Where music and commerce divide - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Where music and commerce divide

As the legendary U.K. folk rockers Fairport Convention celebrate their 45th anniversary, it’s difficult not to compare them with the Beach Boys that are celebrating their 50th.

After all the fussing and fighting and name calling – and that’s just among the fans of the two entities that toured in recent years under the “Beach Boys” moniker – Mike Love and Brian Wilson have apparently reconciled, at least artistically. We think.

As Billboard said in a recent story about the group “Can the surviving members get along after all those lawsuits? Can Brian Wilson make it through the tour dates and the reunion album fans have been promised? As they say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice.’”

Looking at Fairport Convention, founded by Ashley Hutchings who went on to found Steeleye Span and the Albion Band, it might have come upon the same fate. After all, their brightest virtuoso stars – including guitarist Richard Thompson, vocalist Sandy Denny, fiddler Dave Swarbrick, and drummer Dave Mattacks – also became disenchanted with the band’s musical direction.

The difference between Fairport Convention and the Beach Boys seems to be – as someone pointed out to me recently – a matter of respect for the music and the band. In grittier terms, that would be the intersection between commerce and art.

Those that left Fairport – and that’s everyone except founding member and current leader Simon Nicol (who actually did leave for a few years) and bassist Dave Pegg – never claimed “ownership” of it, even when they had made massive contributions. Instead they treat Fairport Convention almost like a child that’s grown away from its parent but stayed on a worthwhile course.

In talking to Judy Dyble, the first vocalist for Fairport who was unceremoniously “dumped” by the band for the legendary Denny, her affection for the band and its music is clear. Dyble pauses when asked why she performed with the band at its 20,000 strong annual Cropredy Festival, if she was treated so shabbily as an original member? Dyble pauses and then talks about how she and her band mates were all young in those days. People grow and mature. And she still loves the music and the band. She wants them to succeed.

Richard Thompson expresses a similar sentiment including when talking about one of the classic folk songs he wrote at age 19, “Meet on the Ledge.” Although he personally only performs it a few times a year, he is glad that Fairport makes it a standard.

He and other former band members seem equally pleased that Fairport Convention hasn’t become something akin to a musical relic. As members have left through the years, Nicol and Pegg haven’t looked to duplicate their musical strengths. Instead, they’ve let new members guide the band through traditional folk to folk rock to more electric rock and back.

You’ll hear some of that in the band’s just-released album ‘By Popular Request.’ The fan-selected songs on the album are all classics. But you’ll hear some contemporary shifts in arrangements and instrumentation that adds a different kind of sonic sparkle, setting them apart from the originals.

True, Fairport Convention was never commercially successful. But more than a handful of well-known artists in commercially successful rock bands have told me that if they could turn back the clock, they’d like to join Fairport.

Questions to those same rockers about the Beach Boys haven’t elicited any such responses.

What’s that saying about gaining the whole world but losing your soul?

Find out more about Fairport Convention, including its latest album releases and upcoming tour dates and Festival, on the band’s website.

About the author

Nancy Dunham

Nancy Dunham is a music journalist based in Washington, D.C. Her work appears in Relix, YRB, Spinner, M Music & Musicians, American Songwriter and other publications. Contact the author.

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