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Micho Russell of Dunagore, Co Clare
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even more... Popular to Contrary Belief
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Farewell 'Farewell'
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The Ashley Hutchings Story
The Transports Book
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The Transports
The Silver Edition of Peter Bellamy's Classic Ballad Opera
FRDCD 2122


CDs: The Transports 1977, The Transports 2004,
Also Included: The Transports Book,

Dave Kidman

This handsomely-presented set forms the finest possible tribute to Peter Bellamy's epic creation, placing it firmly at its proper place at the forefront of our folk-musical heritage.

A few words of explanation first: The Transports was an ambitious project masterminded by Peter Bellamy, one of this country's major folk performers from the 1960s through to his untimely death in 1991. A full-scale folk ballad-opera recounting the epic story of a Norfolk couple transported to Australia as convicts in the late 18th century, The Transports utilised the talents of singers from the front rank of the 1970s English folksong revival, and its original recorded incarnation (a Free Reed double album) was voted Folk LP Of The Year in 1977. By any standards, The Transports was a considerable (and unique) achievement; Peter single-handedly developed the concept, wrote the libretto and music and produced the recording. His pivotal role as catalyst was to set a benchmark for the genre. More than 25 years on, the tale itself has taken on new resonances in the contemporary world, and so the time is absolutely right for this new remastered edition of the original recording, which definitely supersedes the previous Topic CD transfer in terms of sound fidelity, addressing the minor imperfections of balance and occasional opacity which dogged parts of that issue. As well as engaging Peter himself (in the "linking" role of The Ballad Singer), the 1977 Transports provided character roles for the Watersons, June Tabor, Martin Carthy, Cyril Tawney, Nic Jones and Bert Lloyd; for their contributions alone it's a vital historical document, but its defining coup-de-maître is probably its high-profile chamber-scale "baroque-medieval" musical setting, expertly arranged by Dolly Collins and executed by a consort consisting of well-regarded musicians, many specialising in the field of early music. So, what we get here with the Silver Edition of The Transports is a robust wide box containing (among other things) two discs.

The first of these is taken up with the newly remastered edition of the 1977 recording. Not to be outdone, the second disc then presents a set of what are for the most part brand new recordings of "songs from the show" undertaken by performer friends and admirers of Peter in tribute to the enterprise and spirit of the original work of genius - providing ample proof that it does indeed continue to inspire, challenge and delight to this day, with a large number of the songs surviving well outside of their original setting and context. The counterpart singers and musicians involved in this 2004 "revisit" by and large chose their own contributions; sadly, though, not all of those planned proved possible in the end (Carthy & Swarbrick were preparing for an epic reading of the linking Ballad when Swarb again became ill last year). But the new readings are all imbued with a positive character and a genuine feel for the songs. Just two (the Witches Of Elswick's I Once Lived In Service and Kimber's Men's Roll Down) are taken from existing available releases - well, three if you count Cockersdale's late-80s reading of Black And Bitter Night, which opens the disc as an introductory bonus (the song also recurs in its rightful place in the sequence later on the disc in a (perhaps unexpectedly sprightly) new recording by Damien Barber and John Kirkpatrick, with the massed voices of the Wilsons and Grace Notes).

Personal taste is likely to determine preferences of course, but two of my favourite songs in both versions are The Leaves In The Woodland (June Tabor/Grace Notes) and The Green Fields Of England (the Watersons with Peter & Anthea Bellamy/Coope, Boyes & Simpson). Steve Tilston's fresh new interpretation of The Still And Silent Ocean (a surprisingly under-covered song within the Transports canon) superbly conveys the breeze of optimism that blows into the protagonists' tale at this point. Bert Lloyd's Abe Carman will obviously always prove a hard act to follow, however authoritative Joel Griffiths' reading may be, but elsewhere Chris Sugden imbues the inmate of Norwich Gaol with a gloriously Kipperesque mien and Martin Carthy's Humane Turnkey is admirably re-characterised by Baccateer Mal Jardine. The second disc is completed by a further two bonus items: Tim Moon's finely-crafted Bellamy tribute song Black Concertina (as first performed, memorably, at the launch of the Wake The Vaulted Echoes CD-set) and then the disc finally fades away into the ether with an excerpt from Roll Down, performed by Peter himself as an encore to his last ever concert performance (at St. Louis, on either 8th or 10th August 1991 - this apparent discrepancy being one of the accompanying booklet's very few glitches…). What a shame that Peter's final rendition of this song (which he himself only rarely performed) could not have been included here in its entirety (or is the only-recently-discovered complete tape of this concert destined for CD release some time in the future?).

