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Fairport Convention picture, image, poster
Fairport Convention

Date of birth : -
Date of death : -
Birthplace : London, England
Nationality : English
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2012-05-02

Fairport Convention are an English folk rock and later electric folk band, formed in 1967 who are still recording and touring today. They are widely regarded as the most important single group in the English folk rock movement.

After virtually creating the British folk rock form in the late 1960s, Fairport Convention proceeded to establish itslf as an institution in the genre. During an era when many British bands were exploring blues sounds, Fairport Convention looked to the folk scene in England and North America for inspiration. In 1989, founding member Simon Nicol was quoted by Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune as reflecting, "We weren't into the 'mop-top' or Mersey-beat sound; we wanted something with more meat on it. We also wanted to get away from the 12-bar {blues} format and into something more melodic."

The result was a fusion of rock instrumentation and traditionally-influenced songwriting that made the group stand apart. Having passed the 30-year mark--after suffering a frequently changing lineup, but only one official breakup--the band released the album Who Knows Where the Time Goes in 1997, and continued to headline an annual folk festival in Cropredy, England.

The band was formed in 1966 by Nicol on guitar, Ashley Hutchings on bass, Richard Thompson on guitar, Martin Lamble on drums, and Judy Dyble and Ian Matthews, vocals. They named themselves after Nicol's parent's home, "Fairport," where they rehearsed. The fledgling group's musical influences included Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.

Fairport Convention's first single, "If I Had a Ribbon Bow," was released in 1967; it had been recorded previously by Maxine Sullivan in 1936. After performing on the "underground" circuit in London, the group was more prominently showcased at London's Saville Theatre in 1968, performing with Procol Harum. Several months later, the group released its first album, Fairport Convention. The recording included original material and several Joni Mitchell covers.
Shortly after the album's release, Dyble left the band, to be replaced by Sandy Denny, a singer with a folk background.

The switch coincided with the group's increased use of English folk elements, which were heard on their second album, What We Did On Our Holidays. The new direction displeased Matthews, who quit the band after having only worked on one of the album's tracks. Amid a growing contemporary-versus-traditional debate, the band lost drummer Lamble in a traffic accident. In May of 1969, the band's van crashed, killing Lamble and Thompson's girlfriend. After canceling a proposed U.S. performance at the Newport Folk Festival that summer, the band completed Unhalfbricking, their first recording to appear on the British "hit" charts. Featuring covers of Bob Dylan tunes, the album also included the work of fiddler Dave Swarbrick, who subsequently became a full-fledged member.

Drummer Dave Mattacks joined Fairport Convention on the album Liege & Lief, on which six of eight tracks were traditional folk tunes. Both Hutchings and Denny were unhappy with the band's artistic focus, with Hutchings leaning to the traditional side and Denny preferring more contemporary music. Both left the band in 1970. Denny was not replaced, but bassist Dave Pegg joined the group. When Thompson left the band in 1971 to pursue a solo career, it left Nicol as the last remaining founding member. In later years, a number of former members would rejoin or make reunion appearances; and after some 20 years, 20 different members had belonged to the band. Denny and Thompson left perhaps the most important legacies behind them--Denny for leading the band further into folk music and Thompson for his jazz-inspired style of guitar playing. Kot remarked that Thompson was viewed as "the Coltrane of rock guitar."

In 1979, Fairport Convention officially disbanded, but only a year later gave its first "reunion" concert. Nicol told Kot, "More people showed up for {the first reunion show} than the farewell gig." The program became an annual tradition, and grew into the largest folk festival in Europe. Called the Cropredy Folk Festival, the show is held in Cropredy, England, a village known for being the site of a 1644 civil war battle. It hosts as many as 15,000 Fairport Convention fans each summer. The program is unusual because it is shaped by the whims of Fairport Convention members. Nicol described the show to Kot as "an orgy of self-indulgence" where the band plays as long as it wants and invites whomever it likes to perform.

The reunion concerts led to a more permanent recreation of Fairport Convention in 1986, when Mattacks, Pegg, and Nicol decided they wanted to create some new music together. They recorded the album Gladys' Leap and toured with Jethro Tull as "Fairport Friends" with new members Martin (a.k.a. Maartin) Allcock on keyboards and Ric Sanders on violin. In 1989, the quartet recorded Red & Gold, a collection of story songs that frequently shared political themes. The title track was Ralph McTell's imagined account of the previously mentioned battle at Cropredy. In a review for Rolling Stone, David Fricke praised Red and Gold, saying "the astute choice of tunes, full-bodied arrangements and delicious {guitar} picking ... sound like the work of a Fairport half--nay a fifth-- its age." He further noted that it was the first Fairport Convention album that didn't "beg comparisons" with work from the Thompson-Denny era, but rather stood on its own merits.

In 1989, the video It All Comes 'Round Again provided a documentary look at the first 22 years of the band's existence. The title repeated a line from the band's 1968 song, "Meet on the Ledge." The production included interviews with band members, clips from television performances and concerts, and the only known footage of Denny performing. Writing for Video, John Walker deemed the film "both a fan's dream and a stellar example of musical documentary," with its greatest asset being its uncut and rarely seen archival material.

For the 1995 release of Jewel in the Crown, the Fairport Convention roster repeated that of Red and Gold: Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks, Ric Sanders, and Martin Allcock. Because none of the members considered themselves songwriters, this quartet looked outside the band for songs and did so quite successfully. Like the band's previous recording, their selections for Jewel in the Crown often addressed political issues. Mike Joyce commented in the Washington Post that Jewel in the Crown showed "an impressive level of songcraft that never flags." He also found that "true to form, the band's melding of folk and rock styles often seems as natural as its wit, charm and bite."

By the end of the decade, the band had adopted an almost exclusively acoustic performance format, and in early 1998 Mattacks decided to leave in order to pursue other projects. Chris Leslie had replaced Allcock the prior year, playing a variety of instruments including violin, mandolin, and bouzouki. With the 1997 release of Who Knows Where the Time Goes, Fairport Convention marked 30 years since its first recording. The band's longevity--in one form or another--is certainly remarkable, as is its lasting contribution to rock music. As Fricke noted, "Having plugged into one tradition, Fairport unwittingly created another, siring a nation of electric folk bands." Fricke went on to characterize the band's impact on contemporary music as "the small but significant way that Fairport Convention changed rock & roll."

2007 was the band’s fortieth anniversary year and they celebrated by releasing a new album, Sense of Occasion. They performed the whole of the Liege & Lief album live at Cropredy, since 2004 renamed Fairport's Cropredy Convention, featuring the 1969 line-up of Dave Swarbrick, Ashley Hutchings, Dave Mattacks, Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson, with singer-songwriter Chris While taking the place of Sandy Denny. Footage of the festival, although not the Liege and Lief performance, was released as part of a celebratory DVD.

In 2011, the band released a new studio album Festival Bell, the first new album in four years. This was followed in 2012 by Babbacombe Lee Live Again recorded live during the 2011 tour revisiting the Babbacombe Lee album first issued in 1971. Also in 2012 came By Popular Request a reworking in the studio of a number of the most popular songs in the band's repertoire (as determined by a mysterious consultation process conducted by the band with its fans).


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