Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fairport Convention "House Full: Live at the L.A. Troubadour" (4.5*)

Thank you. This is our last number and it's called Sir Patrick Spens isn't the first thing you'd expect to hear on an album, but presumably it’s the only track from the first of three-nights that were recorded to have made the cut for the disk, so there you go.

In any case, if you’re into musical archaeology, House Full, as the only currently available live Fairport Convention album with Richard Thompson in the band, is probably required listening. There’s the small matter of Fairport’s influence on a group of young Angelenos of Mexican origin who morphed into Los Lobos.

Having lost singer Sandy Denny almost directly after Liege & Lief appeared on the market, Fairport had reshaped the vocal department with guitarist Richard Thompson and folkie fiddler Dave Swarbrick sharing the leads with assistance in the background from new bass player Dave Pegg, who’d been slotted in to replace Ashley Hutchings, who was en route to more traditional territory with his new missus Shirley Collins.

The new line up had recorded and released Full House, and were on the road behind the album (as the saying goes) when they landed in L.A. for a week-long gig at the Troubadour (opening, believe it or not, for Rick Nelson) that was legendary for a couple of reasons. According to Dave Pegg the band were doing a week's residency, two spots each night and three on the weekend for which we were going to be paid five hundred dollars. But when we went to collect our wages, we'd drunk so much we owed them fifteen hundred bucks. Impressive, even taking into account the possibility that the drinks in question were overpriced and the band were generous tippers where leggy waitresses were concerned.

The finer details of alcoholic catering may have had something to do with the related fact that Led Zeppelin were performing at the Forum and Robert Plant, John Bonham and Fairport’s new bass player were old mates from Birmingham. Dave Pegg invited the foursome to the Troubadour after their Forum gig at the Forum and when they arrived a dressing room consultation resulted in Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones joining Fairport on stage for a set that included Hey Joe, Morning Dew, Banks of the Sweet PrimrosesMystery Train and That's Alright Mama. While the mobile eight-track machine was rolling throughout the tapes (existence confirmed by Joe Boyd) are buried deep in the Polygram vaults.

But it seems they exist. In White Bicycles Boyd reminisces: the tape reveals Plant’s vocal being louder than any of the amplifiers, Page trying to keep pace with Richard on jigs and reels and Zep manager Peter Grant at a front table cursing and abusing the waitresses.

He also recalls Linda Ronstadt being invited on stage (another night, another distinguished guest) after Fairport had run out of encores for another forty minutes covering songs she had forgotten she knew.

There’s nothing from either night here, however. So what’s on the disk?

Well, for a start, there’s nothing that predates Liege & Lief (predictable, the infamous car crash would still have been relatively fresh in the memory), and the Liege and Full House material is fleshed out with traditional material, a World War I bagpipe lament and, on a lighter note, Yellow Birds (or boids, up high in banana trees).

Even if you’re not familiar with Fairport, those of us who went through high school in the sixties will probably recall Sir Patrick Spens from the poetry anthologies (I had the impression it was regarded as somewhere in the same postcode as iconic as far as medieval ballads were concerned), but don’t let that put you off.

Actually, while Sir Patrick Spens and Banks of the Sweet Primroses get proceedings off on a nice roll, there’s nothing there to suggest you’re in the presence of anything other than a fairly good folk-rock band, things change with the jigs and reels in The Lark in the Morning Medley, which may not be the fastest of their kind in captivity (that honour quite possibly goes to Jenny's Chickens / The Mason's Apron or Bonnie Kate / Sir B. McKenzies) the version here romps along at a merry clip, and like the later variations, is played with stop on a sixpence precision by an outfit with considerable instrumental chops (Swarbrick’s fiddle work might not quite rate as virtuoso, but it’s in an adjacent postcode and Richard Thompson is, well, Richard Thompson, enough said) and a rock hard, hard rocking rhythm section.

Those chops come to the fore again in twelve and a bit minutes of Sloth, and yet again in the play-out to Matty Groves, with the traditional Staines Morris wedged between them. The vocal department on Matty Groves shows what they lost with the departure of Sandy Denny, but there’s a rough-hewn rustic note to the Thompson and Swarbrick take that has its own charm, from where I’m sitting.

Jenny's Chickens / The Mason's Apron cart us back into jigs and reels territory, then there’s a stately take on Battle of the Somme, a piper’s lament that you might not expect to work in this setting but if you didn’t you weren’t aware of Thompson’s ongoing affinity with the skirl of the pipes.

Up to this point we’re revisiting the original House Full. The related release Live at the L.A. Troubadour gives us Bonnie Kate / Sir B. McKenzie's Daughter's Lament for the 77th Mounted Lancer's Retreat from the Straits of Loch Knombe, in the Year of Our Lord 1727, on the Occasion of the Announcement of Her Marriage to the Laird of Kinleakie, which predictably gets abbreviated to Sir B. McKenzies. Non-Einsteins will no doubt be able to figure out why, and proceedings are concluded on a lighter note with the old Yellow Birds.

In their day, the five man Fairport were, by all accounts, an awesome experience in a live setting and as the only officially released live recording of the lineup House Full, with that extra material from the cousin-brother Live at the L.A. Troubadour tacked on the end is close to essential listening for anyone interested in investigating this little corner of the folk-rock genre.

In summary, a crack five-piece outfit at the height of their considerable powers. I was, back in the day, highly impressed by Angel Delight, the studio album that followed this live excursion, by which time Richard Thompson had gone. Classic, exuberant British folk-rock from the best all-male lineup of a band that has gone on to become an institution (they’re still going strong with a 45th anniversary coming up, and there’ll be those who’ll rate a configuration featuring Sandy Denny as slightly better).

They never, as someone or other pointed out, made an album like this again, but then again, no one else did either. For $10.99 at the iTunes Store it was a no-brainer...

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