Fairport Convention – 50:50@50

Album Review | Matty Grooves | Review by Allan Wilkinson | Stars: 3/5

So, fifty years eh? Who’da thought? The institution that is Fairport Convention reaches half a century with an evident sense of joy, albeit tinged with some degree of sadness, in as much as one or two key players involved in this enduring story didn’t quite make it through; Martin Lamble, Sandy Denny, Trevor Lucas and lately, the charismatic fiddle-playing genius himself, Dave Swarbrick. Added to these notable casualties is the long list of musicians who to this day wear their Fairport credentials with pride. The band’s notoriety in this particular area, which effectively saw Pete Frame sticking a new ink cartridge in his pen when drawing up the band’s family tree, is legendary, especially in Fairport’s earlier years. As the band steadily evolved, its audience likewise changed. Yes there are the die-hard ‘lifers’ who have been there since the beginning, but then there are those who missed the likes of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny far too much to consider sticking around further. Then, the Cropredy years saw the emergence of many younger fans, who eagerly climbed aboard the Fairport vessel specifically to join in with the band’s annual celebrations upon the rolling meadows of Oxfordshire near Banbury. For a band that has already released dozens of albums of varying degrees of satisfaction over the years, together with various celebratory offerings (History Of, The Cropredy Box etc.) not to mention turning up annually for their summer knees-up, you would have thought that the half-century Rite of Passage would have been marked by something exceptional. 50:50@50 – an album made up of 50% studio releases and 50% live cuts and released in the band’s 50th year – is not a bad record at all, it’s just not what I would have expected upon such an auspicious occasion, but there again, for a band who makes every summer a special celebration based around itself, such aspirations of grandeur might be slightly over-egging the pudding. Concealed within a stark black sleeve, emblazoned with their now familiar gold foiled logo, together with a handful of With the Beatles inspired mug shots, the fourteen selections deliberately steer clear of anything from their early period, with the possible exception of a pretty faithful revival of “Lord Marlborough”, originally included in their Angel Delight set. The album instead focuses on a handful of Chris Leslie originals such as “Eleanor’s Dream”, which boldly opens proceedings, “Step By Step” and “Devil’s Work”, rubbing shoulders with a bunch of recently recorded live cuts. Chris goes on to update us on the band’s penchant for autobiographical musings, adding “Our Bus Rolls On” to the tradition which also includes the likes of “Come All Ye” and “Angel Delight”, this time with a very distinct appreciation of his own fellow band mates: ‘I love strings, those kind of things, to write a song or two, I have no fear with my friends up here, it’s all I want to do’. Then follows Ric Sanders’ enduring instrumental “Portmeirion”, the best thing from that model village since Number Six’s surreal episodes escaping a large white balloon called Rover. No stranger to the fields of Cropredy, Robert Plant is here to offer a rather low-key guest spot, with a twangy trot through the gospel-tinged “Jesus on the Mainline”, together with some bluesy gob organ, recorded live at one of the Cropredy warm-ups in Banbury, whilst Pentangle legend Jacqui McShee joins her husband’s band in the studio for an almost Peggy Seeger-ish reading of the traditional “The Lady of Carlisle”. Yes, there could have been a definitive 50-CD box set encompassing the band’s entire career, with nods to absent friends and brilliantly funny outtakes (remember Swarb’s April Fool’s Day prank?), not to mention many of the band’s most memorable songs from each of the five decades since the band’s birth in the Summer of Love, but 50:50@50 does capture a small portion of it. Dare I say here’s to the next 50 years?