Fairport’s gathering in the Oxfordshire village of Cropredy is just 2 years away from celebrating its 40th anniversary. It’s inevitably seen changes in that time but many of the things people value most have stayed remarkably constant, the single stage, the open field arena, the only bar being shared by audience and artists alike. Talking with regulars, there’s a common perception that the range of music has become much broader over the years. Looking at artist listings for the last 15 years, since the event expanded to three days, it’s hard to detect much of a trend, but prior to then, with the exception of various blues bands and a notable appearance by The Bootleg Beatles, the music was pretty solidly folk and folk rock. Since 2000, there has been a greater variety with prog rock having a fairly consistent presence alongside a wide range of folk, roots, country and plain old fashioned rock. Folk Radio gives itself a pretty broad remit and so there’s still plenty going down at Cropredy that appeals to us. At the rockier end of folk music, this year we could look forward to recently formed English folk rockers, TRADarrr, to Skerryvore, celebrating their first decade of making top notch Scottish folk rock and, of course, to Fairport Convention themselves, showcasing their newly released, and very well received, Myths and Heroes album. On the quieter side of life, Kevin Dempsey and Rosie Carson could be relied upon to deliver quality guitar, fiddle and harmonies and it’s a treat to discover the youngsters who won the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award playing the opening set on Friday, a time slot now traditionally reserved for the winners.
This year, it was Talisk, a Glasgow based trio comprised of concertina player Mohsen Amini, fiddler Hayley Keenan and guitarist Craig Irving. Their music draws on the Irish as well as the Scottish tradition and generally cracks along at a lively pace with concertina and fiddle vying for the lead, driven by Craig’s guitar. The musicianship is phenomenal, the enthusiasm infectious and guaranteed to put a smile on your face. The trio only came together in August 2014 and clearly established an instant rapport, carrying them to success not only in the BBC Folk Awards but also winning the Danny Kyle Award at this year’s Celtic Connections and shortlisted in this year’s Scots Trad Music Awards for Up and Coming Artist of the Year. They released a 3 track EP, Pinnacle 67, in time for their festival appearances this summer and promise a full album in 2016. They’re already reaping the rewards of their competition successes with a very full gig calendar for 2016 taking them to all parts of the UK and with a US tour a possibility.
Some very familiar faces took to the stage when TRADarrr played their set on Thursday afternoon. P J Wright, Guy Fletcher, Mark Stevens and Mark Jolley have long played together in Little Johnny England and so are no strangers to Cropredy. But the presence of Marion Fleetwood (The Jigantics and The Gerry Colvin Band) and Gregg Cave (solo album reviewed here) between them taking the majority of the lead vocals ensured there was no mistaking that this was a demonstrably different band. Two further members add yet more distinctive elements, Phil Bond on keyboards and Gemma Shirley, a classically trained singer and violinist. That’s eight musicians, most of whom are multi-instrumentalists, ample resources to present the full range of material from the band’s debut album cautionary tales. And so we were treated to drummer Mark Stevens doubling up on cornet to give the mariachi flavour to the English Folk Song Suite, Guy taking over on drums and Marion forsaking her fiddle for cello. Yes, eight musicians would be ample, but in classic Cropredy tradition, several guest musicians who’d played on the album were around the festival site and inevitably joined the party. So, Chris Leslie reprised his lead vocal on Whitsundance, Ric Sanders added fiddle on several numbers including the Morris tunes, Princess Royal and Upton Stick Dance forming a fiddle trio with Guy and Marion, alongside a trio of first class box players, Simon Care, Gareth Turner and Kristaps Fisher. As a further treat, prolific songwriter Pete Scrowther was tempted out of retirement in his Swiss retreat to take a couple of vocals. A memorable set indeed that, as with many of the best Cropredy happenings, will be hard to repeat. TRADarrr, however, certainly aren’t going away, with gigs in their diary stretching on into 2016.
