Summer is a coming, across the bridge and up the lane, to join the twenty thousand, come the sun or come the rain. Weather proofed for all occasions, Simon Jones ventures to Cropredy 2018.
Summer eh? Who’d have it? Weeks of hot weather, a glorious run of sunny days and the very occasional drop of rain. Sounds ideal conditions for a festival doesn’t it? Maybe not for water supply companies but for those of us who appreciate outdoor gigs…. well you always have to plan for all scenarios, signs however were basically more than promising.
It’s t shirts all round as I arrive on site – don’t ask they shut the M6 and diverted northerners around the complex roads of the midlands – only a few hours adrift of schedule, but I note that Police Dog Hogan are giving their all on the main stage in that glorious west country meets western manner mash up they present. Wild By The Side Of The Road was one of the best CDs to put a smile on your face last year and the rootsy rock from that carried over Cropredy laying a sympathetic bed for Oysterband. Still celebrating under the 40 Years banner, this was a slick performance, John Jones working the crowd with his every breath, Ian Telfer providing the tongue in cheek introductions whilst Alan Prosser, head down produced his ever thoughtful guitar lines which snaked in and around the English melodies and chunky rhythms from Al Scott on bass and new drummer Pete Flood, late of Bellowhead. Rachel McShane added a reedy cello strum to material at once familiar and utterly compelling. They pulled out all the stops and laid their best before us which the crowd naturally lapped up, Blood Wedding, Oxford Girl, All That Way For This, one after another the classics kept coming. “This is just like a party,” one lady nearby opined as she skipped her way to the front for what seemed like the fifth or sixth time.
What happened next could be seen as well out of the Cropredy slipstream but remember last year Fairport gave us Petula Clark, before now we’ve had the likes of Alice Cooper too, so this isn’t a festival scared of delivering the unexpected. I confess I’ve always had a soft spot for the Wilson brothers, when I was growing up my Dad, who knew a thing or two about music, had one of those old Beach Boys MFP albums entitled 15 Scorchers or some such, amongst its tracks were Help Me Rhonda and God Only Knows, I played them over and over as a boy, even when as a teenager I switched sides to the new wave, I’d still play that album. The rest of my life I kept a weather eye on what they were up to, all the many arguments and court cases, the drugs, is Brain in or out? What a story, if you’ve never read their biography by Steve Gaines (The True Story Of The Beach Boys) you should, it’s dynamite. Even when key personalities had passed on and the band was celebrating 50 years the squabbles carried on, That’s Why God Made The Radio is a brilliant autumnal collection from some of rock’s greatest elder statesmen, who’d have thought they’d still got it in them? Instead of building on the success the band split asunder basically into The Beach Boys with Mike Love and Brian Wilson with his friends and own musicians. So at 9.30pm on the dot Brian with other original Al Jardine, later Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin and a tight band, the majority of whom know those gorgeous harmonies down to the last note, strolled across the stage and for an hour plus turned Cropredy into California. Okay, maybe not quite but it sure felt similar… California Girls got us under way, Brain and Co delivering nigh on an hour’s worth of Greatest Hits. Al Jardine handled the car songs, his voice remarkably still untouched by the passage of years. Blondie Chaplin however was a revelation, he wandered on mumbled something into the microphone about Carl Wilson and turned Free Flows inside out, then did something similar to Wild Honey galloping around the stage, wringing screaming solos from his guitar more like a nineties grunge act than any sixties harmony surf combo. After three numbers he vanishes, having made what can only be described as a hell of an impact. Next up Brain announces in a somewhat excitable manner, “now we’re going to do the Pet Sounds album” and they do, the man himself recreating his lead vocals in suitable fashion, let’s be honest he isn’t a twenty something anymore, but he can still sing. God Only Knows and Good Vibrations were stand outs their revolutionary elements intact and spreading all over the fields and lanes around. Thursday ended with a big smile on its face.
Friday began with rain, just to add to it a bit more rain and the showers merged to make longer spells of rain. By mid-afternoon most people and things were wet. “It’s still raining then?” said Stevie from the press office when I went to check on my interview schedule. But there were bright spells amongst the murk, Jim Cregan was the brightest. In his substantial back catalogue he can boast Family, Linda Lewis and Cockney Rebel, he’s produced or done sessions for more name musicians than I’ve had hot dinners, chiefly though he worked and wrote with Rod Stewart for fifteen years or so. That gives him one hell of a stage show, his band & Co, contains a slick bunch of musicians themselves well experienced playing with the likes of Roger Daltrey, Jeff Beck, ex Faces and Mick Hucknall. This was good time rock, it made even the soggiest audience member shake their tail feathers, best moment when collective Faiports came out with mandolins to echo Ray Jackson’s memorable improvisation on Maggie May. The rain stopped early evening, even dried up somewhat, anorak hoods were removed and heads once more revealed, Le Vent Du Nord, hit us with a whirl wind set of Quebec reels and jigs, folk rocked with funky bass and cheesy keyboard, then six foot six worth of Fish offered up proggery in its finest array. Friday’s honours though went to headliners Levellers who arrived one bass player down and had a quick fire rehearsal after almost wholesale assimilation of the Moulettes. We The Collective saw them strip their sound right down and practically rebuild several classic tracks working with a string quartet, hence the Moulettes, all recorded in the hallowed walls of Abbey Road, “ the building couldn’t help but influence what we came up with,” Simon Friend related before the gig, “ just to be in that space was special.” So, instead of the usual tumbling, strident set we got those same messages delivered with thought, pause and relaxed so the lyrics which Mark Chadwick sang, resonated even more effectively. Some sad individuals left early not appreciating the change, shame they should have given the band time and opportunity to show that sometimes more is less.
