Sunday, 7 July 2019

Liege And Lief - Fairport Convention

Provenance: My memory is fuzzy on this, though I recall buying Liege and Lief for my dad at some point. That's how I first heard it; and it obviously left an impression, because I bought it for myself many years later.

Certainly, if it wasn't for dad I wouldn't have an inkling about the folk rock scene. The first band of that ilk I remember hearing were Steeleye Span, probably their Below the Salt album. I was less familiar with Fairport Convention but distinctly recall Babbacombe Lee being in my parents' vinyl collection. In a slightly odd twist, during my MA I would live a few yards from the prison where they tried to hang John "Babbacombe" Lee - three times, if I recall correctly - before a halt was called to proceedings.

But enough rambling about Babbacombe Lee, it says at the top of this article that I'm reviewing Liege and Lief, so I'd better start paying some attention.

Review: Iconoclastic. Before getting into the nuts and bolts of Liege and Lief, it's worth noting a bit of context. I would direct any reader with the slightest interest in the British folk scene to pick up a copy of JP Bean's oral history called Singing From the Floor. This book both manages to dispel and enhance the perception that folk is an austere, scholarly pursuit riven by purists and gatekeepers of the worst kind. I say enhance, because a few major figures certainly fit the bill. Ewan MacColl in particular comes across as something of a martinet, obsessed by the technicalities of folksong and running the rule over which songs were 'acceptable' to be performed at his clubs. I should say that despite his stated orthodoxies and the faintly ridiculous 'finger-in-the-ear' style of singing that entered popular culture, MacColl and others like Bert Lloyd did much to preserve a dying tradition, and in MacColl's case to contribute some fine songs of his own.

Where Singing From the Floor dispels the notion of folk as altogether too stuffy is in its depiction of the Soho scene. Here, young British performers mingled with American counterparts such as Paul Simon and Jackson C Frank; ideas around tradition and authenticity were a little looser, and I don't think its surprising that the more innovative musicians in folk - Bert Jansch, John Martyn, John Renbourn, Roy Harper et al - emerged from this crowd. This is also the crowd that gave birth, in stuttering form, to Fairport Convention.

Liege and Lief is Fairport Convention's fourth album. Founding members Simon Nicol, Ashley Hutchings and Richard Thompson were here joined by fiddler Dave Swarbrick, singer Sandy Denny and drummer Dave Mattacks, the replacement for Martin Lamble after his death in a road accident in which every member of the band at the time except Denny were involved. Whilst coming to terms with loss and injury, bassist Hutchings buried himself in researching traditional music archives housed in Cecil Sharp House. Denny was already familiar with much traditional music, and Swarbrick had a knowledge of folk that Thompson would describe as 'encyclopaedic'. What they subsequently did - take music that stretched back centuries in origin and electrify it - would prove to be a game changer.

From the perspective of 2019, where it feels like every genre has been run through the electro-wringer (though electro-swing definitely shouldn't be a thing), Liege and Lief might be considered quaint. Certainly, some early rock 'n' roll sounds a bit tame to my ears, even as I strain to discern its importance in the development of popular music. Given that folk already has a somewhat unthreatening patina to it, I was worried that a reappraisal of Liege and Lief would be full of caveats. I'm happy to say that they're not necessary.

In some ways, this record is wilder than anything floating around at the moment, even in the edgier 'hard folk' circles. Firstly, the electric backing to songs that already sound unearthly transport Liege and Lief into the realms of psychedelia. This weirdness is heightened by the fantastical nature of some of the lyrics - 'Reynardine' and 'Tam Lin' being standout examples of songs that read like trippy, twisted fairy tales. The playing is exemplary - Mattacks' backing to 'Reynardine', for example, which consists of little else than slow swells on the cymbal, is breathtaking in its simplicity and ability to create a sense of otherworldliness. The truly mindbending element in the mix is Swarbrick's electric fiddle, which at times drones away like John Cale's viola in the Velvet Underground's 'Venus In Furs'; at other times, it simply kicks free from gravity and takes flight. The mid-album medley of 'The Lark in the Morning / Rakish Paddy / Foxhunter's Jig / Toss The Feathers' is a blistering showcase of Swarbrick's enormous talent, but the band behind him is no less facile with the shifting tempos and time signatures.

And yet, in my opinion Swarbrick's incandescent talent is eclipsed by that of Sandy Denny. Hands down, Denny is my favourite female vocalist. My dad might argue for Maddy Prior's powerhouse vocals, others might highlight Annie Briggs' almost bell-like purity. Both excellent singers, but neither could inhabit a song with the same expressiveness as Denny does on Liege and Lief. Tender, strident, doleful, commanding, playful - whatever the song - hell, whatever that particular lyric demands, Denny delivers. The most dazzling example is the murder ballad 'Matty Groves', which Denny tackles as if it's a play and she's somehow wound up acting as every character.

Furthermore, just in case you weren't convinced, she repeats the trick on 'Tam Lin', a 16th century ballad that's transformed here into a spiky, ominous, lysergic rocker. There comes, at around two minutes, the moment where Swarbrick's violin opens up in delicate counterpoint to Denny's vocal melody and the feeling it engenders can only be described as blissful. The constantly changing dynamics of 'Tam Lin' means that the song seems to morph around Denny's moods, making it the most sophisticated track on Liege and Lief and the one that, for my money, packs the most wallop. I don't think that I've ever heard anything quite like it anywhere else.

Have I convinced you? Do you still automatically associate folk with fustiness, beards and real ale? Or can you begin to imagine it - at least in the guise of Liege and Lief - as a gateway to that which is inherently and indigenously strange about British folk ways? Folk can sometimes seem hobbled by its homeliness and rather old-fashioned insistence on telling stories; Liege and Lief serves as a startling reminder as to the power, vitality, violence and peculiarity of British traditional song. Hell, it should be on the National Curriculum. A peerless, important work.

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