Hailing originally from the Hebridean island of Tiree and now based in Glasgow, Skerryvore tend not to be found south of the border anything like often enough for their ever growing English fan base. So, the chance to see them at Cropredy was one not to be missed. In celebration of their tenth anniversary this year they’ve revisited and re-worked songs from throughout their decade, releasing a selection on an album suitably titled Decade. Their Cropredy set, then, was something of a stroll down memory lane for established fans and gave new ones a great introduction to the variety and strength of their songs. This was Celtic folk rock at its finest, driving anthems pushed along at pace by drums and bass with a heady meld of guitar, accordion, fiddle and keyboards punctuated by Martin Gillespie’s highland pipes to raise both volume and the good times feel. In contrast, slower, quieter pieces allowed full rein to Alec Dalglish’s vocals with Martin switching to whistles. The Cropredy audience lapped it up, the front of the crowd turning into a jumping, waving mass of humanity. If you want to experience this, Skerryvore are out and about this autumn, including a handful of English dates in mid-November.
ahab (lower case, Ahab refers to a German “funeral doom metal” outfit, how’s that for a sub- sub-genre?) delighted Cropredy with their alt country sound back in 2010, an appearance that helped propel them on to an international career until, in 2013, they decided to go their (almost) separate ways. So, there was quite a buzz this year when the band chose Cropredy for a one-off, reunion appearance. Their performance most decidedly didn’t disappoint. Such a delight to hear many of the old songs again and, on stage, the lads showed the same old enthusiasm for their music. They were so obviously pleased to be performing together again. Not surprisingly, the question for old fans and new recruits alike was – “Was this really just a one-off reunion?” Talking with them immediately afterwards, positive emotions were running high and a lot of the chat was about how much they’d enjoyed themselves back on the Cropredy stage. There was also much reminiscing about their past ways of working together. With four songwriters in the band, choosing which songs to work on was never going to be easy. The kitchen table sessions came to the rescue, regularly meeting up there and no matter who came along with a new song, it pretty much had to get four ‘yes’ votes to be certain of making it into an ahab set. There was talk that, maybe, they could record together again but, with so many other projects on the go, it might be safer not to hold your breath. (Please prove me wrong guys.)
Cropredy was just one high spot in an incredibly busy year for six piece folk-punk band Skinny Lister who recently premiered their new video for Six Whiskies on Folk Radio UK (watch it here). I talked with them, just before they went on stage, aiming for an insight into how a folk band, in less than six years, grows from a duo singing shanties and playing jigs and reels in Greenwich pubs, to a five and then six piece band playing festivals in Japan and seven week US tours with Frank Turner. Not surprisingly, while they can help chart the progress, they’re at a bit of a loss to know how it happened. They were able to point to some conscious decisions they’d made. As a folk band thriving in the local pub scene it was easy enough to create the sing-along, party atmosphere that has subsequently become their trademark. Keeping that going as they expanded the band and moved into the festival scene was a challenge, but one that was surely made easier by passing a flagon of rum around the crowd during their set. In 2012 they made their first foray into the US and followed up with a tour supporting LA based Celtic punk rockers Flogging Molly. From this emerged two more conscious decisions, 1. Ensure their music was more distinctly English rather than Celtic and 2. Add a drummer to the line-up and shift away from trad folk towards a harder punk folk sound. Skinny Lister then proceeded to put all this into practice with a Cropredy set that was raucous, energetic, with vocalist Laura leading the dancing, and, above all, entertaining. But was there rum?
So far I’ve managed to paint a picture of Cropredy 2015 without mentioning the weather. But perhaps it’s time to admit that, for the first time in quite a few years, there was rain, lots of rain. Now, the Cropredy faithful are hardy, perhaps even more so than the average UK festival crowd, but there were times when even they noticed the weather getting in the way of having a good time. The artist who, perhaps, suffered the most from this was Thursday night headliner, Emmylou Harris performing with Rodney Crowell. This was such a shame; many people had been looking forward to her first appearance at Cropredy. Even those who knew little of her country music career appreciated, from her participation in the original series of BBC’s Transatlantic Sessions, her ability to create stunning music straddling the ground between folk and country. But, there’s a limit to how much rain a crowd can withstand and I fear that even the hardy souls who were prepared to stick it out couldn’t derive as much pleasure from the music as it undoubtedly deserved.
There can only be one ending to a Cropredy weekend, the two and a half hour Saturday night set from Fairport and friends. This year the friends ranged from Breton guitarist Dan Ar Braz beefing up the volume to a reappearance from Kevin Dempsey and Rosie Carson, by way of Fish giving us a version of Sandy Denny’s Solo. The midnight rendition of Meet on the Ledge each year ensures the stage is filled with all those performers from previous days who have stayed on ‘to make a weekend of it’. Not many festivals generate that level of commitment, it’s just another thing that makes Cropredy special. We’ll see many of them back again next year, whether they get booked to play or not!
Review by: Johnny Whalley