Saturday promised fair, “ah,” said the steward on the gate, “but they’ve given rain for five this afternoon.” Such unbridled optimism! Undoubted hit of Saturday were the Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican, really nothing at all to do with Val other than a similarity in knit wear and not a rocking chair in sight – shame that. In reality a bunch of sunny lunatics from Barnsley who not only rocked with accordion, banjo and acoustic guitar but crowd surfed in a rubber dinghy. Don’t believe me, check out YouTube, the evidence is preserved on the net! They are totally bonkers and kept up their characters all weekend, even wandering round the field, ordering drinks, in wigs and tank tops they were every inch a Doonican. They almost kept it up, all the way through my interview, if we hadn’t got a fit of the giggles when trying to be really serious. What’s more remarkable is that they’ve been going twelve years and have kept their youthful looks – ahem! – though by disembowelling popular songs for example Fernando by a certain Swedish quartet and resetting it in Nandos, ( I leave you to figure out the lyrics for yourself,) the root of their material is pure comedy. Walking In Memphis has words no one should listen to whilst eating but they are hilarious as for crowd surfing in a rubber dinghy with shouted orders of “ left, right, reverse, stage,” well it was just what was need to send Cropredy over the top. You should have seen the queue for CDs after. The Afro Celt Soundsystem have been variously reported as together and then spilt over the past couple of years, amid much argy bargy effectively there are now two bands, it was Simon Emmerson’s version which entered the stage complete with a gospel choir just as the 5 o’clock rain began pretty much bang on time. It came down in bullets but fairplay to the Afro Celts they dug in and delivered loops, samples and assorted electronica over which to bounce a bewildering clutch of influences from sean nos singing to dohl drumming and all stops in between. The Source last year’s album was deeply mined with dazzling results, their blend of technology and tradition was captivating and just what was needed, up went those hoods again, umbrellas bobbed and wellies shuffled.
Following, Al Stewart with a couple of acoustic guitars and best chum David Nachmanoff might have seemed a bit tame but the wise amongst us know Stewart has a stack of melodic, well-structured material upon which he can call to charm any crowd. He was only at Cropredy a few years back but once again proved his worth with a set packed with classics and surprises. Up popped Ralph McTell and the days of Les Cousins were recalled in a gentle fashion as they delivered a rough cut but charming version of Jackson Frank’s Blues Run The Game. For that moment in an unplugged set their performance was totally apt.
Unlike last year when every moment was fireworks, reassembling as much of past line ups as they could, this year’s Fairport set was very low key, former members came in the shape of Iain Matthews who fronted a very different, slowed down arrangement of Rising For The Moon and Maart Allcock who obviously enjoyed himself played acoustic guitar in Convention’s opening set on Thursday and here an electric. Among the guests Winter, Wilson with an efficient It’ll Take a Long, Long Time and the redoubtable PJ Wright who always struck me as having great similarities to Trevor Lucas, here though tackled more Denny Bushes & Briars. And Fairport were Fairport, a musical bunch of best mates playing their own distinctive yesterdays and todays. Mob handed there was the inevitable sing along Meet On The Ledge, “ it all comes round again,” they sang, and yes the winter tour is booked they’ll be at a town near you in January or more than likely before that in one of the plentiful spin offs they gleefully participate in.
However there was nothing quiet about what has to be THE Fringe performance of 2018, it came early on Thursday at The Braesnose pub, down in Cropredy village, after a more than welcome reunion set for Oxfordshire folk rockers Clarion, whose muscular rock’n’reel proved they ought to do more than pub gigs every eight years or so. For some that might have been enough but increasing crowd numbers told you something was afoot. From the north-west they came, Wigan and just outside Chester to be precise, Merry Hell sound exactly like as they should, this is northern rock if ever there was. Rock however of a different stripe, blessed with killer hooks, tumbling melodies and catchy sing along lyrics, they sing of the everyday, what’s around them, where they live, what’s right, what’s wrong. Harmonies are key to their music with twin vocalists who’re polar opposites, Andrew Kettle sings like he’s got sandpaper caught in his throat whereas Virginia Kettle (sister in law) has more soul and depth, they contrast and combine superbly. Guitarist John prowls the stage with a punk passion and Clash like technique, at one point even hanging off the rigging, imploring the crowd to singalong. Merry Hell are in reality the ultimate people’s band and the people knew it, the merchandise stall was raided and several came away with the band’s total recorded works in their fist. To say that Merry Hell went for it would be a massive understatement, they played to their strengths, got everybody on side and produced a blinder of a gig. Festival organisers take note, their potential is great, they’re wholly relevant and crowd pleasers par excellence.
In many ways that Cropredy as well, place and people in perfect harmony. There is no other festival like it. Same time next year then? Sorted.