Friday, July 24, 2020

McQ's Best Of 1969 Vol 12 - Conventioneers

For many of you, especially the majority of my friends living stateside, a good chunk of the music on this mix will be less familiar than on our other concluding 1969 mixes. But it is no less thrilling, especially Set 2 here starting with Fairport Convention's A Sailor's Life, which is one of the best runs in our entire '69 collection.

But to get to the heart of it, British folk-rock witnessed the emergence of two of its greatest artists in 1969 through the three releases of folk-rock collective Fairport Convention and the singular debut of Nick Drake, and yet, that was just the beginning of the amazing year on the folk and singer/song-writer front that also introduced significant, influential works from the likes Buffy Sainte-Marie, Leonard Cohen, Fairport Convention/Nick Drake partners-in-Renaissance-Fair-crime Pentangle, Joni Mitchell, Leo Kottke, and Laura Nyro.

So let's dial things down a notch, and ease into some 1969's chillest lyric-and-tradition-anchored music.

Here's the Spotify link! Enjoy.

Set 1 (LC, The Weakest Link)

1. God Is Alive Magic Is Afoot - Buffy Sainte-Marie (4:52)
2. Cajun Woman - Fairport Convention (2:43)
3. Leaving On A Jet Plane - Peter, Paul & Mary (3:27)
4. Day Is Done - Nick Drake (2:26)
5. A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes - Leonard Cohen (3:15)
6. Come All Ye - Fairport Convention (5:03)
7. Chelsea Morning - Joni Mitchell (2:32)
8. The River - Tim Buckley (5:49)
9. Springtime Promises - Pentangle (4:05)
10. Si Tu Dois Partir - Fairport Convention (2:19)
11. Save The Country - Laura Nyro (4:32)
12. Ojo - Leo Kottke (2:12)
13. Sister Morphine - Marianne Faithfull (5:30)
14. Mr. Lacey - Fairport Convention (2:52)
15. The Thoughts Of Mary Jane - Nick Drake (3:19)
16. Bird On The Wire - Leonard Cohen (3:26)
17. Streets Of London - Ralph McTell (4:09)

Set 2 (Buffy, The Anglo Slayer)

18. A Sailor's Life - Fairport Convention (11:08)
19. Better To Find Out Yourself - Buffy Sainte-Marie (2:13)
20. Darkness, Darkness - The Youngbloods (3:49)
21. Light Flight - Pentangle (3:14)
22. Tale In Hard Time - Fairport Convention (3:26)
23. Captain Saint Lucifer - Laura Nyro (3:13)
24. I Must Have Been Blind - Tim Buckley (3:46)
25. Adam - Buffy Sainte-Marie (5:06)
26. Matty Groves - Fairport Convention (8:09)
27. Atlantis - Donovan (5:03)


28. Reynardine - Fairport Convention (4:33)
29. Sally Go Round The Roses - Pentangle ( 3:35)
30. Pretty Smart On My Part - Phil Ochs (3:17)
31. Saturday Sun - Nick Drake (4:05)
32. Meet On The Ledge - Fairport Convention (2:50)
33. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues - Nina Simone (4:48)
34. Million Dollar Bash - Fairport Convention (2:54)

About the Conventioneers' Minstrel Choir:

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Relatively ignored at the time of its release, but positively worshipped by critics, hipsters, and electronic artists today, indigenous Canadian Buffy Sainte-Marie's sixth album Illuminations (Strong Recommend) was an abrupt departure for her earlier, more traditional folk work, and a landmark early adopter of electronic production techniques.  It was the first quadrophonic vocal album ever released, included one of the first recordings to ever run vocals through a synthesizer in lead single Better To Find Out For Yourself, and throughout the rest of the record employed all manner of wickedly subtle, evocative synthesizer touches. But despite all this groundbreaking, what comes through most to me on Illuminations is Sainte-Marie's confident, unwavering, non-Anglo-Christian sense of self. It's easy to see how some of our best female artists in the decades since like PJ Harvey have tapped into aspects of this album's feminine swagger, and to celebrate that we're digging in fairly deep on this mix with Better To Find Out For Yourself, odd, spiritual opener God Is Alive Magic Is Afoot, and another of the album's harder-hitting uptempo tracks in Adam.

Fairport Convention: While folk-rock was always a huge component of Fairport Convention's sound, the band wasn't initially seen as the modern standard bearers of British Folk tradition as they are today (though that transformation would occur in 1969), but rather, England's answer to The Jefferson Airplane, a combustive collection of psychedelic-leaning talents that included their own Grace Slick in Sandy Denny (later of Led Zeppelin Battle Of Evermore fame), and their own ace Jourma Kaukonen axe-man in the still-active-to-this-day Richard Thompson. And on their second overall release and first of 1969, What We Did On Our Holidays (Solid Recommend), that comparison was apt. And while Holidays is definitely the least significant of the Fairport's three 1969 albums, it's a wonderful listen in its own right, with uptempo rockers like the very Jefferson Airplane-y Mr. Lacey, gorgeous, harmony-driven psych-folk like the almost REM-ish Tale In Hard Time, and what would become their defecto concert closer in the years that followed, enduring classic Meet On The Ledge.

