Simon Jones spent a weekend in a quiet corner of north Oxfordshire.
It’s mid-afternoon Thursday, Cropredy hasn’t begun yet, as I wait in queue for a drink, two women are in heated debate about who has the more vitriolic arguments with their respective husbands “ well, there was the time he said…” “ that’s nothing, you should have been there when…” So it went on, all the way to the bar, where they spoke pleasantly to the bar man, ordered two huge white wines and then toddled off returning to the dispute about who had the more vicious tongue. Genuinely it was the only negative incident for the whole weekend. Elsewhere, everybody is all smiles, grins and hearty slaps on the back, it’s infectious, I know, it says so on the T shirt a bloke is wearing standing backstage looking a bit perplexed and not a little lost. How he got backstage is a mystery, a helpful soul of a steward ushers him onto the main field with a smile and a never mind look on his face. But that’s how it is round here, this is Cropredy, the most friendly festival I know without a doubt, this year it comes with added cheerfulness. This year more than any other it’s all about Fairport Convention; the simple reason is that they’ve been Fairport Convention for half a century, that’s fifty years.
“The thing is,” observes Simon Nicol, “I can’t believe this band is fifty and I’m still in it! I am genuinely proud and humbled by it all. We’re a cheery bunch of survivors.”
The current incarnation of that cheery bunch launched the event with a brief acoustic set and warmest wishes to all before Feast of Fiddles featuring virtually every folk bowman you could name who isn’t Jon Boden, backed by a tight rock backline, offered up a delightfully varied set some juiced up reeling and wackily adapted TV/film themes. Trevor Horn and band featuring Lol Crème of 10cc belted out recreations of their writing/production backgrounds from I’m Not In Love to Slave To The Rhythm, Video Killed The Radio Star via a storming guest slot from Russ Ballard dusting off Since You’ve Been Gone/ God Gave Rock’n’Roll To You. It all got a little bizarre when Matt Cardle – yes, that Matt Cardle – wandered on, but there was no doubting the effectiveness of his vocal to deliver a thudding take on Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon headlining, dressed as Napoleon was quirky, a left field addition to the bill his eloquent creations especially National Express mixed with more recent fare shows how far Cropredy has travelled from its original rootsy beginnings.
Friday ran with the unexpected theme when Petula Clark playing her first ever festival brought showbiz and 60s easy listening to a field in deepest Oxfordshire. “It’s like being at a West End theatre,” whispered the wife before disappearing to the front for a better look at Pet. In fact I’ve got to admit Miss Clark held the stage and worked it with thorough professionalism, and I’d forgotten how many hits she actually achieved – 21 in the Top 40 says the official charts website! She gave us stories about dancing with Charlie Chaplin and conveyed her class pop material, Downtown, Don’t Sleep In The Subway, I Know A Place, with a sympathetic ensemble to excellent effect. Deserving of the thunderous applause, who could follow that? Richard Thompson that’s who! God was on fire, backed by Pegg, Nicol and Mattacks along with Christine Collister on vocals this was when Fairport’s celebratory touch paper was officially lit. He began acoustically – good enough, Valerie chugged along though when the Full House line up plugged in and RT got his hands on an electric guitar we shifted into fifth gear. Let’s face it this was Utopia for the assembled, Wall Of Death saw Thompson howl, Nicol’s rhythmic jangle rode the assured bass of Dave Pegg and the thunder of Dave Mattacks drums. Few come better than this and if you weren’t there, then you missed out, just pray they’d got the recorder switched on.
Earlier in the day The Gigspanner Big Band blended their classical, Celtic sensibilities with the blues and Indian tinges of Hannah Martin and Phillip Henry, King Of The Fairies trading licks and runs between Irish and Indo fusion, Dublin met Delhi as Peter Knight’s silken fiddle merged with Henry’s sitar bent guitar licks. Equally well received Birmingham roots rockers Quill – who’d even recorded a special Cropredy EP to mark the occasion, balanced jigs and AOR in a crowd pleasing set. Having reinvented their sound and image after unfortunate circumstances robbed them of their leader, his widow Joy Strachan Brain, elected to continue. Enlisting ex Move and ELO drummer Bev Bevan has given them some meaning and heft, seems he’ll be doing some writing too. Meanwhile “it was Robert Plant who came to see a show and loved what we were doing,” Joy reveals when I speak to her afterwards, “he phoned Peggy and here we are.” Elated and expectant they depart for a Bob Harris session.
Oh and it rained ever so slightly on Friday evening. Saturday however dawns hot and gets hotter. My daughter tells me I need a hat or I’ll get a sun burnt head, so I settle for a baseball cap from one of the charity stalls and contemplate a day packed with Fairport Convention and associated ventures. Noon sees Ashley Hutchings with a new take of Morris On. “ I still have a dream,” melodeon player Simon Care explains to me, after all it was he and not the Guv’nor who curated the gig, “ I want to put on stage the original five players from the Morris On album, I get the feeling John Kirkpatrick would have done it if Barry Dransfield had said yes.” Today Simon had to settle for three of them, Hutchings, Dave Mattacks and Richard Thompson, add in Simon Nicol and an array of younger bodies and this was as jolly and English a start as you could have wished for. The crowd waved hankies in time to an age old Morris tune and a whole troop of ribboned dancers got to caper around the stage as RT rocked out the tradition perfectly.
