REVIEW of: ‘A TREE WITH ROOTS’: FAIRPORT CONVENTION & FRIENDS AND THE SONGS OF BOB DYLAN

REVIEW of:

A TREE WITH ROOTS: FAIRPORT CONVENTION & FRIENDS AND THE SONGS OF BOB DYLAN

UMC, 2018 – identification: ISLAND 675 893-1- sleevenotes by Patrick Humphries 

**

Albums of covers of Bob Dylan’s songs come in many shapes and sizes: brand-new versions or historic recordings, genre-specific collections (reggae, blues, gospel), and multi-artist versus single-artist tributes. Over the years, artist-specific volumes have included albums by Odetta, the Hollies, the Byrds, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joan Osborne, and, as recently as this year, Bettye LaVette. Of these, most were fresh recordings, the Byrds’ offering being an exception as consisting of previously released material.

 

The new compilation credited to ‘Fairport Convention & Friends’ is a hybrid affair including both standard/well-known studio material and rarities (live performances, outtakes, radio recordings): the tracks in the second category, though all previously released at some point or other, have not in general been widely diffused. The ‘& Friends’ billing suggests that this simultaneously is and is not a Fairport Convention album, reflecting the complex history of what is generally considered the UK’s greatest ever folk-rock band. Fairport have a long and chequered CV, extending from their foundation in 1967 right up to the present day, marked by innumerable personnel changes, entries, exits, re-entries and reunions (today’s Fairport membership includes one founder member, Simon Nicol, but is rather far removed from the group’s classic lineups). Of the roll-call of ex-Fairporters, the two most celebrated are songwriter-guitarist Richard Thompson, still going strong and honoured in 2011 with an OBE (Order of the British Empire), and the wonderful female vocalist Sandy Denny, who died tragically young in 1978. The ‘friends’ rubric in the title reflects the fact that there are recordings included that are credited not to Fairport, but (‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’) to Sandy Denny as solo performer, or (‘Too Much of Nothing’) to the short-lived but impressive Fairport offshoot band Fotheringay. Apart from Denny and Thompson, the vocal performers featured include Fairport’s first female vocalist, Sandy’s predecessor Judy Dyble, Ian (later Iain) Matthews, who left Fairport early but went on to have a hit with his group Matthews Southern Comfort with Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’, and Australian-born Trevor Lucas, who fronted Fotheringay and became Sandy’s husband. The tracks selected are all from Fairport’s early and middle periods, nothing later than 1977 being included, despite the band’s continued existence since: indeed, everything was recorded within Sandy Denny’s lifetime.

Fairport were from the beginning great admirers and signal promoters of the songwriting of Bob Dylan. The sleevenotes by long-standing Fairport chronicler Patrick Humphries informatively chart how what he calls Dylan’s ‘powerful  all-pervasive influence’ was lived out in the music of the UK’s premier folk-rock group. The album consists of 17 tracks, of which 13 can unqualifiedly be called Bob Dylan compositions. Of the others, ‘Jack o’Diamonds’ (from the album ‘Fairport Convention’, 1968) consists of extracts from a poem by Dylan featured on the rear sleeve of his ‘Another Side of Bob Dylan’ album, set to music by one Ben Carruthers; ‘Days of ’49” (live performance) is a song from the folk tradition covered by Dylan on ‘Self Portrait’; ‘The Ballad of Easy Rider’ (hard-to-find studio track) is a song by the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn but with input from Dylan in the chorus; and ‘Si Tu Dois Partir’ (from the album ‘Unhalfbricking’, 1969, and as a single Fairport’s one and only UK chart hit, peaking at No 21) is Dylan’s ‘If You Gotta Go, Go Now’ transmuted into a pastiche cajun number sung in improvised French. The above songs are all credited to Fairport, with Trevor Lucas taking lead vocal on ‘Days of ’49’, Ian Matthews on ‘Jack o’Diamonds’ and Sandy on the other two.

The 13 pukka Dylan songs (where no vocalist is specified the vocals are a collective effort) are:

Credited to Fairport: ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ (radio session; the only track featuring Judy Dyble), ‘Dear Landlord’ (outtake from the ‘Unhalfbricking’ sessions; Sandy on vocals), ‘Open the Door Richard’ (radio), ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ (album track from ‘What We Did on Our Holidays’, 1969) and ‘Percy’s Song’ (radio; both Sandy on vocals),’George  Jackson’ (live; Trevor on vocals), ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’ and ‘Down in the Flood’ (both live with Sandy on vocals), ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (live; Trevor on vocals), ‘Million Dollar Bash’ (album track from ‘Unhalfbricking’), and ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ (live; Sandy on vocals).

Credited to Sandy Denny: ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ (pre-Fairport solo recording; in addition, ‘Down In the Flood, though credited here to Fairport, actually comes from her live album ‘Gold Dust’).

Credited to Fotheringay: ‘Too Much of Nothing’ (track from the album ‘Fotheringay’, 1969; Trevor on vocals).

Fairport early acquired a reputation for covering material from the more obscure crannies of the Dylan œuvre, and this is reflected in the compilation’s song selection. As might be expected, the ‘Basement Tapes’ songs are particularly well represented (with ‘Down in the Flood’, ‘Million Dollar Bash’, ‘Open the Door Richard’ and ‘Too Much of Nothing’), Fairport having been bitten like so many others by the 1967 acetate bug (they never, though, recorded ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’, albeit the title ‘A Tree With Roots’ comes from that basement song!). Apart from the basement material, ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’, ‘Percy’s Song’ and ‘I’ll Keep With Mine’ were all unreleased by Dylan at the time of recording.