The shift towards a more fully realized folk sound began with the straight-up superb Unhalfbricking (Highest Recommend), but unlike on the album that would come after, the band's eyes were often straying west across the Atlantic for inspiration on this one. Even when the band choose to sing in French (Si Tu Dois Partir), it was actually a Cajun-styled cover of Bob Dylan's If You've Gotta Go, Go Now. By far the band's liveliest effort, it also included spirited takes on Thompson's own Cajun Women and Dylan's Million Dollar Bash, a pair of extraordinary Denny songs in Autopsy (not included) and Who Knows Where The Time Goes (to be found on Vol 2 - Best Of The Best), and at its center, the riveting ten-minute interpretation of English traditional A Sailor's Life, one of Thompson's finest guitar moments, the first song to include fiddler Dave Swarbrick, and the song that would point the way towards Fairport's future.

And that sound would arrive fully formed on Liege & Lief (Strong Recommend), my second favorite of all the band's releases, though my guess is, that most Brits, this is definitely number one (many Brit's consider Liege & Lief the definitive British folk-rock album). Following a tragic tour bus crash that claimed the lives of the band's original drummer Martin Lamble and Richard Thompson girlfriend, the band regrouped. With a new drummer and Swarbrick now in tow, they dialed down their own songwriting efforts, turned their backs on America's folk-rock vanguard, and focused instead on discovering - band member and future Steeleye Span founder 
Ashley Hutchings spent days searching the Cecil Sharp House archives for musical bounty - and modernizing centuries-old English and Irish folk classics. And update them they did.  There's no denying the tradition-bound feel of these songs, as hauntingly felt in the mystical Reynardine and even the rare originals like album opener Come All Ye, but they surge and sway with all the fierceness of rock, best exhibited in the crazed coda of tragic infidelity tale Matty Groves.  

Peter, Paul and Mary: No way we could do a 1969 folk mix and not included Peter, Paul and Mary's cover of John Denver's Leaving On A Jet Plane, which was originally included on their '67 full-length release Album 1700, but didn't chart until it was re-released as a single in 1969.

Nick Drake: Nick Drake's debut Five Leaves Left (Solid Recommend), though not particularly well reviewed at the time, is now regarded as his finest album, with several rock publications (Q, NME, Rolling Stone, Uncut, Pitchfork) listing the delicate, melancholy portrait of isolation among folk-rock's most important and influential debuts. And yet, for me, who came to this record last after having devoured the devastatingly stark, suicidal Pink Moon and the far livelier, more varied, Bryter LayterFive Leaves Left has always struck me as the comparative weak link in Drake's three record catalog, the kinda boring one. Which is not to say the songs on Five Leaves Left aren't individually excellent, they are (hell, we're including  almost half the album's songs - Day Is Done, Thoughts Of Mary Jane, lovely closer Saturday Sun here and best song, Time Has Told Me on Vol 1 - Nancy's Favorites - in this our mix collection), but those songs have never intangibly reinforced each other when played together as well as the songs on Drake's final two releases do.

Leonard Cohen: Leonard Cohen is one of the songwriting world's most revered wordsmiths, and no surprise, the lyrics on '69s Songs From A Room (Solid Recommend) are impressive, but, I don't think Cohen gets called to account enough for how clumsy he was in the studio in the early stages of his career, because on this effort, the songs are great, but the production and arrangements leave much to be desired, as hokey and dated as anything released in 1969, and pale when compared to the more sophisticated production work exhibited by almost every other artist on this mix (or that a seasoned Cohen would exhibit himself later in his career). Hence, the mean-spirited subtitle for our first set, LC, The Weakest Link. But, as said, the impact of his intellect and words still cuts through no matter Cohen's studio limitations at the time, so we're running with two numbers from Songs From A Room that would become enduring staples of his performing career, A Bunch Of Lonesome Heroes and Bird On The Wire.

Joni Mitchell: We've already discussed what a one-woman show Joni Mitchell's sophomore effort Clouds was in our write up for Mitchell's reclamation of Both Sides Now on Vol 1 - Nancy's Favorites. But Both Sides Now was hardly the only Mitchell original on Clouds that had previously seen chart success with other artists. Folk singer Tom Rush scored a modest folk hit with Tin Angel, and with Chelsea Morning here, we check out Mitchell's own take on the second Cloud's song that Susan Collins rode to greater chart success than Mitchell herself.

