Cropredy, with a 20,000 capacity, is far and away the biggest festival I attend. Yet, until you stand at the top end of the arena field and see the main camping area stretching away into the distance, it really feels no different from a festival like Wickham that’s a quarter of its size. I guess that’s one of the reasons it inspires such devoted followers, people who return year after year, irrespective of who’s on the bill. It’s a gathering of friends, they may not see each other from one August to the next but for those few days each year they’re the best of mates.
In some respects it’s pretty basic, there’s just one stage, set in an open field, if it’s raining you get wet. If you insist on staying dry, you go back to your tent or car, there isn’t an alternative! There’s just one bar and that’s open to the elements as well. But what a bar, it serves Wadworth beers and they take care of supplies by bringing along the largest road tanker they have, with somewhere around 50,000 litres capacity. And, you know, it’s never enough. They’re a Wiltshire Brewery but the super friendly bar staff largely ship themselves down from Yorkshire. Why? Neil Cutts managed the bar for many years until his untimely death in 2006 and he was former landlord of the White Bear in Masham, North Yorkshire. It tells you something about a festival when even the bar staff return year after year. Did I mention there was just the one bar? Well, that goes for backstage as well, artists who fancy a pint after their set just have to muck in with the rest of us.
The music runs from 4 o’clock on Thursday afternoon to midnight on Saturday, bookended by Fairport Convention. They play a short acoustic set to get the ball rolling on Thursday and close with a mammoth set, 3 hours plus, on Saturday night. In between you can expect folk to be well represented but the watchword is ‘eclectic’. The programming is still very much a reflection of current and long standing musical tastes of Fairport themselves. Well, Dave Pegg really, but he does talk to the rest of the gang, honestly. And so it was that this year, Thursday’s headline act was Alice Cooper. In the run up to the festival some Cropredy regulars were predicting “the end of the festival as we know it” with shock rock fans rampaging the site once Alice had left the building. No such thing happened, Friday dawned and the little world that is Cropredy carried on as normal. Hardened folkies were praising a thoroughly enjoyable slice of rock music theatre and Alice, bless him, changed his Facebook status to “Who knew that the best Rock’n’Roll audience of the tour would be at the Cropredy 2013 Folk Festival”
It’s become something of a Cropredy tradition that the opening slot on Friday is given to the winners of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk award. Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar showed just what worthy winners they were with a top notch set. They write their own songs and tunes, they’re first class musicians, Greg has a powerful voice that is mature way beyond his years and together they have a stage presence that winningly commands attention. Ok, one note of gentle criticism, Ciaran, forget the cheese jokes. Their performance showed just why they’ve been in such demand since winning the award in January. They will cut back on touring come October so they can fit in some recording. All this when Greg is taking a year out from his university degree and Ciaran will be taking his A level exams at the end of next year. They’re a phenomenal talent and, as Ciaran said, they’re in no doubt about wanting to forge a musical career; A levels are a plan B. Fingers crossed that both plans A and B come to fruition for them.
Leading on from such a performance, so firmly grounded in a traditional style, it was time for something completely different. Danny and the Champions of the World are long established as Folk Radio UK favourites but this was the first opportunity I’d had to see a live set. There’s no sitting down for such good times, rootsy music so, along with a couple of American friends, it was a matter of weaving through the crowd to the front. Danny, sometimes in collaboration with Chris Clarke (bass), writes most of the songs and he’s been around the business a long time. So, as we listened, it was fun to play “spot the influences” with Steve. He proposed The Band era Dylan, I countered with Little Feat and we both plumped for Springsteen. But don’t for one moment think of Danny’s music as derivative, this was high quality original stuff we were listening to. Talking with Danny later, he happily agreed to our proposed influences and added Grateful Dead and even pre-Liege and Leaf Fairport. The Champs have been a fairly loose accumulation of musicians in the past but are currently a fairly stable 5 piece, drums, bass, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and organ/sax. Mind you, they added pedal steel and trumpet to the Cropredy line up and Danny teased that the band might “expand a bit” for the next album. They’re touring the UK and Ireland during the rest of this year and there’s an album, Stay True, ready for release in September. Priority 1: get out and see them live, next best thing, get hold of Stay True when it’s released.
The nearest comparable music came from The Dunwells, a band that grew out of the Leeds pub and club circuit but which has been thrust to prominence after being “discovered” in the States and signed to the Playing in Traffic label. Having been put into the unusual position of being better known in America than at home, they’ve set about correcting that by releasing a distinctively UK version of their debut album, now called Follow the Road. This was reviewed and made a featured album on Folk Radio UK back in May. The band’s Cropredy set was more full-on electric than the album but the strength of their vocal harmonies, all five of the band sing, was still a major feature. Joe and David Dunwell later showed just how acoustic they can be, performing a short set for Radio Oxford, just two voices and two acoustic guitars.
For a second successive weekend I was able to enjoy the highly distinctive sounds of The Moulettes, also long time friends of Folk Radio UK. Drawing together band member’s previous experience of playing folk, classical and prog rock, the result is arresting music that not surprisingly defies categories. As at Wickham the previous week, their performance won them legions of new followers, the queues at the signing tent testament to their great popularity. The band has never been slow to bring in guest musicians but the core group of Hannah Miller (cello), Ollie Austin (drums and guitar) and Ruth Skipper (bassoon) was joined by bassist Jim Mortimore when original member Ted Dwane moved on to Mumford and Sons. Just this last year they welcomed new violinist, Anisa Arslanagic and further change is ahead. Ruth will be taking a back seat for the next year as she completes her medical training. The band are currently auditioning but, as Ollie said, bassoon playing sopranos are pretty thin on the ground.