There are omissions: ‘Open the Door Richard’ was also done by a later Fairport Convention incarnation on their 1989 studio album ‘Red and Gold’; Richard and Linda Thompson also covered ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ and Ian Matthews did ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry’ (both on hard-to-find releases); the GPs, a one-off group mainly of ex-Fairporters fronted by Richard Thompson, did ‘Going, Going, Gone’; and – probably the most significant omission – in 1982 a reunited incarnation of Fairport, again including Richard Thompson, included a version of ‘Country Pie’ on their live album ‘Moat on the Ledge’.

If I have a cavil about the selection, it is over three songs. The version found here of ‘Percy’s Song’ is not that from the landmark album ‘Unhalfbricking’, but a radio offering (and was earlier released on ‘Heyday’, a 1987 collection of radio sessions). Similarly, the versions included of ‘Down in the Flood’ and ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time’, though fronted by Sandy, are live tracks and not those to be found on her respective studio solo albums ‘The North Star Grassman and the Ravens’ (1971) and ‘Sandy’ (1972). I would suggest that the standard studio versions of these three songs, apart from being of very high quality and in no way needing substitution, are of greater historical interest. It would have been better either to use those versions, or to expand the album into a compilation with variants: indeed, between variants and omitted items there would have been enough material for a double CD!

Quibbles apart, what matters most is the enjoyability and listenability of the material chosen. The overall musical and vocal quality is, as should be expected from Fairport Convention, extremely high. Perhaps not all of the ‘new’ tracks are fully up to standard: ‘Dear Landlord’ sounds unfinished, too much the outtake which it is; ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ comes over as a bit thin (and Judy Dyble was never the best vocalist) and is over-shortened (only two stanzas out of five plus chorus). Meanwhile the great majority of Sandy’s vocals are impeccable – her solo ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ is stunning, her performance on ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’ is operatic, and ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time’ and ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ find her deep inside song and emotions. Trevor Lucas’ forceful vocals also impress, notably on ‘Days of ’49’ and ‘Too Much of Nothing’ – though in the choruses to the latter he uses the lyric variant ‘Say hello to Marian’ (instead of ‘Say hello to Vivian’), which Dylan had explicitly condemned when Peter, Paul and Mary covered the song.

This album was long overdue, and is a remarkable record of the creative interaction between British folk-rock’s finest ensemble and the songwriting genius of Bob Dylan. The master’s songs are interpreted, cherished and transformed by the likes of Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson and Trevor Lucas, maximum exponents of their genre at the height of their powers. Fairport’s tree has set down deep roots indeed, and this excellent compilation of vintage recordings more than merits a place in any Dylan acolyte’s collection.

TRACK LISTING AND SOURCES (my grateful thanks to Antonius Bohnen for supplying this):

01-Si Tu Dois Partir [f You Gotta Go, Go Now] (2:20) [Unhalfbricking, 1969]; 02-Jack O’Diamonds (3:30) [Fairport Convention, 1968]; 03-Lay Down Your Weary Tune (3:38) [Fairport UnConventional – BBC Session 1967, 2002]; 04-Dear Landlord (4:05) [Ashley Hutchings The Guv’nor Vol. 1 – 1969, 1994]; 05-Open The Door, Richard (3:05) [Live at the BBC – 1970, 2007]; 06-I’ll Keep It With Mine (5:52) [What We Did On Our Holidays, 1969]; 07-Percy’s Song (5:26) [Heyday – BBC session 1969, 1987]; 08-The Ballad Of Easy Rider (4:55); [Guitar/Vocal (Richard Thompson) – Liege and Lief session outtake 1969, 1988]; 09-It Ain’t Me, Babe (3:42) [Sandy Denny – box set (Sandy Denny), demo 1966, 2010]; 10-George Jackson (3:44) [Fairport album ‘Nine’ – live 1973 bonus-track reissue, 2005]; 11-Tomorrow Is A Long Time (3:56) [Gold Dust- Live At The Royalty (Sandy Denny album), live 1977, 1998]; 12-Days Of ‘9 (6:18) [Come All Ye- The First Ten Years – box set, live 1973, 2017]; 13-Down In The Flood (3:38) [Come All Ye- The First Ten Years [1968-1978] – live 1973, box set, 2017]; 14-All Along The Watchtower (4:23) [Many Ears To Please- Live in Oslo 1975, 2006]; 15-Too Much Of Nothing (3:54) [album ‘Fotheringay’ (Fotheringay), 1970]; 16-Million Dollar Bash (2:55) [Unhalfbricking, 1969]; 17-Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (4:28) [Who Knows Where The Time Goes?” – live 1974, Sandy Denny box set, 1985].

 

 

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Antonius Bohnen on 25 August, 2018 at 11:44

    Nice review for an album that could have been much better (too many omissions, and no ‘previously unreleased’ tracks). According to my knowlwedge everything was previously released

    Reply

  2. Caro Chris,
    I remember well Fairport Convention, Fotheringay and Sandy Denny, whom I loved a lot and still do, a great singer. With me, and of Dylan, I have only covers of Si Tu Dois Partir (1969) and Too Much of Nothing (1970) on the album The Bob Dylan Songbook. Thanks for your article.

    Reply

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