Finally, as if the two well-filled discs aren't enough, no Free Reed set would be complete without a well nigh exemplary fat (136 pages in this instance) companion book. This one reinstates the song-cycle's entire libretto and historical notes as presented with its initial vinyl release (a pity, though, that opportunity was not taken to correct the omission from the printed libretto of the text of the fourth verse of Black And Bitter Night - which, interestingly, all later recorded versions also omit; perhaps there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for this of which I am unaware?). The book also features a wealth of new "Transportation and First Fleet" tales, convict history and artist biographies as well as an archive of photographs taken at the 1977 recording sessions, notes of subsequent performances of the whole cycle and a great track-by-track commentary embracing a fine attention to detail and sensible use of cross-references and other cultural, discographical and historical associations and correspondences.

This handsomely-presented set forms the finest possible tribute to Peter Bellamy's epic creation, placing it firmly at its proper place at the forefront of our folk-musical heritage.

Green Man - Stephen Hunt
Various Artists, The Transports: Silver Edition (Free Reed Music, 2004)

1977 seemed like an important year to be a music obsessed teenager in England's green and pleasant land. The front pages of the tabloids were temporarily dominated by rock 'n' roll as (firstly) The Sex Pistols injected some actual excitement into HM The Queen's Silver Jubilee celebrations, and (secondly) Elvis permanently 'left the building.' In the midst of all the spit and tears, the release of The Transports: A Ballad Opera by Peter Bellamy didn't really register on my youthful radar. It would be years before I realised that I'd actually missed the year's most extraordinary record....
The Transports relates the true story of Henry Cabell and Susannah Holmes, convicts transported to Australia in the 'First Fleet' in 1787. If this story weren't a matter of recorded, historical fact, it would certainly be described as 'unbelievable'! Poverty, crime, death, cruelty, incarceration, love, birth, transportation, separation, anguish, intervention, reunion... you name it, it's in here, somewhere! Bellamy's telling of the tale, in the form of his 'Ballad Opera', is almost equally astonishing. Unlike the other folk and rock 'operas' of the era (e.g. Fairport's Babbacombe Lee and The Who's Tommy), the music is performed throughout by a small orchestra, while the singers perform entirely in character. That 'orchestra' is comprised of musicians from the Early Music Consort of London, directed and conducted by Roddy Skeaping, and featuring such 'period' instruments as Serpent and Garklein-Flotlein (small recorder) among the more familiar flute, bassoon, oboe whistle and cello. Dolly Collins was given the role of musical arranger -- the instrumental 'Overture', demonstrates her immense talent from the very outset.
Bellamy himself appears sporadically throughout proceedings in the role of the anonymous 'Street Singer' (accompanied by Dave Swarbrick's fiddle), with 'The Ballad of Henry & Susannah', a five-part song which acts as a narrative link between the first person songs of the characters. Ah, the character songs... this is where the fun really begins! The singers that Bellamy cast in the various roles represent some of the very cream of Brit-folk. Indeed, it's interesting to note that many of these names from 1977 are the same names that continue to win awards and garner accolades in 2004. The parts of Henry and Susannah are (superbly) sung by Mike and Norma Waterson, while Henry's mother and father are June Tabor and Nic Jones, and Martin Carthy is John Simpson -- 'The Humane Turnkey'. Hearing these familiar voices in such unfamiliar settings is an illuminating and rewarding experience. The 'sounds' of Jones and Carthy are both so inextricably linked to their instruments that it's almost startling to hear the voices without the guitars. Their performances here provide a reminder (if any were needed) that they are sublime singers. While the matching of singers to songs is effective throughout, in some cases the levels of symbiosis suggest that Bellamy actually composed his songs with the stylistic attributes of his chosen singers in mind. Cyril Tawney casts a glamour of authenticity over the ersatz sea shanty, 'Roll Down', while Vic Legg's unaffected West-Country accent and wonderfully energetic, declamatory style make him a wholly believable 'Coachman' on 'The Plymouth Mail'. Probably the least familiar name (and most unusual performance) belongs to Martin Winsor, who (as 'The Convict') sings 'The Ballad of Norwich Gaol', while A. L. Lloyd exudes roguery as Abe Carman in 'The Robber's Song'.