Edward II had the potentially tricky task of playing the set before Alice Cooper but, 14 years on from when they’d last played Cropredy, their intriguing combination of traditional tunes and Caribbean reggae received just as enthusiastic a reception. Simon Care was happy to explain just what had been going on in the intervening years. The original Edward II came to a halt in 1999 with 3 members heading off to Ethiopia. The next year Simon formed a part of E2K, but, whereas Edward II had been one of a kind with its trad folk reggae combination, Simon felt that E2K strayed towards territory that was already being explored by the Afro Celts and so E2K didn’t last beyond 2003. Meanwhile, Tee Carthy and Glen Letouche returned from Africa and started gigging with a more mainstream reggae line up. Fast forward to 2009 and the various members of the 1999 Edward II looked around and realised that no one had filled their niche. Maybe it was time for a 10th anniversary reunion. The gigs that summer went down a storm and, subsequently, they played several festivals in 2012 and this year just Cropredy and the Great British Folk Festival at Skegness. So Edward II is far from a full time band and Simon himself keeps busy gigging with the Morris On band and the Albion Christmas Band but also with his artist management and booking agency.
Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman have had a dream year. With their twin daughters reaching five last year, family responsibilities had started to leave a little breathing space that they rapidly filled by recording and releasing their first album since 2003. Hidden People immediately garnered praise from all quarters with one track, The Ballad of Andy Jacobs, being nominated for best original song at the 2013 Folk Awards. On the night, Kathryn and Sean went one better, winning the Best Duo category. Their Cropredy set, not surprisingly, drew heavily on tracks from the album and also included traditional songs both British and American, all presented with trade mark spine tingling vocals from Kathryn and perfectly tuned arrangements. The extended family break over, we can look forward to plenty more magic from them but it will be produced on their own timescale. Not for them the pressures to produce an album every year, they acknowledge how fortunate they are, having a home that contains a first class recording studio, and they’re determined to use it to their advantage.
Both Lúnasa and The Peatbog Faeries had played Wickham the previous weekend but it was at Cropredy where I had the chance to talk with them. Lúnasa’s set showed again just what masters of Irish music they are, traditional to a large degree but also with a very distinctive modern twist with the driving powerhouse of Ed Boyd’s guitar and Trevor Hutchinson’s double bass, their rhythms bringing influences from jazz and world music. The interplay between this and the front line instruments of Sean Smyth’s fiddle, Kevin Crawford’s flutes and whistles and Cillian Valelly’s uillean pipes is what sets Lúnasa apart and makes them such a great festival act. When I had a mid-afternoon chat with Sean, he’d already been up for 12 hours, having flown in from Galway that morning. He reckons the key to the band’s longevity is that whilst it exists primarily for touring, they’re not living in each other’s pockets when not on the road. In his case, that means having a distinct non-musical life as a GP in Galway. Much earlier in his medical career he worked in a mission hospital in Zambia, giving him his first taste of African music, a love of which has stayed with him and helped his own music to develop.The Peatbog Faeries headlined the last night at Wickham, a timing that ideally suited their driving Celtic dance sound. Their Cropredy slot was a bit more of a challenge, early Saturday evening, as the crowd was working up their expectations of the Fairport megaset to come. The band needn’t have worried, the pulse of their rhythms underlying fiery pipes, whistle and fiddle solos, that are then layered up, produces an irresistible music that the Cropredy audience had no intention of resisting. Some new tunes formed part of the set, material being road tested for an album next year. The band will continue touring in the UK before heading to Australia for 3 weeks in January, returning in time for Celtic Connections for which they’re planning an audio visual piece with their tour lighting director.
Fairport’s closing set is always one of the most hotly debated topics by Cropredy regulars, before, during and after the weekend. Before, it’s usually about who the surprise guests might be and afterwards even the most devoted followers can be quite scathingly critical if they feel the set wasn’t a classic. People with 20 or 30 Cropredies to look back on have a lot of classic Saturday nights for comparison. The first surprise was before Fairport even came on stage, a 10 minute stand up routine from Jasper Carrot. Once Fairport start, there are a few things you can be sure of, there’ll be songs and tunes from just about every era of the band and, somewhere towards the end, Matty Groves will die, again. This year’s guests were a mixture of the predictable, Martin Barre and Nik Kershaw having played sets earlier, stayed around to share the stage with Fairport, and the unexpected, Tom Robinson called in and had everyone singing along to 2,4,6,8 Motorway, Kellie While added just the right female voice to give Who Knows Where The Time Goes the same jaw dropping qualities it had when Sandy Denny sang it. It was such a pity that Kellieb was only on stage for the one song. For a while, Fairport have been involved with a French folk/rock opera production, Excalibur. James Wood and Pat O’May from this production were the final guests, doing a couple of the Excalibur songs.
And then, as midnight strikes, it’s time for the one absolute certainty of the night, everyone crowds back onto stage and 20,000 people join in the choruses of Meet on the Ledge – “If you really mean it, it all comes round again” You bet it will.
Review by: Johnny Whalley