The weakest of Free Reed's four CDs rounding up the best of Fairport Convention's unreleased archive, Classic Convention takes what purports to be the band's "core repertoire" -- that is, songs that have survived in every different lineup's repertoire -- then unearths new (or at least, unfamiliar) versions of them all. No complaints with the song selection. From "Walk Awhile" to "Sloth," from "Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman" to "Matty Groves" (and not forgetting the ever-ubiquitous "Meet on the Ledge"), it would be hard to find any one song that should have been shunted aside for another. The problems are with the actual performances. "Farewell Farewell" and "Crazy Man Michael" are both taken from a rough 1969 rehearsal tape that scarcely manages to raise itself above the perfunctory; "John Gaudie," from a 1998 show at the Bottom Line, really doesn't sparkle above any of the other live versions knocking around in tape-land; while even the liner notes confess that the version of "Walk Awhile," drawn from a 1970 Island label sampler, is only "slightly different" from the familiar LP take. "Matty Groves" is even more disappointing -- the song has been through so many variations over its years in Fairport's repertoire that it would be impossible to find any one that pleases everybody. But taking almost all of them and then knitting them together into a lengthy medley does not allow any interpretation to shine and ultimately becomes little more than an annoyance.
There are a handful of gems, of course. A pristine 1968 radio version of "Meet Me on the Ledge" is positively lovely, while a 1976 version of "Hexhamshire Lass," recorded during Dan Ar Bras' short-lived stay with the band, highlights both the perceived strengths and the potential pitfalls of that particular collaboration. For the serious Fairport historian, it's one of the most exciting tracks in the entire Free Reed series, and more than compensates for the remainder of this album's shortcomings.