For me, The Transports represents a uniquely and wholly successful example of its genre. I should confess that any kind of 'musical theatre' usually brings me out in a rash, but Bellamy's masterpiece is just a colossal piece of work to which my petty prejudices simply do not apply! Likewise, writers who contrive songs 'in a traditional style' are too often posturing fantasists (guaranteed to bring bile to my throat), but these songs are tremendous, constructed from equal parts solid scholarship, empathic imagination and wonderful melodies. Then, of course, there are the actual performances and those inventive arrangements... like I said, an extraordinary record!
Onwards to 2004, and the latest re-release of this classic album by Free Reed Music -- the label that originally released it in 1977. Back then, The Transports was a double-vinyl LP set, packaged in an elaborate gatefold sleeve, complete with 'libretto' and historical background. As Free Reed went into an 'extended period of hibernation' in the 1980's, so the album was deleted, and quickly became a highly sought 'collectors item'. Topic Records released the first CD version (minus all the 'supporting paperwork') in the 90's before, twenty-five years after its original release, ownership of The Transports reverted to Free Reed. Now, anyone who's been paying attention will know that Free Reed has established a recent reputation for high quality, large-format CD box sets, so.... What's in the box?
Firstly, of course, there's a CD of that original 1977 album, re-mastered into sparkling, crystal clarity! Secondly, there's another CD here -- The Transports 2004, credited to 'Peter's Friends'. The booklet notes explain thus: 'Twenty five years on from the original Transports recordings, some of Peter's close friends and admirers revisited and reinterpreted his classic collection of songs with startling results.' Among those 'friends and admirers' are the likes of Steve Tilston, Damien Barber, John Kirkpatrick and Pete Morton. 'The Ballad of Henry & Susannah' is performed by Simon Nicol and Chris Leslie (keeping a nice continuity of Fairport fiddlers going!) who are joined by the rest of Fairport for the closing 'Convicts Wedding' dance tune. The 2004 CD contains an almost complete version of the Ballad Opera material, plus several bonus tracks, including a rare (and sadly incomplete) performance of 'Roll Down' from Bellamy's last major gig in the USA.
Finally, there is a 132-page companion book which contains: 'The full story of the First Fleet of Convicts transported to Australia, 1787-88, and of the classic ballad Opera that it inspired.' The book is probably deserving of a full review in its own write, but suffice it to say that it's a tremendous piece of work. Tony Fisher's photographs of the 1977 recording sessions are a real bonus, and the wealth of historical information is nothing short of revelatory. Free Reed's Neil Wayne and Nigel Schofield have, once again, delivered a package that is pretty close to flawless. I say 'close' as there are, in truth, one or two typos here and there. Vic Legg's album is incorrectly titled in the book, and he's the only singer (on either CD) whose name is not listed on the front of the box. While pointing out that oversight probably has me marked down as a deeply annoying pedant, I'm hopeful that the Free Reed guys will forgive me on the grounds that my particular foibles aren't, perhaps, so very different from their own! I can't think of another label that demonstrates the commitment to accurate information and comprehensive detail that Free Reed consistently applies to their recordings. With The Transports: Silver Edition, Free Reed has given Peter Bellamy's brilliant Ballad Opera the format it deserves, and presented it to a whole new audience. I hope that they sell a million!

Manchester Evening News - Kevin Bourke
The Transports - The Silver Edition (Free Reed Revival Masters)

DEVELOPED, written and produced by the late Peter Bellamy, The Transports - A Ballad Opera was one of the jewels of 'seventies folk music.??An epic tale of the transportation of a Norfolk couple and the birth of the Australian nation, it featured top-rank singers and performers such as Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Mike And Norma Waterson, Dolly Collins, June Tabor, Cyril Tawney and many more.??This lavish package presents not only a remastered CD of that 1977 album, routinely acknowledged as one of the best folk albums of the twentieth century, but also a brand-new CD of newly-recorded performances plus a 1977 photographic archive not previously seen.

Quite simply, essential.

Steppin' out - Pete Fyfe
Various Artists - The Transports - The Silver Edition (Free Reed Music FRDCD 2122)

I know that the opening few bars may sound like an out take from Ivor The Engine (just a quirk of fate I suppose) but once you're into the music full on 'The Transports' has to be one of the most ambitious folk music projects of the 70's. Given the financial green light from Free Reed Records main man Neil Wayne Peter Bellamy was able to flex his not inconsiderable musical muscle on one of the main folk opera's of the day.

