With a licensed capacity of 20,000 the Cropredy weekend always comes very close to selling out, but this year, the word went out a week beforehand, all tickets sold, none would be available on the gate. 2007 was the last year this had happened, Fairport’s 40th birthday year and, depending on how you count them, maybe the 30th Cropredy. Thursday evening, there was much talk around the bar as to why this should be, a reflection perhaps of the resurgence of interest in folk and acoustic music? A quick T shirt survey and I’m inclined to the alternative view that appearances over the three days by prog rockers Steve Hackett, Marillion and The Australian Pink Floyd Show may have been the deciding factor. This being Folk Radio, though, we’ll focus on the folk, roots and Americana artists that made up the majority of the programme. I’d like to think that the variety and superb high quality of their performances might lead to a 2015 sell out when the converted prog fans return. One last comment has to be reserved for The Australian Pink Floyd Show, their combination of musicianship, theatrical laser show and Pink Floyd material made for a truly memorable climax to Friday evening; the 30 foot inflatable kangaroo advancing down stage will live long in the memory.
Cropredy makes a point of supporting youngsters starting out on their careers, reserving a Friday afternoon slot for the winners of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award. This year’s winners, the Mischa Macpherson Trio (photo below), presented a set that showcased all the qualities that make them stand out, even in the midst of today’s vibrant, healthy Scottish traditional music scene. Mischa’s clear, confident predominantly Gaelic vocals, Conal McDonagh’s beautifully executed solos and accompaniments on a mix of pipes and whistles and Innes White’s guitar providing either a rhythmic chord sequence or a melodic accompaniment produced a spellbinding atmosphere, no mean achievement in a field of 20,000 people. Mischa adds clarsach into this mix, and though she used it only sparingly in the Cropredy set, just seeing such a beautifully crafted instrument on stage became part of the magic. Although all three are graduates of the National Centre of Excellence in Traditional Music at Plockton on Scotland’s west coast, their coming together as a band was a product of individually being selected by Fèis Rois to be part of the Ross-shire based organisation’s annual Ceilidh Trail in 2011. The programme is designed to provide training in all aspects of being a touring musician and enabled them to tour both within the UK and internationally as part of the larger group whilst cementing their relationship as a trio.
This year Cropredy also provided a platform for musicians at an even earlier stage of their careers. The Birmingham Conservatoire provides a variety of music degree courses including an elective module in folk music. Since 1998 Joe Broughton has been director of this programme and from it has emerged the Conservatoire Folk Ensemble. As Joe put it, no one is turned away if they choose to make the elective part of their degree, but the touring ensemble is generally limited to 49 players. Why? Well, they fit into a coach. Cropredy is a big stage but the 44 students plus Joe, and fellow Urban Folk Quartet member Tom Chapman, not surprisingly, filled it with ease. In fact, it started out with 5 more as their first number was also Fairport Acoustic’s last. Joe Broughton’s stage presence is energetic whatever the setting but surrounded by that number of excited 18 to 22 year olds the energy and exuberance was contagious. The crowd was held spellbound for an hour of excellent entertainment blending influences from the realms of folk, jazz, Middle Eastern and North African music and combining them with a visual display to match. Knowing that the Ensemble has played some fairly small venues on tour, I had intended to ask Joe how they had coped. I didn’t need to as, following their set, they recorded a session for Bob Harris’s Under the Apple Tree, all squeezed into 2 garden gazebos and, amazingly, it worked (see photo below).
By its very nature the Ensemble doesn’t highlight individual performers but other, not much older, artists were given a great opportunity to display their talents during the weekend. Five musicians, now in their early 20s, met whilst students at York University and now make up the wonderfully named Blackbeard’s Tea Party. They’ve played together for around 5 years and a lot of people are sitting up and taking notice with the result that, in their own words, festival bookings have exploded this year. As with the Ensemble, the watch word is energy, BTP partly made their name as a ceilidh band and one has the impression that getting an audience dancing is still high up on their list of priorities. They lead by example, with all the front line of the band dashing around the stage either singly or collectively. I asked vocalist Stuart Giddens if they consciously programmed brief respites from this frenetic activity into their set lists. Turned out they’d just done that for the first time at Cropredy, helping him get his tongue round the non-stop lyrics of Come Landlord Fill the Flowing Bowl. Their combination of traditional and self-penned tunes with largely traditional lyrics is a heady mixture, if you can catch them at one of their upcoming festival appearances you’ll be guaranteed a great time.
