‘The time it goes and comes around,’ sings Chris Leslie on Our Bus Rolls On, one of seven new tunes here. ‘Fifty years and counting / Here’s to the Fairport family / And those blown off the mountain’. A sentimental salute to Fairport’s half century as an active unit, it’s a tacit acknowledgement of the evolving cast of nearly 30 characters that have helped shape the band’s sound through the decades.
Of course, today’s Fairport is a whole different entity to the late 60s radicals who gave folk its electric charge, jolting it into the province of longhair rock. They’re a far cosier proposition these days, a beardy institution whose speciality is jiggery Celtic folk with a largely acoustic remit. Nevertheless, the connections remain. In referencing the current members by turn, Our Bus Rolls On serves as a corollary to 1969’s Come All Ye, the opening gambit from Liege & Lief that declared its intention to rouse the spirits of the earth through the combined might of the band’s constituent parts.
The last vestige of that classic line-up is guitarist Simon Nicol. Having first played on 1970’s Full House, bassist Dave Pegg is still around too, part of an ensemble (rounded off by Leslie, drummer Gerry Conway and violin master Ric Sanders) that’s now been together for nearly 20 years. As befits a group who make most of their living on the road, half of 50:50@50 is given over to live recordings. Their version of Steve Tilston’s The Naked Highwayman is particularly good, a nimble roustabout framed by a sympathetic arrangement and a fine vocal from Nicol. But Fairport really fly on the traditional Jesus On The Mainline, cut at the Mill Theatre in Banbury, with guest singer Robert Plant doubling up on harmonica. Of the other live numbers, the instrumental Portmeirion is an impressive showcase for Sanders’ dazzling string work.
The studio standout is a fresh cut of the old broadside ballad, The Lady Of Carlisle, beautifully delivered by another guest, Jacqui McShee, who reprises her treatment of the song from Pentangle’s 1972 opus, Solomon’s Seal. Fairport tuck in neatly behind her, Leslie’s banjo complemented by Nicol’s dampened acoustic chords over discreet percussion. It’s a reminder, too, post-Judy Dyble and Sandy Denny, that Fairport music is inherently suited to the female voice. By contrast, some of the other new offerings here – Step By Step and Devil’s Work, in particular - feel a little too staid and habitual for their own good. A mixed bag, maybe, but plenty to suggest that Fairport will run and run.