It’s hard to believe but this album, often lauded as the greatest folk-rock record of them all, is 50 years old this month. It is up there, too, in my all-time greats list, so it was a pleasure to blow cobwebs off this particular masterpiece and remind myself just how good it really was, and indeed still is. At this point, though, anxiety can set in. I remember the feeling when I picked up a CD copy of Close to the Edge by Yes to replace my aging vinyl. It was reassuring to find that hairs on the back of the neck still stood at attention as “seasons they pass me by”. I had a similar experience listening again to Liege & Lief after several fallow years.
I’m probably not that different to most music fans; desperately consuming as much new or recent music as hours in the day allow and shamefully ignoring gems from the past. Maybe we should invent ‘Old Tunes Tuesdays’ when we have to listen to back catalogue. So back to 1969. Fairport Convention is a British band whose personnel from over the years reads like a Who’s Who of folk music. Liege & Lief was the band’s fourth album and their third with the never surpassed Sandy Denny as lead singer. The album came to define the movement known as folk-rock and, while three of the eight songs were actually contemporary, the composite effort sounds pretty much traditional, yet with the benefit of a radical makeover.
Photo by Eric Hayes
Like the prog-rockers of their day, Fairport was not averse to extended pieces of music, and two songs here get the full treatment: “Tam Lin” and “Matty Groves” clock in at seven and eight minutes respectively. Of course, being folk ballads, there are lots of verses to fit in, but both songs feature storming instrumental sections, with the denouement to “Matty Groves” being the absolute highlight. The musicianship is rock solid and at times brims with true virtuosity. The second half of “Matty Groves” is a sheer delight with Richard Thompson interweaving guitar licks with Dave Swarbrick’s soaring violin, while the rhythm guitar of Simon Nicol, bass of Ashley Hutchings, and Dave Mattacks’ immaculate drumming hold the whole thing together expertly.
Much of the recording has a live feel, and Sandy Denny’s singing is, as always, top notch. Her premature death in 1978, after an accident at home, was a tragic loss to her family, friends, and the whole music world. What made Denny such a great singer can be heard in abundance on this album. Her vocals can be clean and pure, soft or strong and imbued with a rustic timbre all their own. The legendary Island production and engineering team of Joe Boyd and John Wood were also absolutely key to how good Liege & Lief still sounds today. The beauty and richness of analogue recording shines through in these days of digital compression.
Photo by Jan Persson
Opening with the infectious “Come All Ye” written by Denny and Hutchings, you could be listening to a trad song given a fresh reworking until Thompson’s angular electric lead kicks in and the song builds by introducing the band in a folk equivalent of Sergeant Pepper! The album includes quiet moments, like the mournful “Reynardine” and contemplative “Farewell, Farewell”, plus a joyfully slick medley of jigs and reels. There’s the simple beauty of “The Deserter” and the landmark folk-rock anthems of “Matty Groves” and “Tam Lin”, before closing with an original Thompson-Swarbrick composition, “Crazy Man Michael”, on which Sandy Denny once again shines with rare delicacy.
Fairport’s individual members and its various spin-off bands went on to produce some fine records, but Liege & Lief remains the peak of their achievement. Individually some there are better original songs in the Fairport catalogue, notably Denny’s exquisite “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” from Unhalfbricking and a haunting song called “The Sea” from her Fotheringay period. On the traditional front there is also the seminal "A Sailor's Life" to consider. However, as a complete package that broke new ground in the UK and stills provides inspiration for new generations of folk musicians, Liege & Lief remains unsurpassed. Listen to it on some decent equipment and see if you agree.
A version of this article first appeared on ConsequenceofSound in 2009