They don’t make bands like Fairport Convention any more. The English folk ensemble’s early days read like the most dramatic ever episode of VH1’s Behind The Music — a whirlwind of triumph, death, romance and groundbreaking art.
“A quick snapshot of Fairport is that we’ve had quite a turbulent history,” nods guitarist and longest serving member Simon Nicol. “We didn’t make two albums with an unchanged line-up until we got to number seven. That was a result of youth — we were finding our feet.”
The key year was 1969. On May 12, a bus carrying the band crashed en route to a gig, claiming the life of drummer Martin Lamble and of fashion designer Jeannie Franklyn, who was in a relationship with Fairport singer Richard Thompson.
With their dreams literally reduced to wreckage the future of Fairport was obviously in question. Yet that summer the surviving musicians regrouped to record their definitive LP, Liege and Lief. Half a century on it remains a towering achievement with its never surpassed blend of rock, psychedelia and folk.
“When we were making that album, the point was to fundamentally rebuild after the devastation of earlier that year,” recalls Nicol.
“It served as a common rope that old and new members could grab onto. It unified us and gave us a new direction and identity. Almost incidental to the fact is that it would become a seminal record. At the time we didn’t realise it was so groundbreaking.”
Liege and Lief — old English for “loyal and ready” — was distinguished by the mournful vocals of Sandy Denny, the iconic folk singer who departed Fairport shortly after recording was concluded. Two years later Thompson also quit to focus on his solo career.
“When there was a change we never tried to replace the person who had departed with a soundalike,” says Nicol. “When Richard left it wasn’t as if we looked for a new Richard.
"There was never any attempt to find someone who sang like Sandy. We have always looked tangentially. It’s like cooking a dish and you change a couple of ingredients.”
In the late Sixties ‘English folk’ was seen as a misnomer. Folk was regarded as the preserve of the Celts. With Fairport — and Liege and Lief in particular — all of that changed. Without the band — and we honestly mean this as a compliment — there would be no Laura Marling or Mumford and Sons.
“I’ve always been deeply jealous of Ireland’s musical heritage,” says Nicol. “Coming from a middle class London background, many things militate against your universal acceptance as a folk artist. In Ireland you grew up wth music coming out of the taps. In the Gaelic nations, music is central to daily life. “
He’s looking forward to resuming acquaintances with Irish audiences with a headline gig at TradFest Temple Bar Thursday.
“For the past 25 years we’ve always done a Midwinter tour,” says Nicol. “It gets you through the dim dark days. We keep in touch with friends and make some new ones.”
The latest run of dates also coincides with Fairport’s half century. Nicol is proud of the group’s longevity. However, he is unwilling to be defined by it.
“We’ve always respected our past. We don’t trade on it. We don’t go out to be a tribute band of an earlier version of itself. If that ever came to pass I’d be out. That said, it would be churlish not to acknowledge some of the material that has been with us.
“On the tour there will be material that goes back to our early years. The important thing is that they are in the set because they work now. It isn’t an onerous obligation to perform them. There are there because they’re as valid today as they ever were.”