Tag Archives: Fairport Convention

More soul than Salford – Ewan MacColl’s ‘First Take’

Ewan MacColl, from a 1960 album cover.

Ewan MacColl, from a 1960 album cover.

Ewan MacColl was – by most accounts – a difficult man.

A titan of British folk music, who contributed a number of songs to its canon, he was also a man of some strongly-held prejudices – mostly against anything that didn’t fit with his conception of ‘folk music’.

So when it came to cover versions of one of his most famous songs, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, he didn’t just dislike one or two, he detested the lot.

As his daughter-in-law recalled: “He hated all of them. He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled ‘The Chamber of Horrors’.”

While certain attempts at the song should be buried in a chamber of concrete, sealed, and never opened again – not least The Kingston Trio’s insipid early version – not all justified MacColl’s curmudgeonly wrath.

Roberta Flack’s 1969 take, for one, achieved a depth of soulful longing that few others reached, and which MacColl’s own version only hints at.

Olivia Chaney

Olivia Chaney

But even Flack’s cover – from her debut album ‘First Take’ – wasn’t enough for MacColl, just as other admirable attempts at the song (by Johnny Cash, Christy Moore, or Erykah Badu), also fell foul of his standards. Or surely would have, had he lived to hear them.

What would MacColl have made of the most recent cover of his love song, then? Singer Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists last week released another take on the song, under the moniker Offa Rex.

Though the world hardly needs another cover version of the song, the striking thing about this one – to me – is MacColl might actually like it. After all, Chaney’s vocal channels just enough of Sandy Denny for the song to pass as a late ’60s Fairport demo.

Not that MacColl was a fan of those electric guitar-friendly folk rockers (I’ve no idea, but I’m guessing not), but Offa Rex’s drone-heavy version is closer to a finger-on-the-ear folk cover of the song that just about anything else over the past half century.

It’s certainly more Salford than soul, and perhaps that’s why it can’t compare with what is – despite the songwriter’s objections – the definitive reading of one of the 20th century’s great love songs: the one produced by a 30-year-old North Carolina singer on her first album. MacColl may have known songwriting, but singing? Take two, sir.

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It’s not you Richard, it’s me

Richard Thompson at Vicar Street

Richard Thompson at Vicar Street

There is a moment at a Richard Thompson show when his guitar-playing virtuosity can put the listener into a trance.

Time is suspended, seconds becoming hours, all of which hang on a raised note, the spell broken only when the melody is resolved. It’s heady stuff – up to a point.

Thompson played more than one furious solo during his show at Vicar Street in Dublin last Tuesday. As he tore through a stomping Hard On Me I found myself strangely transfixed, one part of my brain following the notes, another part thinking ‘where did I put the gas bill?’

Is this something that affects the musician? While most treat a two-hour Richard Thompson set as 120 minutes in the presence of a maestro, does the maestro ever find himself drifting away as he fires off another note-perfect rendition of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning?

One of the most common complaints people make about their jobs is repetition – the tedium of the same tasks the same way, workday after workday. Why should it be any different if you’re one of the top 20 guitarists of all time, whose performances make grown men sigh?

Most of us will change jobs in our lives but rock musicians – of certain stature – can find themselves damned to playing the same songs over and over, for decades. As Thompson commented – after playing Fairport Convention’s Genesis Hall – “that was from 1969” – I thought, ‘you must be a bit tired of it at this stage’.

Perhaps such songs are new every time, with a tempo change, a different venue, a bigger audience, the mutable factors that nudge the original just enough to keep it interesting.

It’s difficult to know what Thompson, whose stage manner is one of acerbic politeness, makes of it. Unlike some of his generation (Bob Dylan, who I’ve heard mangle plenty of songs over the years) the English folk-rocker seems content to mostly stick to the blueprint.

And what a blueprint. The Vicar Street set list included Wall of Death, Shoot Out The Lights and a poignant Al Bowlly’s In Heaven; the show ended with Tear-Stained Letter.

The songs and the technique couldn’t be faulted. The virtuosity was spellbinding. And if I worked through my household chores or audience-watched during a couple of the solos, well, my loss.

Perhaps it wasn’t you Richard, it was me.

A performance to make grown men sigh.

Solos to make grown men sigh

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