When Fairport formed around 1967, their goal was not to revive British folk numbers, but to play harmony- and guitar-based folk-rock in a style strongly influenced by Californian groups of the day (especially the Byrds). The lineup that recorded their self-titled debut album in 1968 featured Richard Thompson, Ian Matthews, and Simon Nicol on guitars; Ashley Hutchings on bass; Judy Dyble on vocals; and Martin Lamble on drums. Most of the members sang, though Matthews and Dyble were the strongest vocalists in this early incarnation; all of their early work, in fact, was characterized by blends of male and female vocals, influenced by such American acts as the Mamas and the Papas and Ian & Sylvia. While their first album was derivative, it had some fine material, and the band was already showing a knack for eclecticism, excavating overlooked songs by Joni Mitchell (then virtually unknown) and Emitt Rhodes.
Fairport didn't reach their peak until Dyble was replaced after the first album in 1968 by Sandy Denny, who had previously recorded both as a solo act and with the Strawbs. Denny's penetrating, resonant style qualified her as the best British folk-rock singer of all time, and provided the band with the best vocalist they would ever have. What We Did on Our Holidays (1968) and Unhalfbricking (1969) are their best albums, mixing strong originals, excellent covers of contemporary folk-rock songs by the likes of Mitchell and Dylan, and imaginative revivals of traditional folk songs that mixed electric and acoustic instruments with a beguiling ease.
Matthews had left the band in early 1969, and Lamble (still in his teens) died in an accident involving the group's equipment van in mid-1969. That forced Fairport to regroup, replacing Lamble with Dave Mattacks, and adding Dave Swarbrick on fiddle. Their repertoire, too, became much more traditional in focus, and electrified traditional folk numbers would dominate their next album, Liege and Lief (1969). Here critical thought diverges; some insist that this is unequivocally their peak, marking a final escape from their '60s folk-rock influences into a much more original style. This school of thought severely underestimates their songwriting talents, and others feel that they were at their best when mixing original and outside material, and contemporary and traditional styles, in fact becoming more predictable and derivative when they opted to concentrate on British folk chestnuts.
The Liege and Lief lineup didn't last long; by the end of the '60s, Ashley Hutchings had left to join Steeleye Span, replaced by Dave Pegg. More crucially, Denny was also gone, helping to form Fotheringay. Thompson was still on board for Full House (1970), but by the beginning of 1971 he too had departed, leaving Nicol as the only original member.
Fairport have kept going, on and off (mostly on), for the last 25 years, touring and performing frequently. It may be too harsh to dismiss all of their post-Thompson records out of hand; Angel Delight (1971), the first recorded without the guitarist on board, was actually their highest-charting LP in the U.K., reaching the Top Ten. Nicol's exit in late 1971 erased all vestiges of connections to their salad days. Fairport was now not so much a continuous entity as a concept, carried on by musicians dedicated to the electrified British folk style that had been mapped out on Liege and Lief.
So it continues to this day, supported by a devoted fan base (Dirty Linen, the top American roots music magazine, originally began as a Fairport Convention fanzine). Denny would actually return to the group for about a year and a half in the 1970s, prior to her death in 1978; Nicol rejoined in 1976. Keeping track of Fairport's multitudinous lineup changes is a daunting task, and the group has coexisted on an erratic basis with the various other projects of the most frequent members (Nicol, Mattacks, and Pegg, the last of whom has played with Jethro Tull since the late '70s). They have played annual reunion concerts during the 1980s and '90s (sometimes joined onstage by Fairport alumni like Thompson), events that have turned into one of the most popular folk festivals in Europe. They've also released some albums of new material intermittently throughout the last couple of decades, mostly pleasant, unexceptional traditional-oriented outings that appeal primarily to diehards.
The most distinguished graduates of Fairport, however, have continued to shape the British folk and folk-rock scene with notable solo and group projects. Richard Thompson is one of the most critically acclaimed singer/songwriters in the world; Ian Matthews made some interesting recordings as a solo act, and with Plainsong and Matthews Southern Comfort; Denny sang with Fotheringay, and released several solo albums, before her death; and Hutchings carried on the most traditional face of British folk-rock with Steeleye Span, the Albion Band, and the Etchingham Steam Band. Richie Unterberger, All-Music Guide
Better known as the former husband and singing partner of Dolores Keane, John Faulkner is also a formidable talent in his own right. He was a member of Ewan MacColl's Critics' Group in the '60s, and continues to perform today. He sings and plays several instruments. Steve Winick, All-Music Guide
A founding member of trad-folk Irish band De Danaan, Alec Finn released an impressive debut solo album, Blue Shamrock, in 1995. With his bouzouki and acoustic guitar accompanied by a folk-chamber group featuring tin whistle, uillean pipes, fiddle, upright bass and cello, Finn displayed the emotional sensitivities of his musical approach. The Washington Post remarked that "these slow airs all have heartbreaking melodies and Finn has the patience and restraint to bring their beauty to full flower." Although he played blues on his guitar, while living in Dublin, Finn turned to traditional Irish music after moving to Galway in the early '70s. Acquiring a bouzouki as a gift from a friend who traveled to Greece, he became one of the first musicians to adapt the instrument to Irish music. A regular at Irish music sessions, he met Galway-born fiddler Frankie Gavin, banjo and melodeon player Charlie Piggot and bodhran and bones player Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh. A few months later, the four musicians agreed to form a band, which they dubbed De Danaan. During the subsequent two decades, Finn and De Danaan toured throughout the world and recorded more than a dozen influential albums. Despite numerous personnel changes, Finn and Gavin's collaboration has remained the foundation of the band's sound. Finn's subtle bouzouki playing has also been featured on Gavin's solo recordings.~ Craig Harris, All-Music Guide
Singer/songwriter and guitarist Archie Fisher is a popular contemporary has created many Scottish folk standards such as "Will Ye Gang, Love," "Men O'Worth" and "Mally Lee." He is a member of the Fisher family, a group of highly respected folksingers who occasionally regroup for performances. Fisher's style has been compared to that of Martin Carthy and Dick Gaughan. Sandra Brennan, All-Music Guide
Alasdair Fraser is one of Scotland's most influential tradition-rooted fiddlers. A two-time winner of the open competition of the Scottish National Fiddle Championship, Fraser continues to expand the musical traditions of his homeland with his expressive and virtuosic playing. In addition to performing more than 50 times on BBC radio and television shows (and, in the U.S., on A Prairie Home Companion), Fraser has been featured on the soundtracks of such films as Titanic, Braveheart, The Spitfire Grill and The Last of the Mohicans. Fraser's 1996 album, Dawn Dance, which represented his first all-original recording, received a NAIRD award as best Celtic album of the year. The album's success inspired Fraser to form a band, Skyedance, with the musicians featured on the album. The group includes Eric Rigler (a veteran of concerts and/or recordings with Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart and Michael Oldfield) on Scottish and Irish bagpipes, Chris Norman (a member of the early music ensemble The Baltimore Consort and a founding member of the international trio Helicon) on wooden flute, Peter Maund (a founder of the medieval and renaissance music group the Ensemble Alcatraz and the president of the San Francisco Early Music Society) on percussion, Mick Linden (known for his adapting R&B and African rhythms to the bagpipes) on standup bass, and long-time Fraser collaborator Paul Machlis on piano and keyboards. Fraser and Skyedance released their first album as a band, Way Out to Hope Street, in 1997. The album included 13 group composed instrumentals and a reworking of a medley of traditional dance tunes that Fraser and Machlin recorded in 1986. Fraser has appeared as a guest during concerts by Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Waterboys. ~ Craig Harris, All-Music Guide
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