I’ve never written an album review on here before, although I have reviewed a couple of concerts I’ve been to, so this is a first.
And if you have absolutely no interest in folk or folk-rock feel free to give this post a miss.
So, probably just one of you left. Let’s go.
Actually, now I’ve written the thing, it’s not really a review at all. It’s a bit of musical history, if anything. That wasn’t exactly what I’d planned.
Unhalfbricking is not my favourite Fairport Convention album, but it is an extremely important one. Which is not to say I don’t like it, because I do. It was released in 1969 and is their third album.
It is the following album, though, Liege and lief, which is rightly regarded as their most important, and an album that has had a huge influence on the direction folk and folk rock music has taken since its release, but Liege and lief came about as a result both of a tragedy and a new direction partly forced on the band by musical events way over the other side of the Atlantic. After the release of Unhalfbricking, most of the band were involved in a serious road accident (singer Sandy Denny was in a separate vehicle) which led to the hospitalisation of some members and, sadly, the death of both drummer Martin Lamble and the girlfriend of guitarist Richard Thompson.
After discussing whether they would continue as a group or just disband, the decision was made to continue and they hired a new drummer, the amazingly talented Dave Mattacks, and persuaded fiddle player Dave Swarbrick, who had guested on Unhalfbricking, to join the band on a permanent basis. And the decision was also made to change musical direction. Much of the material on their previous albums had been either American in origin – there were Three Bob Dylan covers on Unhalfbricking alone, for example – or country-tinged.
There is one track in particular on Unhalfbricking that helped to lead the band into their new direction, the traditional song A Sailor’s Life, which breaks new musical ground in this recording. What makes the track most memorable is that it is the first time a drumkit had ever been used on a traditional English folk song. It was also the first time Dave Swarbrick had used electric amplification, coming from a background with traditional folk groups. And then the whole track was apparently improvised on the first take, the first time the band had played it together, and listening to it, it is remarkable how you can hear them growing in confidence throughout the performance. And it is a long track, which I suspect has more than a little to do with the musicians getting the feel of working together and seeing what could be done with the material. Experimenting as they go along. Nothing like it had been released before.
Over in America, The Band, who had supported Bob Dylan on tour, had recorded Music from Big Pink in what has been called a reconnection with rural Americana, and listening to this there was a realisation both that by covering American standards Fairport would never be more than just one more wannabe Byrds cover band, but also that they wanted to take a similar direction with traditional British music. Bass player Ashley Hutchings had become deeply interested in the genre and Swarbrick came from a folk heritage. Thus A Sailor’s Life became a bit of a template for what was to come.
Finally, here’s a link to the song on YouTube.