Anyone even marginally interested in the English folk scene, is likely to have noticed that 2017 marks the 50th birthday of Fairport Convention. The event had been well marked during the first half of the year with a sell-out tour featuring material from an anniversary album, 50:50@50 (reviewed here). A tour that included the birthday concert itself at London’s Union Chapel (read our live review), 50 years to the day from the band’s first ever gig at St Michael’s Church Hall in North London on Saturday, May 27, 1967. But the most hotly anticipated celebration was always going to be this year’s Cropredy Convention, ensuring that the “Sold Out” boards went up weeks before the event. So, as befits such a milestone, this Folk Radio UK review focusses on the contributions to the Cropredy weekend of Fairport band members, past and present. To guide us through the, sometimes convoluted, comings and goings over the weekend, we sat down for a chat with a musician who’s been part of the band’s line up since 1985, fiddle player, Ric Sanders.
A conversation with Ric will, at times, be more like a stand-up comic’s performance and so, without waiting for a question…
“I was going to say it’s wonderful to be here, but at our age, it’s wonderful to be anywhere. ”
Ok, we can go along with this, what does it feel like to be 50 years old as a band?
“It feels ok, actually. It’s an amazing age to get to as a band. I’ve played music all my life, I never did anything else. I went straight from school into music. When you’re in your late teens, early twenties you never think about what you’re going to be doing when you’re 64. I’m going to be an old age pensioner, I’m 65 in December. You never think what’s going to happen that far ahead because it seems so far ahead… …And suddenly we find ourselves here, and the good news is, we’re not planning on stopping anytime soon.”
That’s a cue for Ric to compare Fairport’s longevity with The Stones, concluding that…
“I figure as long as the Stones are still going we’ve got at least another ten years.”
Maybe I should have left it at that, but I had to ask if there was a plan to outlast The Stones.
“I don’t think Keith Richards is going to stop. You know, the great American comedian Bill Hicks said, ‘if there’s a nuclear holocaust only two things will survive, bugs and Keith Richards’ But I think it might be three things, bugs, Keith Richards and Fairport.”
The conversation then gently meandered around to music and a query as to how they decided which back catalogue tracks were included on the 50:50@50 album. Ric’s answer was succinct, “it’s impossible” and he turned to a description of how Fairport’s Saturday headline set would work this year. Everyone expected it to be something special for the 50th anniversary and Ric, sat outside the Press Office on Friday afternoon, spelt it out.
“It’s not really about the current band, it’s about the history of Fairport Convention and so, the current line-up will take to the stage and do a couple of numbers to open proceedings up, to welcome everybody. Then we shall leave the stage and a band called Fairport Convention will come on and not one of us will be in it.”
Ric started to list who would be on stage, Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol…
“Oh, of course, Simon will be there. There is one of us there. Our very own original member, Simon Nicol, though as he will himself tell you, original member but not in original condition. He will be there with Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Judy Dyble, Iain Matthews. Who have I missed out? Of course, on drums, Dave Mattacks.”
Fast forward then, to Saturday night and this group of musicians, almost the original Fairport lineup, came on stage to an enthusiastic welcome. It couldn’t be the complete, original lineup, of course, because drummer Martin Lamble was tragically killed in the 1969 motorway crash that so nearly brought the Fairport story to a very early end. Unlike a ‘normal’ Cropredy, there was no surprise element to the appearance of these guests; all five had already played sets earlier in the weekend.
Dave Mattacks had been the first to appear, with Feast of Fiddles on Thursday afternoon. Feast of Fiddles gave one of their trademark eclectic performances, material ranging from straight traditional fiddle tunes to their unique take on Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, all driven along by Dave Mattacks’ impeccable rhythms. You may think six top rank fiddlers is enough for any band but their melodeon player and alleged leader, Hugh Crabtree, can be very welcoming, and persuasive. So, for the finale, their ranks were swelled by Phil Beer, Marion Fleetwood and Sophie Crabtree.
Cropredy certainly got their money’s worth from Dave Mattacks; he was back on stage when Richard Thompson headlined on Friday (read our recent interview here). As with his last “solo” appearance, Richard started his set with just him and his acoustic guitar, bringing on Christine Collister for a couple of joint vocals. He finished the acoustic half with 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, preparing the crowd nicely for the arrival of the band, Dave Mattacks, Simon Nicol and Dave Pegg with Richard swapping guitars to his Stratocaster. There followed a series of the classic Richard Thompson songs that just about everyone wanted to hear including I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and Wall of Death. A lot of people would pick as their musical heaven, the Cropredy field, an electric set from Richard, backed by his old band mates from 1969/70 era Fairport. And, yes, I’m one of them.
