Monday, July 03, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 013: Fairport Convention: Liege and Lief

This might be the worst-sounding masterpiece I’ve ever heard--but it's still a masterpiece. Producer Joe Boyd, who certainly enters the Hall of Fame for his impeccable musical taste as a producer and A&R man (Incredible String Band, Fairport, Chris MacGregor, John Martin, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Toots & the Maytals), listened a little too hard to the musicians' fears of “sounding like a rock ‘n’ roll band” and produced a record that sounds as if they’re playing under several layers of quilts—though the remastered and expanded version is a little better.

Fairport, founded by Ashley Hutchings and Richard Thompson as a British version of San Francisco folk-rock, had recently sustained a catastrophic van crash which had killed drummer Martin Lamble and shattered the old version of the band. On Liege and Lief, they added fiddler Dave Swarbrick, who had just come off a string of fantastic duo records with the great guitarist Martin Carthy, and this record is the moment when they transition from a reasonably competent psychedelic/folk band to something deeper, darker, and more ancient. Swarbrick helped Sandy reach deeper into her own folk roots and goaded Thompson to explore writing new songs in the traditional forms.

The result, track by track, is absolutely earth-shattering: the jubilation of Sandy’s Come All Ye (introducing the band’s personnel and writing them into myth at the same time), the spooky fanged terror of Reynardine (based on AL Lloyd’s re-write of a traditional song, about which Swarbrick said “it wasn’t us—it was Sandy’s ability to tell a story, and us rambling around in the background”), the raging fiddle medley The Lark in the Morning (in which Thompson’s skirling electric and Simon Nicol’s thumping acoustic guitars kick Swarbrick into the highest gear). Most intense moment of all is probably Tam Lin, an ancient (14th century) Scottish border ballad of demonic kidnapping and rescue, and the ancient bloody balladry of Matty powered by the Mattacks/Hutchings rhythm section, who had the good taste to rip off the fantastic descending pentatonic riff from Martin Carthy’s version of The Famous Flower of Serving Men (itself possibly the greatest folk-song performance I’ve ever heard).

Secret weapon: the titanic drummer Dave Mattacks, who, in his mild-mannered bespectacled Eric-Idle-as-librarian way, lit a fire under Thompson’s ass and pushed Swarbrick’s fiddle tunes to dizzying heights. Mattacks went on to play in numerous future versions of Fairport, as well sa with the greatest versions of the Richard and Linda Thompson Band, and with pickup bands for the folkie Bob Franke, where I had the privilege of playing with him too--and it wasn't like anything else.

For sure.

[h/t to Dharmonia for putting the right riff with the right ballad.]

1 comment:

Dharmonia said...

Great entry. Just for the record, the "Famous Flower of Serving Men" riff was used on Matty Groves, not Tam Lin (not that it matters.)