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Fairport Convention
by Chris Flisher © 1995 /
(first published May 1995 Worcester Phoenix)

Fairport Convention
“The thing about Fairport,” offers Dave Pegg, bassist and long-time Fairport Convention member, “is that none of us can write worth a lick. We’re terrible lyricists. We’re just better interpreters. No one in the band has written a song in 17 or 18 years. We’re just terrible,” he chuckles. “I mean, Fairport Convention at one time had two of the best songwriters in English music in Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, so when you’ve got people like that in the band you don’t try and top that.”

The Fairport Convention Pegg is referring to is the original lineup that was founded well over 25 years ago when the term “English folk/rock” was a newly-coined phrase. Fronted by a then-young Richard Thompson and the sadly mellifluous Sandy Denny, the original Fairport Convention went on to spawn a whole movement of roots-oriented English bands. Like their American counterparts, The Byrds, Fairport was largely credited for bringing rock’n’roll together with Anglo-Saxon folk music. Steeleye Span, Fotheringay, The Strawbs, even Jethro Tull and other English bands drew their inspiration from a hybrid of these two musical forms.

Although the current lineup includes only Simon Nichol from the original band on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Fairport Convention has not wandered far from their musical roots. With the departure of principle songwriter, Thompson and the untimely death of Denny, the band forged ahead drawing material from the broad expanse of English history and a variety of different songwriters.

“We always had the unique opportunity to record songs that no else would touch,” admits Pegg who’s been a member since 1970. “We have this wealth of history and the folk roots and the great songwriters and such, and to be able to tap into that is quite wonderful, isn’t it? No one wants to cover Leonard Cohen,” he continues, “And yet we can do whatever we want and not be frightened by doing something different. As long as we like a song we’ll give it a go. The hardest part is agreeing on what to cover,” laughs Pegg.

No kidding. The band are currently touring to support their first mutually-agreed upon batch of songs in five years. “Well,” laughs Pegg, admitting, “We’re a very democratic band. We couldn’t have survived all these years otherwise, and we really have very little to do with the music business in general, so we can keep going without all their contracts and stuff. We have our own label (in England) and we do all our own mailings and such. But, we all feel the same about the music. We have to like the material, so we each bring songs to the sessions and then decide upon what to do. That can take a lot of time. And Simon, of course, has to feel comfortable about singing the songs before we can record.”

Despite the long lapse, the new release, titled The Jewel In The Crown, lives up to the band’s formidable reputation for merging the past with the present. Clive Gregson’s “Home Is Where The Heart Is” receives a moving reading while “The Islands” written by Ralph McTell retains a mystical cast embracing Scotland’s Shetland Islands. Elsewhere long-time pal and songwriter Steve Tiltson contributes “Slip Jigs And Reels,” and the “Naked Highwayman.” And Leonard Cohen’s “Closing Time” finds the band putting their distinctive spin on the work of the dark and ever-elusive Canadian poet. Neo-traditional instrumentals, often delivered within a contemporary framework fill out the remainder of the collection.

The primary reason for the space between releases has to do with the extracurricular activities of the band’s members. Drummer Dave Mattacks is in demand as a session player and regularly tours with Richard Thompson, The Albion Band frequently draws Simon Nichols away, and Pegg has no less a demanding career as the regular bass player for Jethro Tull. New members Maartin Allcock (guitar, bouzouki, accordion, and talking drum) and Ric Sanders (fiddle) also fill in their time with other obligations.

Despite these odds, the members view Fairport as a priority, citing a loyal English fan base and the combined support of colleagues. “Our friends always encourage us to continue so we feel like we’re providing a link to England’s past with the band,” offers Pegg. “Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) is very admiring of the band and our connections go deep into English rock. It gives us a chance to connect with our pasts and, of course, look at all the great material we get to record. We are an institution here and we all enjoy the Fairport thing more than anything else we do.”

As influential members of England’s rock elite, Fairport Convention approach their role philosophically. “There is so much good music out there. What’s the sense in trying to do it yourself,?” asks Pegg. “Basically it’s best to determine what you do best and then stick with it. That’s why we’re still around; we’re a hard working band.”

Chris Flisher

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