Tim Buckley: My favorite of acid-fueled singer-songwriter Tim Buckley's two 1969 releases, Blue Afternoon (Solid Recommend) pursued a far gentler, croonier path than the slightly more rock-oriented, trippy Happy Sad (which we touched upon in Vol 6 - Psychedelic Fade). And while neither album scaled the heights of the Buckley career peaks that immediately preceded (Goodbye And Hello) and followed (Starsailor) them, both included several standouts from an artist in the prime of his career, so here we touch on Blue Afternoon's two best tracks - the eerie The River, and the bittersweet I Must Have Been Blind.

Pentangle: Fairport Convention wasn't the only British folk rock collective dropping fantastic work in 1969.  Their close friends, the Bert Jansch-led Pentangle, released their own modern folk classic in Basket Of Light (Solid Recommend), an album which landed multiple songs on the UK charts and almost topped the UK album weeklies near the end of the year.  Very much of a piece with Fairport's work, Basket Of Light is supplying three of its most popular tracks here, the easy-going Springtime Promises, best song Sally Go Round The Roses, and hit opener Light Flight.

Laura Nyro: For many, Laura Nero's crowning achievement, but also one of the most challenging and idiosyncratic singer/songwriter albums ever, the deeply personal New York Tendaberry (Solid Recommend) is always fascinating, intermittently brilliant, but in no way geared towards the unadventurous, mainstream listener.  In a bit of a cop out, we've stacked the deck for the record on this mix by focusing on it's two most accessible numbers, Captain Saint Lucifer, and its one radio hit, Save The Country

Leo Kottke: Going with my personal favorite Ojo here from legendary folk guitarist Leo Kottke's striking debut 6 and 12 String Guitar (enthusiastic Solid Recommend), but fans of acoustic guitar would be crazy not to check the entirety of this genre classic out.  Later in his career, Kottke would be forced to completely reinvent his playing technique to halt the physical damage he was doing to his hands, but this albums finds Kottke's masterful youthful fingerpicking at it's most aggressive, dextrous and carefree.

Marianne Faithfull: At a later date, the subject of a protracted royalties legal battle with co-writers Keith Richards and Faithfull's boyfriend at the time Mick Jagger when they repurposed the song for Sticky Fingers, this disturbing original version of Sister Morphine was released by Faithfull as the B-Side to Something Better.

Ralph McTell: Covered over two hundred times since it was first released on English folk singer Ralph McTell's album Spiral Staircase in 1969, Ralph McTell's paean to street buskers and the homeless The Streets Of London didn't really make a mark until it was re-released as a single in 1974. Not surprisingly for a song covered over two hundred times, it was the biggest hit of McTell's career. 

The Youngbloods: Evenly divided between light psychedelic folk rock and croony, country-tinge pop, we're dividing our look The Youngblood's 1969 release Elephant Mountain (Solid Recommend), the Greenwich Village outfits first collection composed entirely of originals, between this mix and our upcoming Vol 15 - Croony, Croon, Croon. Here we listen to one of the group's most enduring songs, mesmerizingly dark opener Darkness, Darkness, a track that would go on to be covered time and again in the decades that followed, starting with Mott The Hoople on their 1971 release Brain Capers, but expanding to a pool that would include Robert Plant, Heart, Eric Burdon, The Screaming Trees, and The Cowboy Junkies among many others.

Donovan: After highlighting the so-fun, Jeff Beck Group-backed title track from Donovan's thoroughly enjoyable 1969 outing Barabajagal (Solid Recommend) on Vol 6 - Psychedelic Fade, here we highlight the album's biggest stateside hit Atlantis, just barely beating out Barabajagal the album's other most notable standouts like groupie homage Superlungs (My Supergirl), Graham Nash collab Happiness Runs, and To Susan On The West Coast Waiting as the representative track of the album's folkier side.

Phil Ochs: Written in then aftermath of the violence surrounding the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, events Ochs witnessed first hand and later described to have felt like watching the "symbolic death of America," (hence the Chicago tombstone cover), Phil Ochs sixth album Rehearsals For Retirement (Solid Recommend) is widely considered to be the darkest of his career, perfectly encapsulated here by Pretty Smart On My Part, his brutal first person portrait of a violent, paranoid, gun-loving member of the John Birch Society. Sadly, feels just as timely in America today. 

Nina Simone: Just love Nina's exquisite cover of Dylan's Just Like Tom Thumb Blues, part of a rushed '69 release of mostly rock and folk covers, To Love Somebody, to capitalize on the huge surprise success of her previous 1968 release, the Martin Luther King-inspired 'Nuff Said.

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