“This Saturday Fairport Convention take to the stage 50 years to the minute after making their very first live appearance,” announced Front Row presenter John Wilson on BBC Radio 4 in the run up to the anniversary gig. So far, so true. Then he added, “…in a celebratory concert that will reunite many of the dozens of band members who have been part of a fluid lineup since 1967.”
Cue many heads-in-hands of Fairport band members and promoters. Because it was a total misrepresentation of the concert. You could understand the easy-end-of-the-stick that the Front Row team had grabbed. Over the years Fairport have held many reunion concerts, mostly in a field in Cropredy (the pinnacle being the 35th anniversary in 2002), but there was also the magnificent Joe Boyd curated All-Star Fairport Convention Concert at the Barbican in 2009. Fairport had form, but a reunion concert this was not…
The most senior Fairport, Simon Nicol took to social media to set the record straight: “Alas, John was labouring under a misconception during our chat last week which was not clear to me and so was unable to clear up for him…
“Next Saturday’s anniversary gig at the Union Chapel, fifty years to the day from our first show under the name Fairport Convention, was never planned as, nor will it become, the reunion celebration he hinted at: there will be no ‘victory parade’ of ex-members coming and going, recreating as pensioners the line-ups we were in earlier incarnations of the band.”
And to be fair, no one is being short-changed, that is precisely what will be happening at Fairport’s Cropredy festival with ex-members Judy Dyble, Ashley Hutchings, Iain Matthews, Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks not only performing with their respective projects at the festival but also joining the band for the Saturday night celebration (no doubt alongside some more special guests too).
And far from a ‘fluid lineup’ recent Fairport history has featured the solid team of Nicol alongside Dave Pegg, Ric Sanders, Gerry Conway and Chris Lesley. Having recorded eight studio albums together, next year this incarnation will celebrate 20 years on the road. So the band just about represents 40% of Fairport history in of themselves. And while it’s always a thrill to see former band members get up and guest, it is this lineup that have kept the Fairport ship afloat (for nearly two decades).
But Simon really had little to worry about, the gig was already sold out, and the queue that formed long before the doors of the Union Chapel opened was a testament to the dedicated Fairporters who wanted to secure the best place to enjoy a very special celebration.
It’s customary (and now a bit clichéd) for the band to thank their fans and call them friends. But you genuinely get that feeling from Fairport and their followers, and the spirit of Cropredy definitely filled the chapel. The setlist was much the same as the night before in Wimborne and the night after in Potters Bar, but what made it a special event was the proximity to the very first gig in St Michael’s Hall, Wood Green – just five miles north.
What we know about that debut performance, billed as ‘A mass conversion to Fairport Convention’, at the 300-capacity hall is that the first incarnation of the band played a set that included covers of Love’s 7 And 7 Is, Dylan’s My Back Pages and a rip through Hey Joe. This early foray into underground/psychedelicAmericanaa didn’t last long but it did kick-off a musical exploration that spanned many genres and resulted in the creation of a new one, British Folk Rock. The history of Fairport Convention is well known, so no need to repeat it here.
But the times they have a’changed, and – although we might not know where they’ve gone – we do know where we are now. Current Fairport is built on a solid (not slavish) interpretation of the past but with an impressive work ethic (Ents24 declared them the fifth hardest working band in 2016) and a constant compulsion never to become their own tribute band. New songs are provided by Lesley (the band longest standing songwriter) alongside contributions from musical friends and occasional fiddle tunes from Sanders.
The longstanding lineup took to the stage to spontaneous, rapturous applause and – with Nicol appropriately centre-stage – gave us 100% Fairport vintage 2017. Of course there were dips into folk-rock history with enthusiastically-received renditions of Genesis Hall, Who Knows Where The Time Goes?, Sir Patrick Spens, Fotheringay and Farewell, Farewell. But each of these featured the current band’s arrangements of the classic songs, such as the duel fiddle arrangement of Who Knows…? or the call-and-response version of Farewell, Farewell.
Still, a large chunk of the set is from their new album 50:50@50, which they perform with equal enthusiasm as early and mid-vintage Fairport. As promised, the band were joined by a few special guests: Pentangle’s Jacqui McShee lent her crystal vocals to The Lady of Carlisle, with Chris Leslie’s banjo adding an Appalachian flavour to this old English folk song. This first live outing for the song was the highlight of the first half, and will surely get a repeat performance at Cropredy.
The second half’s special guest was an old friend, Sally Barker now known to a much wider audience thanks to being a finalist on The Voice in 2014. But her commitment to folk-rock is undiminished, as well as being a fellow member of Fairport (almost) spin-off band Fotheringay with Gerry Conway, she gave a spirited performance of the Sandy Denny classic Rising For The Moon.
Another highlight of the second set was The Hiring Fair which Nicol introduced noting its place in Fairport history as a song (donated to the band by Ralph McTell) which he credits for opening up new musical avenues for the group, and for him as a vocalist. It’s a passionate, dedicated performance, contrasting with the band’s usual good-time demeanour.
The traditional set-closer of the classic Matty Groves has been given another makeover, this time propelled by Chris Lesley’s banjo picking, and another driving vocal by Nicol. And we all know what’s coming next… But before the strummed intro to Richard Thompson’s hymn to lost friends, the crowd sing a rousing Happy Birthday. And, again, it’s like a get-together with family and friends singing a traditional song of celebration.
The stalwart closing Meet On The Ledge, alongside a returning Sally Barker, includes a final guest. Edmund Whitcombe, adding a mournful Cornet. Edmund, who’s blind, has been brought on stage to play a solo on the song at Cropredy for many years, and he’s just as welcomed into the Fairport fold as old flames like Richard Thompson or ‘big star’ guests like Nick Kershaw, Cat Stevens and Robert Plant. As long as you join in the chorus, you too can be part of Fairport. But 50-years on, this night belonged to very special guests Nicol, Pegg, Sanders, Leslie and Conway. Happy birthday chaps!