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Fairport ConventionFairport Convention
Album: Come All Ye: The First Ten Years (1968-78)
Label: Island/Universal
Tracks: 121

Every time there's news of yet another Fairport Convention compilation appearing, I forecast the reaction - even from Fairport devotees - is likely to be at first "how?" or even "why?", and then "will it really be worth buying?", the corollary being, more relevantly, "might it include any previously-undiscovered gems that I've not heard before?". Even though I'd count myself a long-term Fairport fan, my own collection only stretches to a mere 70 or so "group" releases including box-sets; so I'm only too aware that there are still bound to be many, many more recordings out there (while perhaps not quite attaining the exhaustive tally of the Grateful Dead "Dick's Picks" series!), and plenty which I've not yet heard. And so it comes as a pleasant surprise to learn that this lavish new seven-disc box-set (which ostensibly celebrates the band's first ten years - but doesn't really… see final paragraph!) contains a staggering tally of 55 previously unreleased tracks (that's a little under half of the total) - and thus undoubtedly warrants closer scrutiny (if not quite an automatic recommendation for purchase - that, I suspect, will be determined more by your disposable income!).

A majority of Fairport fans still regard the first three years, and albums 2 to 4 especially, as the momentous period of the band's early history, even an unsurpassed acme. This set presents them in due perspective, and reveals many more gems in the subsequent four years of the band's existence. Patrick Humphries' booklet essay gives a succinct, if rather unadventurous overview, then comments (albeit not terribly informatively) on the provenance of the previously unreleased tracks as we go along.

But I love the almost casual 6th July 1966 entry in Ashley Hutchings' diary - "Called on Simon and suggested we form a folk-rock group with him and Rich Thompson. We agreed to give it a go." And so, give it a go they most certainly did! Disc 1 of Come All Ye kicks off with arguably the best four tracks from the band's debut album, then a couple of typically assured radio session covers. These are followed by three tracks from album two (What We Did On Our Holidays) and some choice rarities including versions of Eastern Rain and Mr. Lacey featuring Sandy Denny on vocal (the former also including a blistering Richard Thompson guitar solo), an a cappella take on Nottamun Town (the band's first recording of a traditional song), and the Meet On The Ledge single B-side. After a couple more radio session covers (including the superb treatment of Leonard Cohen's Suzanne, spoilt only by its premature fade), the band's iconic third album Unhalfbricking is represented by one track and an outtake, plus significant alternate takes of three other tracks including Sandy's Who Knows Where The Time Goes? and the epic A Sailor's Life - a version minus Swarb (unimaginable to anyone who knows the finally released album version).

Disc Two brings an untypical Unhalfbricking outtake, then radio session versions of two of its tracks, before moving on to the seminal Liege And Lief. The sessions for this folk-rock masterpiece provide a cover of Ballad Of Easy Rider (not released until years later on Richard's Guitar, Vocal compilation), which acts as a kind of bridge between the two stages of Fairport development. The Liege And Lief period is represented on Disc 2 by two album tracks, an alternate (rougher) take of Come All Ye, a fabulous rehearsal version of The Deserter, and the stonking first take of Matty Groves; then a glorious outtake (Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood) and three radio session cuts including a version of Sir Patrick Spens featuring Sandy on vocal. Disc 2 concludes with an epic take on Bonny Bunch Of Roses recorded in May 1970 by the Full House lineup at Phil Spector's Gold Star studios during the band's first American tour.

Disc Three opens with five magnificent previously unreleased tracks sourced from a French TV broadcast; these include a particularly fine version of Sloth, an ultra-fast Dirty Linen and the only known recording of Richard Thompson performing The Journeyman's Grace with the band (he'd left by the time the song appeared on the Angel Delight album). These are followed by a brace of tracks (Flatback Caper and Doctor Of Physick) recorded live at the LA Troubadour during 1970 (thus in essence a supplement to the House Full release) - both taken at a markedly faster pace than the LP versions on Full House. The lone Full House outtake Poor Will & The Jolly Hangman is (quite rightfully) included next, before one outtake (a relish-filled Bonnie Black Hare) and two representative tracks from the Angel Delight LP. The remainder of Disc Three is devoted to the Babbacombe Lee project, with six tracks from the BBCTV documentary The Man They Couldn't Hang.

