Every year you can rely on Cropredy for opportunities to see both new and distinctly not so new bands. Revisiting bands from a while back isn’t always the best idea but, this year, two bands with a history going back decades proved that it could be a real pleasure. Steeleye Span’s history traces back to 1969, and they’ve managed, sometimes just by the skin of their teeth, sometimes prolifically, to produce music all the way through to 2016. The current line-up has members from that entire time-span, from original vocalist Maddy Prior, bassist Rick Kemp who first joined in the mid-70s, through drummer Liam Genockey (1989), to the three newcomers, guitarist Julian Littman (2010), violinist Jessie May Smart (2014) and guitarist Spud Sinclair (2015). I must confess, before catching their sets at a couple of festivals this summer, I hadn’t listened to Steeleye’s music for quite a while. Coming back to them with fresh ears was an enjoyable experience, the current line-up delivers both old and new material with a vitality that’s infectious. That mix of material is the key, especially with the Cropredy crowd, an audience guaranteed to contain a high percentage of people whose folk-rock history goes back as far as Steeleye’s. So, a band needs to include plenty of the old favourites, but not carbon copies, members of the present line-up should make their contributions felt. And then there needs to be good new material. Steeleye ticked all these boxes and more. Maddy’s vocals are as stirring as ever and the rhythms from Liam and bass lines from Rick have a great variety. Sure they can thump out when needed but there’s plenty of subtlety as well. Of the newer members, Julian contributes stunning guitar parts and takes some lead vocals, his voice giving a rougher edge in nice contrast to Maddy’s. However, it is Jessie’s electric violin that is often the standout instrument. Classically trained, she puts that to one side to deliver solos ranging from hauntingly ethereal to pulsating runs that, if you close your eyes, sound more like an electric guitar than an electric fiddle.
Talking with Rick, he emphasised the three relatively new members have integrated really well into the band, having brought a vast range of new influences with them, Jessie’s classical background and also her electric work stretching from rock to house and beyond, Julian’s experience ranging from West End musicals to his own singer/songwriting. Rick and Spud played together in the 90s in a rock/blues trio, Spud continuing in that vein until the invitation to join Steeleye last year. With all this coming into the Steeleye melting pot, we can look forward to some fascinating new material. Rick confirmed the band has already recorded, “enough for a double album”, but he expects that a single album will emerge. They’ll perform some of this new material on the tour starting in October but not all of it, as Rick said “we realise the audience comes for the old stuff”.
Gryphon can trace their origins back almost as far as Steeleye Span but with the big difference of a gap of 30+ years between their 1970s heyday and their current reunion. The four original members, Richard Harvey, Brian Gulland (woodwind), Dave Oberlé (drums) and Graeme Taylor (guitar), plus new man Graham Preskett (keyboards, mandolin, violin), first re-united for a one off gig in 2009 but only started regular gigs last year. Richard left earlier this year but the remaining four have now been joined by Rory McFarlane (bass) and Keith Thompson (woodwind). In their 70s incarnation Gryphon trod a path that took them from Richard and Brian’s fairly scholarly interest in medieval and renaissance music and instruments towards the then hugely popular prog rock genre. That there was such a path was entirely down to Gryphon and the question of where it might lead was left sadly unanswered when they disbanded in 1977. So, for me, it was something of an unknown quantity that took to the stage. I was reassured to see the array of unfamiliar woodwind instruments collected around Brian’s mic stand, more of the same were alongside Keith while Dave’s riser was crowded with drums and symbols of so many shapes and sizes it was hard to believe he’d find time to hit them all during the course of the set. Sitting in the midst of this, Graeme and Rory held conventional looking guitar and bass guitar, while Graham sat behind a single keyboard with his violin, though the laptop alongside hinted that the simplicity may prove to be deceptive. And so to the music, passages of early 17th Century dance music give ample opportunities to hear the woodwind array, from the relatively familiar bassoon to the decidedly unfamiliar sound of the crumhorn while the frequent tempo changes kept Dave busy on his drums. But variation is the essence of Gryphon’s music and these distinctly medieval passages gradually lose their strict tempos and morph into keyboard or guitar-led, much more rock oriented, pieces. Gryphon’s sound can properly be described as unique; you should hear it while you can.
When it comes to new artists, you can’t get much newer than the winners of the Radio 2 Young Folk Award. For the third year in a row, the 2016 winner is Scottish, a sure testament to the health of the Scottish folk scene and the support its development receives from both governmental and charitable organisations. Back in April, Brìghde Chaimbeul won the award as a solo piper, quite an achievement in itself, but one that presented a small dilemma when preparing for the festival gigs that came with her success. So, it was a trio that took to the Cropredy stage, Brìghde, playing her small pipes, joined by her older sister Màiri on harp and Michael Ferrie on guitar. Brìghde, originally from Skye, started piping when she was 9, learning the Highland pipes in an area famous for its piping traditions. However, from the outset, her Cropredy set showed how widely her musical influences now stretch. She opened with a set of Cape Breton Strathspeys and reels followed first by a Finnish tune and then one from the Borders. Brìghde took centre stage throughout, as befits her remarkable talent, occasionally switching her pipes for whistle. But the quality of musicianship from all three held the Cropredy audience for the entire set. At 17, Brìghde has just finished High School and is now intending to take a year away from formal education before she joins the Irish Traditional Music degree at the University of Limerick. Away from formal education, yes, but it seems there’ll be no let-up in her learning, she intends to spend some of the year in Bulgaria to learn the Bulgarian pipes and style of playing. And why choose Limerick as her University? In order to learn the uilleann pipes of course. There’s no doubt that Brìghde has her next few years focussed on widening her expertise but she expects to continue performing as well. So, with luck, we’ll all get to enjoy her outstanding talent as it develops.
