July 20, 2009 / 2:02 PM / 10 years ago

1960s UK folk rock pioneers recall how they did it

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The term folk rock has been absent from the vocabulary of the hip and cool for several decades.

However, Fairport Convention, the band that hewed the form from the free-for-all of late 1960s pop music, demonstrated at the weekend why it caused the shockwaves that it did.

At a concert in London’s Barbican, surviving members presented a musical history of the band’s early years, culminating with a selection of songs from their landmark fourth and fifth albums, “Liege & Lief” and “Full House”, which told the musical world that British folk rock had arrived.

A sampling of titles from earlier albums, with original singers Judy Dyble and Iain Matthews, illustrated the band’s American roots, with songs such as Emitt Rhodes’s “Time Will Show the Wiser” and the Dylan cover “I’ll Keep it with Mine”.

Even in those early arrangements the dazzling instrumental work of guitar guru Richard Thompson, a prolific songwriter and performer in his own right since his Fairport days, shone through as an essential component of their unique sound.

Guest singers, including Thompson’s daughter Kami and son Teddy, gave new life to several fondly remembered Fairport tracks of that period, such as “Genesis Hall” and Sandy Denny’s haunting “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”.

Kellie While was drafted in to substitute for folk’s elder statesman Martin Carthy, unable to attend because of his wife’s illness, to tackle the beautiful and complex “A Sailor’s Life” from the “Unhalfbricking” album, the traditional song that took the band into uncharted territory.

Of the six musicians who played on “Liege & Lief”, regularly voted one of the most influential folk albums of all time, four took to the stage to perform six of the album’s eight tracks: Thompson, Simon Nicol (guitar), Ashley Hutchings (bass) and Dave Mattacks (drums).

Despite the absence of two of the pivotal figures from the original recording, the songs sounded as fresh as the day they were minted in London’s Sound Techniques studio in the autumn of 1969.


Denny, the diminutive singer with the electrifying voice who first brought traditional music to her bandmates’ attention, died in 1977 at the age of 31.

Fiddle-player and singer Dave Swarbrick, originally billed to appear, dropped out at the last minute citing lack of rehearsal time and “difficulties with the format”.

For the “Liege & Lief” sequence, ex-Albion Band singer Chris While — Kellie’s mother — took the Sandy Denny part, tackling the rousing “Come All Ye”, the dramatic “Tam Lin” and the gory ballad “Matty Groves” with clarity and confidence, artfully mimicking Denny’s inflexions and phrasing.

Chris Leslie, part of the band’s current touring and recording lineup, was a convincing substitute for the absent Swarbrick on violin and vocals.

Four tracks from “Full House” followed, with Dave Pegg on bass, succeeding Hutchings who by then had left to help form Steeleye Span. Denny had also departed, leaving the remaining five to continue their exploration of the folk repertoire.

“We were now a boy band,” Nicol said in an aside to the expose of Fairport history.

The concert was part of the Barbican’s “Witchseason Weekender”, a tribute to legendary producer Joe Boyd, who also curated and produced the shows.

Boyd, whose company Witchseason produced the Fairports and other luminaries of the folk rock scene, alternated with band members in narrating some of their shared history.

The urbane Boston-born American, his feet firmly in London’s underground music scene of the 60s, was an unlikely midwife in the birth of British folk rock, having encouraged the Fairports to experiment by applying rock instrumentation to English folk songs and traditionally influenced songwriting.

They did so with dedication, conscientiously respecting the form of the songs and applying taste and originality in their arrangements. The trail they blazed was gratefully trod by later exponents such as the Pogues and Steeleye Span and many of today’s torchbearers of the folk tradition.

Previewing the concert in the Guardian newspaper a week earlier, Boyd wrote: “Liege & Lief ... had such an air of confidence that it actually made English folk music vaguely hip for a while.”

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