Disc Four kicks off with three rock'n'roll covers - one from the LA Troubadour vintage 1970, another from one-off project The Bunch, and a third (a playful Sandy Denny take on Buddy Holly's Think It Over) from the latter's sessions. The next ten tracks, all previously unreleased, are something of a curiosity among curiosities! They date from sessions recorded at The Manor studio between The Bunch and Rosie, a hiatus when Swarb and Dave Pegg were joined, for just a couple of months, by Canadian singer-songwriter David Rea with Rodger Hill and Tom Farnell. These tracks are fascinating as a pre-Trevor-Lucas excursion into proto-Americana territory, but in all honesty very disappointing musically, since I don't feel David's unremarkable vocal work does anything for the band, either on his own compositions or on songs which were later to feature on Rosie and other albums. Although Sad Song, Sheep In The Meadow and the instrumental Rattletrap fare rather better than the rest - and the Swarb-less Rosie is actually pretty dire. Disc Four is rounded off with a pair of tracks from the proper album Rosie, two from The Old Grey Whistle Test, two from Nine, and both sides of a rare Australian single (the A-side of which was a runthrough of the later-stalwart Fairport instrumental Fiddlestix, which, strangely, didn't appear on any album…).

Disc Five begins in the classic Rising For The Moon period, when Sandy rejoined the band for a short while. A Sydney performance of Sloth (taken from the Live Convention LP), followed by three radio session takes including a very strong John The Gun, a primitive Sandy solo demo of After Hallowe'en, one live and two studio tracks from Rising For The Moon, and two marvellous alternate takes of album tracks, One More Chance in particular demonstrating how brilliantly that incarnation of the band had gelled in such a short time. Disc Five concludes with two tracks from the next album Gottle O'Geer and one from Tipplers' Tales, a cover recorded live in Oslo and four unexpectedly satisfying tracks recorded for Scottish TV shows in 1976.

Discs Six and Seven then step the chronology back a little, taking the form of complete live sets. Disc Six is a 15-song set recorded at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon in December 1973 - featuring the Nine lineup (with Sandy coming in for the two encores), this was originally taped for the Fairport Live Convention album but never used. Although the material stretches over albums from Full House to Rosie and Nine, the set also contains some non-album rarities including Days Of 49, a John Prine cover from Trevor Lucas and a virtuoso Jerry Donaghue guitar instrumental to complement the brilliancy of the trad-arr medleys. The entire contents of Disc Six are previously unreleased. In contrast, Disc Seven is basically a duplicate of the bonus disc on the deluxe reissue of Rising For The Moon that came out in 2013 (earlier, the items from that gig featuring Sandy had taken up the majority of Disc 17 of the mammoth Sandy Denny Box Set that came out in 2010). Disc Seven presents a full 72 minutes of Live At The LA Troubadour on 1st February 1974. Not to be confused with the House Full album release which captured an earlier incarnation of the band nearly four years earlier on a completely different selection of material, this 1974 set makes for a curious climax to the box, with Sandy and the band on good, if not spectacular form. Admittedly, it takes in the whole gamut of the band's stage repertoire at that time - Dylan covers, traditional songs and tunes, Fotheringay numbers, and a handful of songs from Sandy's solo œuvre, ending up on That'll Be The Day - but I'm suspicious that this particular live set may have been chosen to fill a gap where a different, rarer alternative was planned. Only one item on Disc Seven is claimed to be previously unreleased - an "alternate take" of Down Where The Drunkards Roll, which to be honest I can't tell apart from the one that appeared on the 2013 issue. Perhaps it would've been better to leave this set at just the first six discs...

Still, I must congratulate compiler Andrew Batt for unearthing so many more previously unheard gems. But I'm not entirely convinced that we needed as many as three not-all-that-different versions of Down In The Flood, or for that matter two of That'll Be The Day - neither of which are exactly Fairport-originated classics. And I couldn't quite see the reasoning behind including The Bonny Bunch Of Roses from 1970 rather than from the album of that title which dates from 1977 and is otherwise unrepresented on this set. In which context, too, the pedant in me is more than a touch puzzled by the stated timespan of the set, with its 1978 cutoff point - not least since the band actually started in 1967 and the latest track on the set comes from the 1978 release Tipplers' Tales.

So my verdict? Well, mixed - for while it's great to discover some "new" old recordings, I feel sure there are some missed opportunities here, and the booklet essay and track notes betray a certain amount of rushed preparation, with very little in the way of fresh information. There are nuggets here, however, as I've itemised above, and I'm sure the set will prove of much interest to Fairport completists, but it's still a mighty expensive proposition.

David Kidman