Just a few hours later Saturday’s music kicked off with The Morris On Band (main image). The brainchild of Ashley Hutchings back in 1972, the Morris On album, Morris tunes played on a mix of traditional and modern electric instruments, had a major impact, credited with kickstarting a major revival of the dance tradition. During the decades since, Ashley has been involved in several return visits to the format, the last in 2007. The 2017 Fairport celebrations seemed like too good an opportunity to miss and so the latest incarnation of the band was assembled, the process largely driven by Simon Care. Ashley, as ever, on bass, Simon Care on melodeon, Guy Fletcher (switching between drums and fiddle), Ruth Angell (fiddle), Gavin Davenport (vocals and acoustic guitar) and Tom Wright (switching between drums and electric guitar) took to the stage along with dancers from Moulton Morris, and their melodeon player Gareth Turner. Once everyone was thoroughly in the mood and small pockets of dancing were breaking out in the crowd, it was time to introduce some guests. That man, Dave Mattacks, had played the drums for the original Morris On band and Richard Thompson the guitar, so, on they came, along with Simon Nicol, Chris Leslie and Ric Sanders. It was only one o’clock when this all-star Morris band reluctantly left the stage but already the day was shaping up to be one of the great Cropredy Saturdays.
Of the original Fairport lineup, that left just Judy Dyble and Iain Matthews to make an appearance. Judy came next with her current outfit, The Band of Perfect Strangers. Judy has made several guest appearances at Cropredy over the years, even though she was officially retired from music making between 1973 and 2003 she’s been very good at marking significant anniversaries. This, though, was the first time she’d performed her own, current music.
Iain Matthews is also no stranger to the Cropredy fields, he’s made several visits, both guesting with Fairport and in his own right. His appearance this year was under the Plainsong banner alongside Andy Roberts and Mark Griffiths. Plainsong, as an active band, has come and gone over the years since it first appeared in 1972, its most recent incarnation producing the 2015 album Reinventing Richard – The Songs of Richard Fariña (reviewed here). For people of a certain age (mine) Fariña is an iconic Sixties character. If you discovered him back then, he’ll have occupied a crevice at the back of your mind ever since. Killed in a motorcycle accident in 1966, aged 29, for the few years prior to that he seems to have been at the centre of US counterculture. Good friend to Bob Dylan and Thomas Pynchon, married to Joan Baez’s younger sister Mimi, his novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, published just days before his death, quickly became a cult guide to how not to survive University. His songs, most of them recorded with Mimi, have clearly stayed with Iain Matthews. Iain has recorded several of them over the years, culminating in the 2015 Plainsong album. Their set on Saturday afternoon was a delight, as the album title suggests, these aren’t simple covers of the songs but inject new life into them.
When these members of Fairport Convention v1.0 appeared later on Saturday night, Richard Fariña was still on their minds, Iain taking vocals on Reno Nevada, a Fariña song that was very much part of their repertoire in 1967/8. Together with performances of songs from Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell alongside some of the bands original material it showed how influential contemporary North American music was on early Fairport.
Ric Sanders’ next comment will likely match many people’s reactions to seeing and hearing music again from the earliest Fairport.
“Can you imagine?” he said, “We did some warm up gigs last week and just hearing those guys play, it took me back to my late teens, I was still at school when Fairport started.”
And being Ric, this was quickly followed by…
“Obviously, I’m just a young chap, me and Chris Leslie have discovered the perfect way, the guaranteed way, to stay looking young, we just hang around with a bunch of really old guys.”
“Then we’ll have the Liege and Lief line up… Dave Swarbrick is no longer with us but Chris Leslie worked for many, many years with Dave in Whippersnapper. Chris has his distinctive own fiddle style, but when he was a kid he started out playing just like Swarb, I didn’t. I came from a jazz/rock background and our styles are nothing like each other. Chris can do Dave Swarbrick in the same way as Rory Bremner can do Tony Blair. It’s fantastic. So he’s being Swarb in the Liege and Lief line up. Sandy Denny’s no longer with us and the wonderful Chris While will be singing. Again, when I heard them at the warm up gigs, they really got the vibe. Chris really got the vibe of Swarb, you close your eyes and you think Swarb’s back in the room. Then you open your eyes and realise, the only thing Chris won’t be doing, during the 5 or 6 songs they’ll be playing, is smoking 20 Benson and Hedges without taking the fag out of his mouth while he’s playing.”
