It must be very tempting for bands of a certain vintage to rest on their laurels, to sit back and maximise the pension plan with endless tours of all the old favourites. To present those well loved songs to an adoring public who’ll pay good money regularly year after year. To become to all intents and purposes a cabaret version of themselves. To do a Rolling Stones.
On the face of it, Fairport Convention, the folk rockers formed over 50 years ago, have every excuse to be one of those nostalgia bands. After all they have a back catalogue of songs that is enviable to many bands and performers of their era. To be fair they have that opportunity each year with their regular wintour and annual reunion festival at Cropredy when the fans get to hear, remember and sing along with Matty Groves, Who Knows Where The Time Goes and Meet On The Ledge. But Fairport Convention, to their credit, have always been much more than that.
From the very start of their career when Simon Nicol, who is still a member of the band, with his friends Richard Thompson and Ashley Hutching’s convened at his house Fairport in North London, the band have been innovators. At the forefront of electrifying traditional folk songs thereby creating a whole new genre to creating their own festival to bring together their family of fans, Fairport Convention have always tried to evolve and grow. A process that is required if the nostalgic aspect of their world is to remain relevant and viable.
Part of that process is the creation of new material. Every few years or so Fairport will create and compile a collection of new songs on which to sprinkle their own magic and bring out a new album. In the new decade, and almost 50 years to the day that bassist Dave Pegg joined the band, Fairport have released their thirtieth studio album. Called Shuffle and Go it is a collection of 13 songs with songwriting contributions from band members Chris Leslie and Ric Sanders and other accomplished writers such as James Wood, Rob Beattie and P.J.Wright.
What Fairport do so well is identify songs that suit them and fit in with a formula without ever appearing tired or hackneyed. The songwriters they use are all exceptionally talented and provide works that compliment the band and that pays tribute to their immense career. Right from the opening moments of Chris Leslie’s ‘Don’t Reveal My Name’ showcasing Simon’s exceptional Electric 12 string guitar playing, so reminiscent of the Byrd’s that influenced Fairport when they started out, Shuffle and Go proves to be a joyous trip through all the styles and sounds that makes Fairport Convention them.
As you’d expect there are songs, such as P.J.Wright’s ‘The Byfield Steeplechase’ and ‘The Year of Fifty Nine’ by Chris Leslie, that reference Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire, the counties that have become synonymous with Fairport, all performed with an obvious love and respect for the band’s spiritual home. But there are also messages that hold an importance for the band members too; Rob Beattie’s ‘A Thousand Bars’ laments the losing of The Great British Pub. Another Beattie song, ‘Moses Waits’ although nominally about Kenya, can also be taken to be a commentary of a post-Brexit Britain with its references to austerity and hardship.
The overwhelming feeling about this album, though, is represented by the title track Shuffle And Go. As Chris Leslie, author, writes in his sleeve notes, ‘I remember seeing Morris Dancers in my early teens and loving it. I noticed some of the dancers under their bowler hats had a ghost of a quiff that told of a rock and roll past.’ And this is what Fairport Convention are, folk royalty, perhaps towards the gentrified end of their career, but still with the power, passion and ability to hark back 50 or so years to when they were on the front line of musical innovation. Shuffle And Go is Fairport Convention doing what they do at the very best of their abilities. An album that will delight the aficionados inspiring us all to look back on an amazing career whilst looking forward to what will be produced in the coming years.