Next to impress were Plainsong, who I thought had split up… “ well yes, we had,” guitarist Andy Roberts shrugs his shoulders, “ that doesn’t mean that Iain (Matthews,) Mark (Griffiths) and myself wouldn’t work together anymore, just not as Plainsong. Then we hit on the idea of making an album in tribute to Richard Farina. (American poet, songwriter and musician once married to Mimi Baez, died too early in 1966 age 29.) With the three of us involved it seemed daft not to call it Plainsong, so here we are.” And there they are on stage creating new interpretations of Farina’s material with chiming acoustic guitars, keening harmonies and electric picking/slide work from Griffiths, giving the set an ethereal feel and atmospherics tuned to another place but relevant as ever to any time. Cats In Space reference the pop rock of bands like Rainbow or Whitesnake and prowl the stage with leathers, long hair tossed in sympathy with meandering guitar solos. The lead singer points a lot, wears shades through which he obviously can’t see that much whilst the band pose and do what rockers do. Most of them are in Sweet and fill an hour with melodic riffs and memorable pomp, even if it didn’t quite chime with the overarching theme of Convention. Marillion, returning after a brief absence of a couple of years, crafted individual music which defines them as ploughing their own furrow. Steve Hogarth reminds me of Runrig’s former singer Donnie Munro the way he prowls a stage and appeals to the crowd, Cropredy telescoped his every move and gave the band whose music has more in common these days with the likes of Muse and Coldplay, a roar of approval for doing things their own way.
So we came to Fairport Convention. Fifty years is a long while – we won’t quibble over a few when they technically only existed for a couple of days per year, questions abounded; exactly what to select, what to leave out, who to invite, who to pay tribute to, in their life time Fairport have had quite a few blown off their mountain by the wind. All weekend there had been much chuntering and wild speculation amongst the cognoscenti, amongst the more amusing…. Jimmy Page had been rehearsing for a guitar slinger face off with Richard Thompson recreating the time Fairport jammed with Zeppelin on a 1970 US tour. They were going to revive tracks from the much maligned Gottle O’Geer album with Roger Burridge and Bob Brady. They’d play the songs from The Manor Tapes – a long bootlegged session when the band had Canadian David Rea in the ranks for a month or so. Faiport were going to more or less play Unhalfbricking, Liege & Lief as well as Full House in total since those were the most influential albums.
So it went on, the more level headed just looked forward to one hell of a concert. Ironically one of the most complete line ups they could reconvene was their first, who took to the stage blasting out Time Will Show The Wiser from their debut with Mr. T’s blistering guitar stabs reminding us that it was his playing which first attracted Joe Boyd to invest time and money in the young Convention. “We were all about American singer songwriters in the early days,” Ashley Hutchings revealed as they cantered into a freewheeling version of Reno Nevada great lead vocal from Iain Matthews, I Don’t Know Where I Stand with suitably willowy lead from initial vocalist Judy Dyble. Morphing time once again saw Chris While join the survivors of Liege & Lief to traverse the journey of pure folk song into harder, electric guise. Special mention here for Chris Leslie standing in for the departed Swarb, he did more than efficient substitution putting his heart and soul into the Swarbrick’s vocals and fiddle work, an amazing thing to watch. Best of all was the fact they avoided the obvious, Tam Lin and The Deserter making welcome returns. Ashley Hutchings departed which left the Full House alumni plus Chris Leslie to add the red meat of Poor Will & The Jolly Hangman, Sloth and a sublime Now Be Thankful, Thompson and Nicol grinning like school boys as if they’d just been given the keys to the door of the local sweet shop. Brittle, spikey, loud and life affirming stuff to these ears they delivered the high spot of the set, that was Fairport in their glory. The dark, almost gothic tales they spun need that combination of musicians and personalities to ignite, tonight,believe me, there were fireworks. Then it was a revolving door of guests as the Lucas and Denny years mixed with Woodworm era material, two standouts Sally Barker’s take on Rising For The Moon, whilst Maartin Allcock’s Surfeit Of Lampreys reminded us all of his instrumental contribution to later versions of the band. Plaudits to Dave Mattacks who anchored most of the set dashing between drums and keyboards. You knew the end was coming when the current Fairport delivered the mantra Our Bus Rolls On, “we maybe be old but we’re going to carry on because we love what we do,” shouted a very excited Ric Sanders, huge cheers from the thousands in the meadow. As is always the case proceedings closed with Meet On The Ledge where celebration meets remembrance and as one band with crowd swear it all comes round again.
And it will, next August, but they’ll have to pull a rabbit out of the hat to beat 2017 it was unique in so many ways.