The cast list of singers and musicians at the time read like a who's who of the folk community including Dave Swarbrick (a replacement for the original violinist!)  Nic Jones, A L Lloyd and Martin Carthy and providing the backdrop was perhaps one of the most inspired castings, arranger Dolly Collins whose approach to the subject matter provided the music with its English-ness. A quick reference point - if you were looking for one - would be the film The Wicker Man where the same kind of instrumentation was employed.

Casting my mind back I must admit to forgetting how enjoyable some of the solo vocal performances were on the original recording. Two prime examples are 'Us Poor Fellows' by Nic Jones and a particularly jaunty 'Robber's Song' from Bert Lloyd. On this digitally re-mastered first disk they are a joy to reacquaint oneself. It's obvious that a lot of time and effort from Mr Wayne has gone into re-mastering this classic album as the recordings are totally clean and blemish-free, making it sound as fresh and exciting as it was back in the 70's. Unfortunately, and without meaning to sound uncharitable, I'm sorry to say that the 2004 version sounds a little disjointed. As just stated, and this is meant as no disrespect to the musicians and singers involved, each marks their own territory with an individual performance that is just that, an individual performance taking away from the cohesive concept of the original recording. I suppose that given the situation (gathering a large cast together in one studio) the practicalities were insurmountable but this does leave the listener with a feeling that the slight variation in recording quality is a bit of a distraction.

If I was to put aside what I've just said, two of the best tracks (individually speaking) on the album are 'The Still & Silent Ocean' beautifully arranged and sung by Steve Tilston with fiddle accompaniment from Tom McConville and a polished performance of 'The Green Fields Of England' by Coope Boyes & Simpson. I'm sure that all of the artists involved each had a valid reason for wanting to contribute primarily as 'friends' or in tribute to a much missed fellow singer/musician and I can't fault their commitment. On a more positive note; the accompanying book written by Nigel Schofield (with help from Neil Wayne) has become a welcome addition to these Free Reed box sets and is required reading.

All in all, it's a pretty impressive package!

The Scotsman - Kenny Mathieson
Fri 26 Mar 2004 - New CD Releases

Peter Bellamy: The Transports ****

HARD on the heels of Free Reed's box set from the Watersons comes this reissue of another landmark project in English folk song. The late Peter Bellamy's "ballad opera", based on the experiences of the unfortunates transported to the penal colonies in Australia, was originally issued as two LPs in 1977, and is here complete on one remastered CD. ??It has lost little of its power, boosted by the contributions of stellar names (Carthy, Swarbrick, Tabor, the Watersons, et al). A second disc features newly recorded interpretations of songs from the opera by newer artists.

Green Man - Stephen Hunt
Free Reed have given Bellamy's brilliant Ballad Opera the format it deserves and presented it to a whole new audience: I hope they sell a million!

fRoots - Colin Irwin
It's a pleasure to hear it again here, particularly dressed up with Free Reed's customary reverential packaging complete with a gloriously detailed, insightful book.

Daily Telegraph - Colin Jones
In its updated form, the project stands as a sharp and necessary reminder of a gifted but troubled man at the height of his creativity

Green Man - Stephen Hunt
A tremendous piece of work…a package that is pretty close to flawless

The Folk Diary - Jim Marshall
A priceless reminder of a much-missed talent

BBC Radio 2 Website - Mel McLellan
Don't pass it by: a timely and revealing tribute to a complex, creative individual

Folk World - Colin Jones
A fascinating and coherent package…the original in a setting which truly befits its classic status

The Folk Diary - Jim Marshall
The accompanying book is such a work of art you almost feel that the CD's are an adjunct to it

Fairport Convention - Chris Leslie
Wonderful and amazing

Fairport Convention - Simon Nicol
We are proud to be part of it

BBC Radio 3 - Andy Kershaw
An amazing reissue package, exemplary

BBC Radio 2 - Mike Harding
Wonderful and beautifully done

TIME OUT - Critics' Choice
Timely arrival of this epic folk opera

Folk World - Colin Jones
A wonderful package

Irish Times - Tara McSweeney
The perfect box set to start learning about the genre

Stirrings - David Kidman
This handsomely presented set forms the finest possible tribute to Peter Bellamy's epic creation. Placing it firmly in its proper place at the forefront of our musical heritage

The Scotsman - Kenny Mathieson
Another landmark project in English folk song

Alaska Folk - Vance Whelply
It's overwhelming and also enjoyable. I lose about a week of my life with every release!!

