en: Festival Bell [info]
As quintessentially English as the gentle knock of a cricket ball on willow, it's 43 years since Fairport Convention released their debut album. Their place in the cultural and physical landscape seems set to continue long into the future after their name was recently inscribed onto a new bell installed at St Mary's Church, Cropredy, near the site of Fairport's celebrated annual three-day festival. That the peal of a bell bearing their name will ring out across the fields and hedgerows surrounding the Oxfordshire village long after the rest of us have shuffled off this mortal coil seems wonderfully apt for a group so intimately connected to long-standing tradition.
Clearly on robust form, their first studio album since 2007's Sense of Occasion has them crisscrossing, as ever, through different narrative streams, with Chris Leslie (still regarded as a new boy after a mere 14 years of being with the group) providing some of Festival Bell's strongest songs. Mercy Bay, featuring Simon Nicol's stout vocals, thrums with dramatic intensity, relating tales of heroism on the high seas of 1850; he displays similarly fine form on Around the Wild Cape Horn, the latter being one of two Ralph McTell covers.
Revisiting their heritage, there's a comfy-cardigan remake of the Sandy Denny-penned Rising for the Moon. Forceful, sprightly instrumentals are found in violinist Ric Sanders' Danny Jack's Chase and Danny Jack's Reward. Both ripple with a tricksy jazz-rock sensibility that wouldn't have been out of place in his late-70s pre-Fairport outfit, Soft Machine.
Whilst Festival Bell lacks the visionary presence that made 1969's game-changing Liege & Lief so influential, and established the group's pre-eminent position in the folk-rock firmament, this album nevertheless confirms Fairport's reputation as an ongoing repository for quality songwriting.