All but a handful previously unreleased, these 72 tracks serve up an alternate history of Fairport Convention in a manner that doesn't simply befit Britain's longest-running folk-rock soap opera, it actually amplifies the group's achievements beyond any past (or possibly future) collection ever could. The "official" story of the band, after all, can be traced on any number of collections, ranging from the original 1972 History Of album through to 1998's Fiddlestix and 2001's Some of Our Yesterdays. The group's often superior outtakes, radio sessions, and live odds and ends, however, have generally been scattered piecemeal across a plethora of other releases, many of which don't even appear under Fairport's own banner -- anthologies of Sandy Denny, Ashley Hutchings, and Richard Thompson, odd folk collections, passing label samplers, and so much more all bear treasures that even the hardcore collector might have missed. Fairport Unconventional, though it by no means scoops up each and every one of these, does at least reference them in the accompanying voluminous (170-page) booklet, then sets out to offer even more esoteric fare, drawn from sources as disparate as early TV and radio sessions, world tours, session outtakes, rehearsal tapes, and festival dates, spanning the full history of the band. Indeed, the earliest performance is a 1967 recording that marks the band's first-ever demo, and the latest is a cut from 2002's XXXV 35th anniversary album. In between, there's probably not a "favorite" Fairport song that doesn't get an airing, be it a BBC broadcast of the epic "Tam Lin," a live take on "Sloth" with Denny unexpectedly audible on the chorus, a Liege & Lief-era stab at "Sir Patrick Spens," or a Cropredy reading of "The Hiring Fair."
The fact that the all-star Cropredy gathering itself is responsible for only nine of the 24 post-1979 tracks included speaks volumes for the versatility of this compilation. Another area in which Fairport Unconventional stands alone is in its refusal to bow to the tyrannies of chronology. Rather, the four CDs are presented in strictly thematic style -- even the first disc, "Fairport -- A History," only arranges the song titles themselves in chronological order. The performances themselves date from all over the place. Of the other discs, "Rareport Convention" emphasizes live and session recordings, "A Fairport History" purports to teach the history of Britain through folk ballad and rocker, and "Classic Convention" re-creates the "ultimate" Fairport compilation from the ultimate Fairport rarities. A Pete Frame family tree poster, the Cropredy Chronicles souvenir booklet, a wealth of related flyers, a mail-order fifth CD of Cropredy rarities, and the aforementioned historical/discographical booklet complete a well-stuffed package, but perhaps the most notable inclusion is the penultimate track on the fourth CD. "The Matty Groves Megamix" is a seven-minute tapestry built up from any number of different performances of that particular song, one line at a time. It's a remarkable concept, an astonishing execution, and a true labor of love. Just like the box set itself.