As much as I love the band, I really suffered in making my selection for an appropriate and representative album from the Fairport Convention catalog. Although they released good albums for decades after his departure, I felt that I needed to choose an album that featured Richard Thompson, so that culled it down to five possibilities. To my mind, Sandy Denny is the other crucial member, so my selection is then narrowed to only three choices.
“What We Did on Our Holidays” is the band’s first LP with Sandy Denny, and their last with Ian Matthews, giving the album two remarkably strong and emotive vocalists. It has some great songs, but the band did not fully establish their own identity at this early stage. “Unhalfbricking,” their third album, is more fully realized but it relies too heavily on Bob Dylan songs; unless you’re the Byrds, three Dylan covers on the same record is too many, even if one is translated into French. That boils things down to “Liege and Lief.”
This album was recorded in the aftermath of a tragic accident that killed drummer Martin Lamble and Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklin. Gone are the Dylan covers, or any attempt to emulate California rock and roll. What it lacks in the playful spirit of the earlier LP’s is compensated by an earnest intensity to connect with material that, in some cases, dates back centuries. There are three original tunes here, but they blend so well with the traditional material that I’d defy you to pick them out. Of course America took no stock in anything so steadfastly British in nature, so audiences ignored the album while critics offered only lukewarm reviews. In retrospect, it is now seen as one of the most important folk-based albums ever recorded.
Despite many strong singers, Sandy Denny is featured front and center on each vocal track, and this surely represents the best work of her curtailed career. “Liege and Lief” is also the record where Richard Thompson’s finessed guitar work comes into sharp focus, complemented brilliantly by the stunning fiddle work of Dave Swarbrick. “Matty Groves” is a focal point of the record, with Sandy Denny relating a tale that is centuries old, but the intensity of alternating guitar and fiddle breaks renders the ancient melody into something that is truly intense, if not downright frightening.
From the beginning, Fairport Convention lost at least one crucial member per album. Considering how they released three albums in 1969 alone, that fact says something about the difficulties plaguing the band. “Liege and Lief” captures them at a time when they were forced to reflect on mortality, and then apply their conclusions to their personal lives. When the album was completed, both Ashley Hutchings and Denny left for projects of their own, and Thompson would do the same in 1970. In the space of one year, Fairport Convention released three albums and lost four of its definitive members. “Leige and Lief” represents a high water mark for a restless band that spawned some incredible talent, while eventually stirring up significant interest in English and Celtic folk music.
December 1969 – Billboard "Did Not Chart"