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The Boston Phoenix Fairport Conventions

The Thompsons and Sandy Denny

By Douglas Wolk

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000:  Fairport Convention were the first important British folk-rock band, which was a complicated idea. It meant, initially, that they were trying to electrify and popularize their favorite American folk songwriters, as the Byrds had done for Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Their first few records are pleasant and little more, but they were known as a fearsome live band, thanks in part to Richard Thompson's elegant, sometimes startling lead guitar. The best album from this initial phase of Fairport is actually a live bootleg: A Chronicle of Sorts, a CD collecting their late-'60s appearances on BBC radio and French television (in 1987, Hannibal released the official Heyday: BBC Radio Sessions disc). It includes only a few original songs -- notably singer Sandy Denny's "Fotheringay" -- amid a pile of covers of Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Tim Buckley, Richard Farina and others.

Liege and Lief (A&M, 1969), though, was the band's turning point, and one of the most exquisite albums ever made. It marked their full-on plunge into real folk music transformed into real rock -- they approached the traditional songs of their British Isles home turf that had inspired the songwriters they loved -- as well as originals by Thompson and Denny that took the old songs' form and content as a starting point -- with subtlety but also tremendous electric power. Denny split after Liege for her new band Fotheringay; Thompson stuck around for the next year's Full House (and its live companion, House Full, the former reissued by Hannibal), then went off to a solo career himself, most memorably on the albums where his then-wife Linda sang with him. Both Denny and Thompson briefly played with Fairport later on, but the band's greatest moment was over.

That's where two new retrospectives of Thompson's '70s career and Denny's come in. The Best of Richard & Linda Thompson (Island) is a somewhat misleading title: it covers only their 1972-'76 tenure at Island Records, with excerpts from five albums, including two credited to Richard solo. It omits the last few records they made together, including the terrifying portrait of their break-up, Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal). But everything it excerpts is out of print right now, and some of these songs -- "I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight," the mindwarpingly bleak "The End of the Rainbow" -- would be among the highlights of anyone's songbook.

Thompson never really returned to traditional music after he left Fairport, but the formal rhetoric and intonations of folk songs stayed with him. You can hear it in the deliberate folk pastiche of "The Poor Ditching Boy" but also in the bold strokes of "Withered and Died" -- there's a slow, elemental plainness to the lyrics and melodies that scared away pop success (the Thompsons' '70s career was one long commercial disaster) but gave them staying power. Richard's guitar prickled and stung in a distinctly non-folk mode, but his songs stabbed with the heft of hundreds of years behind them. By 1975's Pour Down like Silver (Hannibal), the couple had converted to Sufi Islam, and songs like "For Shame of Doing Wrong" and "Dimming of the Day" acquired the moral weight of folk music as well. Linda's voice recalled her old friend Denny's in its airy precision, but it was more personal -- emotional revelation filtered through her husband's songs, unlike the colder, sweeter way Denny used songs as frames for her voice.

Denny's No More Sad Refrains: The Anthology (A&M) actually starts with four early Fairport tracks, as well as a curious cover of the Byrds' "Ballad of Easy Rider" that she recorded with them, and it condenses her entire subsequent career into two discs (though it doesn't include her best-known vocal appearance -- singing back-up on Led Zeppelin's "The Ballad of Evermore"). Her voice was pure folk revival -- there was a touch of Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell in it, along with a distinctly English primness -- but she really wanted to be a pop star. You can hear an aching for the lush green fields of Elton John on her last few records; singing Buddy Holly and Everly Brothers covers on 1972's now out-of-print Rock On, an oldies jam session credited to the Bunch, she sounded more at home than she did with most of her own material.

Denny kept working with the Fairport crew for the rest of her life (she died in 1978, after falling down some stairs in a friend's home and suffering a brain hemorrhage), and Thompson played lead guitar on a few of her solo records. Still, she all but eliminated the folkisms from her own music early on. Fotheringay did a song about the Napoleonic Wars, and her first solo album was called The North Star Grassman and the Ravens (Hannibal), but her last few records are simply gentle pop songs with orchestral arrangements, occasionally recalling Nick Drake's Bryter Later but more often simply enshrining Denny's voice on an ornate pedestal.

No More Sad Refrains includes home demos of two songs she wrote for Fairport in 1974, when she briefly rejoined them. Denny is accompanied only by her own guitar and piano; the songs are pretty in a hothouse-flower sort of way, but she still overwhelms what she's singing. The best song included here from her final album, as it turns out, is a version of Thompson's "For Shame of Doing Wrong": as in Fairport Convention's best moments, the performance balances his grim severity and her fragrant balm.

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