Ugly Things Magazine - David Biasotti
FAIRPORT CONVENTION - Fairport unConventional (Free Reed, UK, 4CD box set)

For the curious but uninitiated this - literally - weighty box set would be an interesting, if profoundly weird way to approach Fairport Convention, perhaps Britain's greatest contribution to the folk-rock movement. A more "conventional" avenue would be Island's 2CD set Meet on the Ledge, which does a reasonably good job of covering the band's work for that label. This is an entirely different beast, 72 tracks spanning 35 years, most all of the tracks rare or previously unreleased, with the 4 discs arranged thematically rather than chronologically. What we have here is a prodigious labor of love compiled by and aimed at the Fairport Convention obsessive.
While the box cover itself may lack something in aesthetic appeal, it does, in its heroic attempt to picture every artist who has ever passed through the band, convey something of Fairport's tangled and crazy history. (11 lead guitarists, to give one example.) This is worked out in the enclosed poster-sized family tree by Pete Frame. Before signing off on his creation, Frame writes "If you bastards change your line-up one more time, you can find yourselves another fucking genealogist!"
What gives the box its physical heft is the enclosed 170-page band history by Nigel Schofield. An admirable companion to Patrick Humphries' Meet on the Ledge - the Classic Years, this picture-packed volume charts the band's story year-by-year from 1967 through 2002 in its first 100 pages. The balance provides exhaustive commentary on each of the tracks, along with some interview material with Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol and Dave Pegg. The experience of going through this book is like being in the home of the ultimate Fairport fan, the one who's got the set list of every Cropredy Festival. The one who'll give you the URL to a good site on Mary Queen of Scots after you've listened to "Fotheringay." All in all it's a wonderful, overstuffed pantry full of Fairport arcana.
At the time of the compilation Fairport had been around for 35 years, and it's maybe harsh but probably accurate to say the world at large will remember the group for one of them - 1969. That year saw the release of no less than three albums: What We Did on Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Liege and Lief, the three that chronicle Sandy Denny's first stint with the band. The second and third of this trinity will probably jockey for desert island status for the foreseeable future, and truth is they probably both belong on any list of that kind. What's so remarkable is how such an American-influenced band (the English Jefferson Airplane, they were once called) wound up being so English. It's been said that the blast of North Americana they got from Music from Big Pink inspired them to go to their own roots, down to the Cecil Sharp House for material.
As great as the Sandy Denny era was, my own preference has always been the all-lads version that succeeded her departure. The one documented on Full House and the live album House Full. The rhythm section of Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks is one of the great ones, a source of listening pleasure all by itself. On top of that the guitar of Richard Thompson, the fiddle of Dave Swarbrick, and the strength of the songs the two wrote together. They were a cocky, assured, and very rocking band.
When Thompson went solo they did two more strong records for Island, Angel Delight and John Babbacombe Lee. (Angel Delight is my desert island disc, for what that's worth.) After that, it gets dodgy. Nine is solid, though, and the two they did for Vertigo, Bonny Bunch of Roses and Tippler's Tales, have a nice swagger to them. Subsequent line-ups, with Simon Nicol thrust into lead vocal duties, produced some songs of great strength, like "Jewel in the Crown," but otherwise seem to stand in the shadow of the band's past accomplishments.
This set can be considered an official bootleg, as so much of it is based on unreleased live recordings from BBC, Cropredy, and other sources. Rehearsal tape recordings from sessions leading up to Liege and Lief are particularly invaluable. There are plenty of nice surprises, like hearing Thompson singing "The Lady is a Tramp" from "Top Gear" in 1969. Some offerings are weirder, such as a 1974 live recording of "Sloth," a song that occupied a place in Fairport's set something like "Dark Star" in the Dead's. Thirty seconds into Pegg's wah wah bass extravaganza and you have an idea what Spinal Tap's "Jazz Odyssey" really sounded like.
Sound quality varies wildly from track to track, as the compilers admit, and listening to the alternate take or live version of a given song often drives one to put on the "proper" album track. That said, this is a set no one smitten with Fairport will long resist. All good bands should be so well served.
It should be mentioned that Schofield's Fairport history is, at the time of this writing, available separately from Free Reed.


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