Posted by Dale Nickey
Before “Riverdance”, “The Celtic Women” and the ardent mass media embrace of all things boggy and soggy, there was British Folk-Rock. Groups like Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span were all making commercial inroads during the late 60’s and early 70’s by playing traditional jigs, ballads and folk tunes in an extremely novel and up to date style using electric instruments and modern recording techniques. These musical pioneers sold quite a few albums and made a splash with discerning rock music fans world wide. It was even hoped the genre could grow into the British equivalent of America’s Country Rock phenomenon. The nuclear winter of British Punk nearly extinguished the species. Moreover, without the promotional wiz bang of today’s trend machine, the music dried on the vine and was demoted to the purgatory of collectable vinyl, clubs, and regional folk festivals. Still it survives….
Here then is a Consumer Guide to the best the British Isles had to offer in the genre that dared not speak its name.
Incredible String Band – Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1968): Not for the faint hearted listener. Try to imagine Syd Barrett kitted out in Court Jester drag whilst locked in a studio full of acoustic exotica and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. Nice to know that in a forgotten land, far, far away; major labels actually underwrote this kind of lysergic tomfoolery. Oh yes…I forgot, they also played Woodstock.
Fairport Convention – Liege And Leif (1969): Generally accepted as the greatest British Folk Rock album of all time. It started the whole movement. It was a worthy soul mate to the Band’s “Music from Big Pink”. Fairport had just experienced a traumatizing road accident that killed their drummer Martin Lamble and the girlfriend of band leader, Richard Thompson. Their collective group therapy consisted of renting a big 19th century house in the English countryside where they proceeded to live and rehearse inside each others undergarments. They recruited folk icon Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and crack session drummer Dave Mattacks for the journey. The result was this unqualified masterpiece that ironically sowed the seeds for the band’s disintegration. Liege and Leif is a regular fixture in every music rag that indulges in the tiresome “Greatest Albums of All Time” lists. Liege & Leif rocks, sooths and conjures spells with liberal helpings of poignancy and pathos courtesy of Sandy Denny’s miraculous voice and Thompson’s world class song craft.
Pentangle – Basket of Light: (1969) : This release was top 10 in the U.K. and was a common sighting in many record collections stateside. The acoustic interplay between guitar masters Renbourn and Jansch is rich and complex. The standup bass of Danny Thompson hits the spot and pushes the envelope. Jackie McShee’s vocals soar. “Lyke Wake Dirge” is an a capella tour de force of divine depression. The current New Celtic style tends toward uplift and studio rich melancholy. This was a group that was unafraid to evoke their gloomy beauty unplugged. Their prior release Sweet Child (1968) is also a towering achievement and one of the era’s few successful double LP’s; though decidedly more jazzy and bluesy.
Bert Jansch – Rosemary Lane (1971): Before there was Nick Drake and Pink Moon, there was Bert and Rosemary Lane. Nick would have sounded very different without this indigo masterpiece of undiluted voice and guitar as a template. Indeed, Nick’s bootleg recordings are strewn with Bert Jansch covers. Rosemary Lane is a dry cocktail mix of traditional folk songs, original tunes, and classical set pieces. It was recorded up close and personal on reel to reel analog. Bert’s own album notes are the perfect road map into the soul of this music. This album is best enjoyed on vinyl with some smoke and wine on a cold blustery night.
Steeleye Span: Please To See The King: (1971) : Early incarnation of Steeleye Span before their popularity crested. English Folk heavyweight, Martin Carthy tries his hand at electric guitar, Ashley Hutchings continued the work he started in Fairport as Britain’s foremost (and possibly only) Bass playing ethnomusicologist. The lead track, “The Blacksmith” is a period stunner. The whole album drips with field recording authenticity. Even the album cover looks and feels like it’s made from a swath of gunnysack. PTSTK is as far away from the lush textures of Clannad as you can get while still inhabiting the same island.
Steeleye Span – Below the Salt: (1972): Steeleye Span were “The Beatles” of the genre. Whereas Fairport Convention were Stonesy, jammy and occasionally too loose for comfort; Steeleye’s productions were always meticulously detailed, precise and daring. This album was one of the great 60’s albums…. (1660’s, that is). Folk diva Maddy Prior was their clarion voice and heart. “Gaudette” is a masterful 5 part a capella workout (in Latin no less!!). Closing tune “Saucy Sailor” boasts the most beautiful guitar arpeggio on record drenched in the palpable fog of dockside reverb. The playing and arrangements are eclectic, electric and wonderfully indifferent to “trad” orthodoxy. Their follow up album “Parcel Of Rogues” is no less stunning or innovative.
Celtic Heartbeat – Van Morrison and The Chieftains (1988): The British Folk Rock fad had long faded and the New Celtic boom was a faint dot on the horizon when Van and the Chiefs locked sheep horns on this movable feast of an album. Van’s mass popularity had waned and the Cheiftains were on a holding pattern as an Irish music niche’ institution. “Lagan Love” is transformed by Morrison’s Delta grunts and growls into an epic primal wail of lost love. The evergreen standard, “She Moved Through The Fair” lurches and reels under the intoxicating powers of the female object of the tune. The title track is a tear jerking, strength to strength merger of Van’s pop smarts and the Chieftain’s magisterial way with a good melody. Irish Heartbeat brought the word Celtic back into the vernacular and the music back onto the billboard charts. A textbook lost classic.
Honorable mentions: Many jumped on the Folk Rock bandwagon with varying degrees of success. Best among them are:
TREES – Polly On The Shore (1970): Album cut “Murdoch” shines.
The Strawbs – Grave New World (1971): Not traditional per say, but has the gestalt and the tunes.
Fotheringay (1970): Sandy Denny’s “Banks Of The Nile” is worth the price of admission. Special bonus: Telecaster Master Jerry Donohue on guitar.