Ten years ago at Cropredy 2007, Fairport 1969 version, able at that time to include Dave Swarbrick, had played Liege and Lief in its entirety and memories of that night came flooding back when Ashley, Simon, Richard and Dave Mattacks remained on stage, to be joined by the Chrises, While and Leslie. In all honesty, it hardly mattered which tracks they played but as that famous cow bell rang out for the start of The Lark in the Morning, the cheers and dancing began, well, for those that could find room in the packed field.
This brought us to the time, in 1969, that Ashley Hutchings and Sandy Denny left to form Steeleye Span and Fotheringay respectively and so, as Ashley and Chris While left the stage, Dave Pegg plugged in his bass and in an instant we had the Full House line up giving us the delights of Sir Patrick Spens, Now Be Thankful and Sloth, allowing Chris Leslie a further chance to show how uncannily he can channel Swarb. When you talk with a Fairport fan, it doesn’t seem to matter at what point along the band’s 50-year timeline they first hooked up with the music, they will have a favourite period and for so, so many that period will span these two albums, Liege and Lief and Full House. That was certainly reflected in the wildly enthusiastic response from the Cropredy crowd.
This was as far as efforts to reassemble specific line ups went and, with well over an hour still to go before the midnight curfew, it was time for the two remaining members of today’s Fairport to join the party. This was how Ric summed up his expectations of the set up to that point…
“All this time, Gerry Conway and myself will be backstage playing cards. So, after the Full House line up, I guess about 20 years later, I come into the picture, and we finish off the set with a mix and match. So, it’ll be a non-typical Fairport set. They say nostalgia’s not what it used to be, but this will be. And I think people will just love hearing all that old stuff, all that classic, classic back catalogue.”
He was right, of course, the early material was lapped up, but it was a little self-deprecating to describe the second half as mix and match. There were still excellent versions of the 80s and 90s Fairport material to come and also some very special guests. First of these was Sally Barker, who, having supported Fairport on their last winter tour, was well qualified to pay one last tribute to the memory of Sandy Denny, by singing Rising for the Moon. Sandy’s composition that became the title track of the one album the band made when she briefly rejoined in the mid-70s.
Ralph McTell is a long-standing friend of Fairport and a Cropredy regular, Fairport having recorded several of his songs. So, there were plenty of options when he came on stage; he chose White Dress, a song written jointly with Dave Swarbrick and which also appeared on the Rising for the Moon album.
The stage then took a deep breath, a long run, and successfully cleared that rather sticky patch in the early 80s when Fairport barely existed, mainly for a few days each summer at Cropredy. Cue Maartin Allcock who, along with Ric Sanders, joined the trio of Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks to re-establish a viable touring band in 1985. Maart’s opening choice, A Surfeit of Lampreys, a track from towards the end of his time with the band but one that for many typifies the outstanding influences he brought in over the following 12 years.
From this point on chronology took second place to making best use of the astounding array of talent now on stage. Simon took lead vocal on the Ralph McTell song, The Hiring Fair, Gerry Conway taking on drums to free Dave Mattacks for keyboard duties. For The Hexamshire Lass, a 1973 era song which present day Fairport re-recorded in 2007, Maart added his characteristic guitar and both Gerry and Dave Mattacks were on drums. One of the most memorable extended line ups gave us a seriously big version of the Full House era tune Dirty Linen with Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol and Maartin Allcock all contributing guitar parts.
There can only ever be one way to end a Cropredy weekend, which is just as well, after all this excitement anything other than the emotionally charged, communal singing of Meet on the Ledge would have been a terrible anti-climax. As for next year, Ric, perhaps inadvertently, pointed out “everyone loves to have a zero, they just love to have a zero on the end. If it’s got a 5, well they quite like it, but they don’t like it as much as a zero. If it’s got a 1, like 51, next year, ‘So you’re 51, well ok’.” You might have to do something about that, Fairport, after all, everyone recognises that 21 is special, why not 51?