Hannah Wood and Abbe Martin, collectively Sound of the Sirens, have received lots of attention this last year, gaining airplay from the likes of Tom Robinson and Chris Evans, and their Cropredy set showed why. Two powerful voices that fit together brilliantly, whether singing in unison, in harmony or bringing in counter-melodies. With Hannah on guitar, Abbe on guitar or mandolin and both of them using their feet to beat percussion instruments, they produce a full, tight sound that rocks along very impressively. They complained, perhaps only slightly tongue in cheek, that early photos of them with flowers in their hair may have given the wrong impression. Building up such a sound doesn’t get in the way of their lyrics though. Always worth listening to, they can paint pictures of carefree summers or tortuous breakups with equal ease. The final element of a Sirens’ show is the on stage chemistry between the two of them. It leads to some great between songs patter, put all this together and you get an unmissable festival act. After Cropredy they were heading off for a first listen to the mix of tracks they’ve recorded for their next album due out in January. There will be eight new songs, the remaining four are new “more produced” versions of songs they’ve recorded previously.
Having played The Brasenose Arms’ Cropredy fringe event for several years to great effect, Wille and the Bandits made the transition this year to the main Festival. Hardly a surprising move given the reputation for riveting live performance that they’ve built up touring and playing festivals in both the UK and Europe. A roots blues trio, their sound is built around Will Edwards’ variety of guitars, acoustic six string, electric lap steel, dobro and Weissenborn. The contributions of Andy Naumann’s drums and Matt Brooks’ bass, though, are immense, contributions that have just been recognised at the British Blues Awards, Andy winning best drummer, Matt runner-up for the bass award. Their music is almost all written and arranged by the band with just the occasional cover, they like to pay homage to Robert Johnson with a version of Crossroads and, it has been known for something vaguely reminiscent of Mark Knopfler’s Money for Nothing to make an appearance.
The Pierce Brothers, twins Jack and Pat from Melbourne, played a set in the middle of Saturday afternoon that grabbed everyone’s attention. One of those Cropredy occasions when the focus of the entire field switched to the stage as the Brothers let loose a prodigious musical energy. Their music was honed busking the Melbourne streets and they used all that experience to capture not just the attention but also the hearts of the Cropredy crowd. Electric and acoustic guitars, a drum or two, djembe and, inevitably, a digeridoo, along with their voices raised everyone’s spirits and earned them the sort of reception rarely if ever seen. Their inevitable encore was the last song they’d get to perform on this European tour and the message from the crowd was loud and clear, they’re wanted back next year.
There aren’t many acts that would have relished following on from such a spectacle, so it was either fortuitous or a piece of inspired programming to put on Demon Barbers XL (image above) after the Brothers. For the last few years, the Demon Barbers Road Show has been developing theatre performances that combine Damien Barber’s traditional songs, tunes from a seven-piece band and Morris, Clog, Rapper and Hip Hop dance. Demon Barbers XL are a slightly smaller ensemble bringing some of that material to festivals. Their set opened with three songs from Damien, two clog dancers punctuated the verses of the first song and the third brought in the Hip Hop Crew, after that it was pretty much music and dance all the way. As well as Damien’s unmistakable voice, bearing the hallmarks of having had Peter Bellamy as an early influence, the Barbers have a secret weapon in the voice and fiddle playing of Briony Griffith. But it’s hardly fair to single out individuals, with the Barbers it’s the complete package that entertains and amazes from start to finish. They’re keen to keep developing the format and, in its next incarnation, there’ll be a Christmas show touring in November and December. Damien wasn’t giving much away but revealed that the plot line took some inspiration from Dicken’s Christmas Carol and was happy to confirm it wouldn’t feature any Muppets. Also in development, but at a far earlier stage, is an idea for a children friendly version of The Lock In show, working title The Sleepover.
Ralph McTell has been associated with Fairport’s Cropredy event right from the start, on the bill of the first 3 ‘official’ Conventions and a regular visitor ever since. With his last appearance being in 2009, it was about time for another and his Saturday evening set immediately before Fairport proved to be one of the highlights of the weekend. Like Fairport themselves, Ralph’s recording career is closing in on 50 years and over that time he’s shown time and again that his songwriting talent is up amongst the very best. His set featured many of his trademark songs, Red and Gold, dealing with the Civil War battle fought at Cropredy, From Clare to Here, the song that topped the poll when he asked fans to choose what should be part of the set for his recent London concert, Peppers and Tomatoes written at the height of the fighting in the Balkans as Yugoslavia tore itself apart along ethnic lines. In their different ways these are all powerful, emotive songs and by the time Streets of London came around the audience was primed for an emotional response, cue surreptitious tissue use as they sang chorus after chorus. Ralph’s Cropredy sets are equally memorable for the musicians he brings on stage to help out. With such a shared history it’s no surprise that Dave Pegg, Chris Leslie and Ric Sanders were there, also joining in was Gryphon’s Graham Preskett. But pride of place was taken by Danny Thompson, back for the first gig after his illness earlier in the year. After a set by a Cropredy regular, it’s always worthwhile eavesdropping on the conversations of old hands at the bar, the words “classic”, “the best”, “******* magic” were the order of the evening.
After Ralph, the rest of the evening belonged to Fairport Convention, Matty Groves died, we all met on the ledge and thoughts turned to next year. A momentous year for Fairport, they celebrate their 50th birthday and, for the next few months, rumours will be rife as to how Cropredy will celebrate it and who will turn up to join with Fairport on Saturday night. Of course, there will be one notable absentee, Dave Swarbrick was remembered many times and by many people over the weekend and, fittingly, Dave Pegg dedicated his and AJ’s version of Flat Back Capers to Dave’s memory. RIP Swarb.
All images by Kristie Handley except Brian Gulland by J Whalley.