some unspeakable, mystic invocation.
Unlike their epic reading of another traditional tune, ‘A Sailor’s Life’ from ‘Unhalfbricking’ (which also featured Swarbrick, then just a sideman) ‘Reynardine’ never really takes off into an era-appropriate jam (as you might expect) choosing instead to reserve its powers (yet managing to be more powerful still).
It’s the kind of performance that leaves the listener convinced that they’ve heard traces of something bigger floating in the background. It is every bit a version of an old traditional song, and at the same time anchored firmly in 1969.
Though I respect the later Fairport, I must admit that there are times where they go all jolly-fiddler and fill the mind with images of dancing elves and alewives, which is cool if that’s your thing, but ‘Reynardine’, and all of ‘Liege and Lief’ manages to be so heavy precisely because they only hint at what would soon come to the fore.
If you haven’t given their early stuff a listen because you were put off by the whole RenFaire bag, then you are doing yourself (and them) a grave disservice.
Fairport Convention were a great (not merely good) band.
I’ll see you next week.