The Golden Age of English folk music is celebrating its 50th birthday and, for evidence of this, one should have to look no further than the artists who have recently celebrated half a century in the business. Earlier this year, folk club frequenter Michael Chapman commemorated 50 years working in the music industry with his latest studio album, 50, and now Fairport Convention, the luminaries of folk rock and electric folk music, are marking the 50th anniversary of their debut concert with the release of their latest record, 50:50@50. Not only are the titles of their two albums similar, but both Chapman and Fairport Convention’s semicentennial releases feature a mixed bag of new songs and new recordings of old songs. In the case of Fairport Convention, these new versions of old songs come in the form of a selection of live recordings from shows between 2014 and 2016, one of which boasts a feature from Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant. As such, 50:50@50 certainly feels like a celebration, and its best moments hold up rather strongly as a testament to the interminable enthusiasm for folk music that Fairport Convention have continuously displayed over their career. This being said, whilst the new songs demonstrate few hitches when it comes to the band’s ability to craft solid folk tunes, the live recordings occasionally fall short of demonstrating the musicians’ cohesion as a group. Moreover, it’s a shame that these live cuts consist of songs that the group are known to have played extensively at shows, with fans, therefore, already being very familiar with these songs and their live versions. Nonetheless, although Fairport Convention remain as comfortably rooted within the traditional foundations of British folk music as usual on 50:50@50, and whilst the live recordings are occasionally a bit lacking, the album’s best moments are a fitting tribute to their contributions to the progression of folk and folk rock over the past 50 years.
The celebration commences with a new piece, the fiddle-driven Eleanor’s Dream, which shines as one of Fairport Convention’s most thoroughly-written songs released in quite some time. The song opens with a light banjo accompanying Chris Leslie’s crooning, with some pattering percussion off in the distance. With Leslie’s lyrics evoking the naturalistic and religious imagery typical of Celtic music, Eleanor’s Dream has an air of a traditional folk tune to it and is all the better for it, being a refreshing middle ground between contemporary and traditional folk. As the full band enter, the rhythm assumes a much more sluggish inflection and, for the rest of the song, the piece ebbs and flows between these downtrodden passages and sections in which the fluttering fiddle drives the group into double-time jams. The result is a song that is as well textured as it is varied, both in terms of dynamics and rhythmic structure, and is, overall, a joy to listen to the success with which Fairport Convention hold themselves as an ensemble of fantastic folk musicians throughout this piece’s weaving passages. Danny Jack’s Reward, a new instrumental piece for the record, employs a similar approach, albeit with a more ambitious use of timbre, relying not solely on the fiddle and mandolin to carry the main melody of the song, but also utilising saxophones, flutes, trumpets and clarinets that switch between providing countermelody support and careening through their own intricate, duelling passages with the other instrumentation. What’s also of note about this composition is the breakdown during its middle section, during which a meaty electric bass line and a grumbling tenor saxophone lay down a bellowing bass section, as layers of horn and alto sax stabs, as well as fluid fiddle performances, build the piece back up to a vibrant, accented bridge section. Whilst Danny Jack’s Reward is an impressive compositional feat, it does, at times, edge towards being a bit too indulgent for its own good and, unfortunately, the production value is a little lacking in terms of capturing the brightness of the horn and saxophone performances. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the band’s performances could have been conveyed a lot better with some cleaner production, the fact that Fairport Convention are still able to display a tangible level of cohesion is extremely admirable.
Rather surprisingly, it’s the new studio recordings that shine when compared to the live recordings, which often fail to capture the essence of the band’s unity as a performing troupe. The live rendition of The Naked Highwayman, which first appeared on the group’s 1995 album, Jewel in the Crown, for instance, lacks the natural purity of its original recording, instead sounding slightly claustrophobic and featuring one of the band’s less dynamic performances. Of course, The Naked Highwayman hardly stands out in Fairport Convention’s back-catalogue as being one of their strongest songs, but then again, the live version featured on 50:50@50 seemingly missed an opportunity to put a more interesting spin on it, with the group instead following the original recording to the letter, which ultimately highlights the less interesting delivery of the piece. Many of Fairport Convention’s live arrangements of traditional tunes on 50:50@50, too, are sometimes rather insular in scope, with the band arguably not leaving their own, definitive mark on these songs. As an example, Jesus on the Mainline, the aforementioned live track to feature Robert Plant, runs the course of a standard folk blues jam with little of note being added to make it the group’s own, with Plant’s vocal performance also being rather restricted, as the singer seemingly tones down his voice slightly, which ultimately results in a more run-of-the-mill rendition of the tune. Similarly, although the instrumental performance on the band’s live version of the traditional folk song Lord Marlborough is up to snuff, the vocal harmonies are noticeably lacking, which is especially a shame for a song that is as heavily focussed on its story as songs of this ilk tend to be. Across the live recordings, the listener can certainly pick up on the band’s dexterity as performers and their tightness as a group, but these particular performances are, unfortunately, not the best examples of Fairport Convention’s capabilities as showmen. What’s more, the selection of songs chosen are also not the best demonstrations of the group’s prowess when it comes to reworking compositions for a live setting or applying their definitive stylings to their renditions of these traditional tunes.
50:50@50 is most definitely impressive with regards to the new songs that Fairport Convention provide, many of which stand out as amongst their best in the last few decades. They also display a healthy amount of variety across these fresh tracks, ranging from the frantic jam of Danny Jack’s Reward to the soft ballad of Step by Step, with nearly all of these pieces aptly reflecting the qualities of the group that have seen them to continued success, even five decades into their career. The live songs, however, are disappointingly bland and one-dimensional, seldom conveying the same cohesion that the studio recordings provide. Of course, the cramped recordings of these performances are unfortunate, particularly given that they inhibit the extent to which the group can capture the enthusiasm of their stage shows, but I worry that the result is an album that will be listened to once and never again. Indeed, this would be a great shame with 50:50@50 being a celebration of the work of the most important folk rock band in music history, and given that the new songs are so good, but this may be the case, regrettably. As a dear fan of Fairport Convention, I want to emphasise the commendable sentiment behind this record and the success of its original songs, but as a critic, I have to be fair and recognise the shortcomings of the live cuts. Nevertheless, whilst 50:50@50 may have its flaws, it will hopefully be cause for celebration for diehard fans of Fairport Convention, as the band’s contribution to modern folk music cannot be understated. Ultimately, however, the best testaments to their influence still lie in the pivotal albums of their heyday that shaped the landscape for British folk rock.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10