Another youthful band making a big impact was Treetop Flyers, though their music couldn’t be more different. Much has been written about the strong West Coast America influences, which they duly acknowledged when they decamped to Zuma Sound, Malibu to record their debut album. But comparisons with the Laurel Canyon set of the 60s and early 70s don’t do justice to the song writing talents, musicianship and vocal harmonies of this 5 piece band. They presented a set dominated by their electric guitar driven rockier sound, but interlaced a quiet reflective song or two, harmony vocals and finger-picked acoustic guitar creating an atmosphere that could, in some cases literally, bring tears to the eyes. Having completed their set, they too went to the Under the Apple Tree gazebo and, playing four acoustic guitars with four voices, produced a different, equally stunning sound. A band packed full of talent and undoubtedly one to watch.
Benjamin Folke Thomas played his set as part of a 5 piece band (main image), the Swedish musicians who played on the Too Close to Here album released last autumn, plus Dave Burn from Orphan Colours and the late lamented Ahab, adding keyboards and mandolin. The band line up was ideally suited to playing a big event like Cropredy, producing a strong, rocky sound. Ben sneaked in one song with finger picked acoustic guitar to remind us of his mastery of that style and the sound that first brought him to Folk Radio’s attention.
Alongside these youngsters, well established acts provided lots more high quality music. Either side of Steve Hackett’s reworking of Genesis material on Thursday we had the delights of Capercallie and The Waterboys. Capercaillie are able to welcome Michael McGoldrick back into the line-up after his extended absence travelling the world with Sting and hearing again the interweaving of his flutes with Karen Mathieson’s voice sent shivers down the spine. The current Waterboys line-up is delivering satisfaction to both new and old fans. Their arrangements of classics such as Fisherman’s Blues and The Whole of the World still get crowds on their feet and in full voice whilst there’s plenty to enjoy in the new material.
Cara Dillon was an eagerly awaited treat on Saturday afternoon, performing with husband Sam Lakeman and a full band. She showcased material from her new album, A Thousand Hearts, alongside several of her classic songs. In conversation, she was clear that the five year gap since her previous album had been worth it, partly as it had given the two of them the opportunity to develop other activities such as producing and promoting Irish/Cornish duo Winter Mountain. That her new album had been so well received provided the final justification, she’s particularly proud of an appreciative Tweet from Ed Sheeren.
Reg Meuross has long been recognised for his melodic, beautifully observed songs and, more often than not, has toured them as a solo singer guitarist. Recording of his recent album, England Green & England Grey, was very much a ‘band’ project and, whilst he intends to continuing touring the new material solo or occasionally as a duo, he chose to put together a band for the Cropredy gig. A decision that was fully vindicated when his set was programmed to follow the high energy antics of Blackbeard’s Tea Party. The band ranged from long-time collaborators such as Martin Belmont on guitar and Roy Dodds on drums, through Mike Cosgrave from Jackie Oates’ band on keyboards and accordion to Jess Vincent, a singer song writer who, over the last couple of years, has often shared gigs with Reg. The line-up provided a perfect backing for Reg’s songs both new and old. Martin Belmont, in particular, provided guitar breaks either full on or sensitive but always well attuned to the songs.
Saturday night at Cropredy has always belonged to Fairport, usually with a set of 3 hours or more but this year was slightly different. Venerable singer song writer Al Stewart, originally from Glasgow but a long time California resident, was given a mid-evening spot in which he showed he was still master of the art, voice and guitar pleasing fans from almost 50 years back and winning new ones from those that may never have heard him before. This left Fairport with a 2 hour set and time to have just one guest join them, and that was Sally Barker, fresh from her appearances on The Voice and subsequent support spots with Tom Jones. Sally performed just one song, Sandy Denny’s classic Who Knows Where The Time Goes. Over the years, many excellent female singers have guested with Fairport at Cropredy to sing this, most recently Kellie and Chris While. Almost always they’ve given performances that don’t stray far from the style and phrasing of the original but Sally was brave enough to impose her own take on it, and it worked, beautifully.
After the obligatory opening with Walk Awhile, Fairport introduced a new Chris Leslie song that’s amongst those currently being recorded for their next album. By no means a typical Leslie number it was fast-paced, with a driving beat and went down well with the Cropredy audience. As Fairport know very well, it’s an audience that’s always easier to please with the old classics than new material, but this, and the other new songs they introduced, bode very well for their forthcoming release. A mix of the comfortably familiar and an exciting exploration of the new is at the heart of Cropredy’s success and this applies equally to Fairport’s set. This year the band very successfully navigated that path all the way to the traditional closing sequence of Matty Groves and Meet on the Ledge. The most enjoyable Fairport set I’ve experienced for several years. How many days is it until Cropredy 2015?
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Congratulations to Brian Cole who won our Cropredy Giveaway.