Fairport UnConventional
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Fairport Convention
Fairport UnConventional (Box set of 4 CDs)
Free Reed (www.free-reed.co.uk)

cd cover The illustrious Free Reed folks have aimed at nothing less than a definitive box set to celebrate Fairport Convention's 35th birthday, and they deliver a package loaded, perhaps over-loaded, with surprises and informative materials. In the realm of folk and folk-rock Fairport Convention may very well be "the band that launched 1,000 other bands." Interestingly, as Fairport UnConventional unfolds in all its ragged glory, Fairport have not only assumed the mantle of one of the ultimate English bands, but they may also have become England's Grateful Dead.

It should be noted that Fairport UnConventional is not a collection designed as an introduction to Fairport. In truth, box sets rarely function in such a manner, unless they cover a wide range of artists in a genre (Topic's recent Acoustic Folk Box comes to mind as a fine example). Rather, Fairport UnConventional seems to be directed at rabid Fairport fans and collectors. The sound quality across all four CDs contained in the box changes dramatically from track to track. Indeed, the collection has been knit together from a variety of sources: alternative studio takes, radio appearances, TV appearances, demos, and concert recordings. Naturally, such diversity adds up to a wealth of aural historical documentation; just do not expect 'studio magic' to be the rule here. The net effect of having such a treasure-trove of rarities can be quite stunning. Imagine hearing a demo of 'Liege and Leif' era Fairport doing "Come All Ye," or, also from 1969, Sandy Denny leading a wondrous "Sir Patrick Spens." These are exciting, epic moments.

The four discs in this set are arranged thematically. Disc 1 is "Fairport - A History," which covers a wide swath of familiar Convention songs in a chronological journey. Disc 2, "Rareport Convention," is certainly that: plenty of lost performances found, and some grand ones, too. Richard Thompson is in fine form on a French 1968 television performance of "Reno, Nevada" and there is a superb outtake from the Nine sessions, "I Don't Believe You." "A Fairport History" is awesome: a whole CD of Fairport's repertoire that relates to historical events. The fourth compilation is "Classic Convention," songs that will always be intimately, essentially Fairport: "Walk Awhile," "Crazy Man Michael," "Sloth," and "Matty Groves," here in a kind-of-embarrassing, spliced together creation from various Fairport performances, mixed with pseudo-newscast commentary.

I have little doubt that Fairport fans come in all varieties and from across generations. Myself, I will always be partial to particular Convention line-ups: the early Sandy Denny contributions; any combination with Richard Thompson; the "Nine" assembly with Trevor Lucas' grand vocals. I'll even take "Jewel in the Crown" Fairport, in a pinch. My point is, over a thirty-five year career, any Fairport appreciation will be colored by personal preferences, and certain periods of the band's history I simply care less about.

Which leads me to the extensive materials in Fairport UnConventional. The massive, 170 page book by Nigel Schofield that accompanies the box set is filled with an abundance of Fairport minutiae. Although this book is a truly valuable contribution in and of itself, I found myself worn down by Schofield's loving, fan-based tribute. Schofield does an amazing, utterly commendable job of cataloging every twist and turn in Fairport's changing, evolving, and sometimes nearly non-existent line-up. I certainly had many questions answered; however, I found his overt fondness for the band to be almost alienating. I've always adored Fairport, but this book simultaneously attracts and repels because of its obsessive-compulsive tone.

Also included in this set is a magnificent, newly updated Pete Frame Fairport family tree, and an entire booklet, graced with humorous anecdotes, dedicated to Fairport's annual Cropredy Festival. Indeed, Cropredy features heavily in Fairport UnConventional. The festival has proven to be the lifeblood of Fairport and the fanbase's ritual outing. Like the Dead, it is through live performance that Fairport continue their tremendous legacy.

In the final analysis, Fairport UnConventional has both its blessings and curses, which perfectly fits the checkered and ultimately triumphant career of the band that it honors. Free Reed continue to produce quality box sets that put the major record labels to shame. - Lee Blackstone

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