In the decades since its original release, more than one writer has declared Fairport Convention's Liege & Lief the definitive British folk-rock album, a distinction it holds at least in part because it grants equal importance to all three parts of that formula. While Fairport had begun dipping their toes into British traditional folk with their stellar version of "A Sailor's Life" on Unhalfbricking, Liege & Lief found them diving head first into the possibilities of England's musical past, with Ashley Hutchings digging through the archives at the Cecil Sharp House in search of musical treasure, and the musicians (in particular vocalist Sandy Denny) eagerly embracing the dark mysteries of this music. (Only two of the album's eight songs were group originals, though "Crazy Man Michael" and "Come All Ye" hardly stand out from their antique counterparts.) Liege & Lief was also recorded after a tour bus crash claimed the lives of original Fairport drummer Martin Lamble and Richard Thompson's girlfriend; as the members of the group worked to shake off the tragedy (and break in new drummer Dave Mattacks and full-time fiddler Dave Swarbrick), they became a stronger and more adventurous unit, less interested in the neo-Jefferson Airplane direction of their earlier work and firmly committed to fusing time-worn folk with electric instruments while honoring both. And while Liege & Lief was the most purely folk-oriented Fairport Convention album to date, it also rocked hard in a thoroughly original and uncompromising way; the "Lark in the Morning" medley swings unrelentingly, the group's crashing dynamics wring every last ounce of drama from "Tam Lin" and "Matty Groves," and Thompson and Swarbrick's soloing is dazzling throughout. Liege & Lief introduced a large new audience to the beauty of British folk, but Fairport Convention's interpretations spoke of the present as much as the past, and the result was timeless music in the best sense of the term.
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England's Fairport Convention offended as many as they thrilled when they decided to blare Celtic songs on electric instruments back in 1969. But no one could write them off. The blazing constellation of talent, the strength of their grip on trad material, the sheer exuberance of LIEGE & LIEF could not be dismissed. From the opening mission statement of "Come All Ye," ("Come all ye roving minstrels/and together we will try/to rouse the spirit of the earth/and move the rolling sky"), to the tragic denouement of "Crazy Man Michael," LIEGE & LIEF is a watershed in folk music history. Richard Thompson's gnarly guitar reels dance on a thrilling edge between the technical precision of trad music and the entropic release of overdriven psychedelia -- a perfect partner for Dave Swarbrick's spiraling fiddle lines. And St. Sandy Denny's voice still stuns with its clarity and force. The eerie shock of "Matty Groves," the quintessential forbidden love and class- war ballad remains even after thousands of listens. Being English, Fairport are technically not a "Celtic" band. But they drank from Celtic waters, and hey, it's a rare traditional music lover who doesn't gush all purple at mere mention of LIEGE & LIEF.