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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
CONCERT REVIEW - Festival Special: FAIRPORT'S CROPREDY CONVENTION
Cropredy, Oxfordshire, 11th-13th August, 2005 by Nick Morgan
PART ONE - THE BEGINNING …
For those of you who don’t know, the ‘first’ Cropredy Festival was held in 1979, marking the farewell gig of pioneer British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, who had for some years made this little bit of North Oxfordshire (and its many pubs) their operating base. Twenty-six years later and the Festival, despite some recent ups and downs (largely the work of Fairport bassist Dave Pegg) seems to be still going strong. As are the Fairporters. In that time the Festival has taken on a unique character all of its own.
Loved by generations of fans, many of whom have attended for decades, it’s a sort of sacred safe haven for unreconstructed grumpy old folk rock fans and their children (and I suspect in some cases, their children’s children too). It’s a place where 55 year old men can wear their psychedelic spandex trousers without fear of rebuke, and where all Englishmen born and true (and their ladies fair) can spend three days quaffing the best of handmade warm beer (Wadsworth’s XXXXXX – the event’s main sponsor) from their cherished tankards ‘till they reach the edge of oblivion (or in some cases beyond).
The Festival has also become a sort of perverse celebration of the Midlands, England’s forgotten heart of oak – overshadowed now in terms of economic importance, politics, music, football – in fact the whole bloody lot - by the Metropolis on one hand, and the great conurbations of Scotland and the North of England on the other.
But no-one here will forget that this is the region that brought the world the Moody Blues, the Move, Roy Wood’s Wizard, ELO, Noddy Holder and Slade, Jasper Carrot’s ‘Funky Moped’ … err, well, maybe some decline and falls are easily explained after all.
But no matter – here local music, drink and food are commemorated – nowhere more so than in the ‘Ozzie’, a sophisticated indigenous dish (chausson fourré de viande et pommes de terre) of some renown, allegedly much favoured by the region’s most famous rock and roller, that combines elements of all three in an alluring combination that would even make Serge’s mouth water.
Enough of degustation. We were here to savour the music. But a day and a half late (that reminds me Serge, never charter the Whiskyfun gig-jet from British Airways again) we had already missed Thursday’s line up – including Jah Wobble and the English Roots Band and the Country Joe Band (in effect Country Joe and the Fish minus one cold-blooded aquatic vertebrate) – and Friday afternoon’s, including North-east folk scene veteran Bob Fox and the Muffin Men with ex Mothers of Invention singer Jimmy Carl Black (your elder brothers perhaps Serge?), doing their Zappa and Beefheart stuff.
But we did manage to arrive in time for the somber-faced and evening-suited Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, often described to those unfamiliar with their oeuvre as The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Ok – they’re a one-joke band, but with wit and imagination you can make one joke and seven ukuleles last a long time (as I should know). En route for the Edinburgh Festival these boys and girls have been playing for over twenty years, but have been a middle-aged equivalent of a ‘buzz-band’ for the past 18 months or so. They managed to squeeze into their set unlikely ukulele renditions of Morricone’s ‘The good the bad and the ugly’, Prince’s ‘Kiss’, Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’, Chic’s ‘Le Freak’, Kiss’s ‘God gave rock and roll to you’, and Talking Head’s ‘Psycho killer’. Oh yes – and a Stockhausen meets Johnny Cash tune too. Get the joke? But the tour de force was their ‘Yorkshire folk song’, a blistering version of Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ – the sort of preposterous arrangement that Ms Bush’s preposterous songs deserve. Indeed so impressed was I by the UOGB’s playing that I began to ponder – could Ukulele be an anagram for Coldplay?
For Cropredy regulars Richard Thompson is famous for two things. Firstly, of course, his place as a Fairport founder, and as the guitarist who gave them the edge that set them apart from all the other folk-rockers of the time. Secondly, his outrageous talents and gifts as both songwriter, but also guitar player (“How does he do that?” Beth Neilson Chapman commented on Saturday, “I spent all of Richard’s set backstage looking for the other three guitarists who I knew had to be hidden away playing somewhere”). And thirdly - where was I - as the rain-bringer. When I last saw him here a few years ago I got as wet as a pickled egg (as they like to say in these parts), so everyone turned their head to the skies as he came on stage with long time collaborator, bass player extraordinaire Danny Thompson (no relation).
Richard Thompson
A Vincent Black Lightning. Aaaaaaaaah!....
As it happened the night stayed dry, and we were treated to almost two hour of Richard Thompson heaven, with songs from his new album Front Parlour Ballads carefully mixed with a journey through his extensive back catalogue. High spots had to be a solo version of ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ that greatest of all motorbike songs (though surprisingly Thompson still can’t remember the words), and with Christine Collister supporting on vocals ‘A heart needs a home’ and ‘Wall of death’. And also the vigorous debate that broke out around Thompson’s debt to the music hall tradition – seen in songs such as ‘Al Bowley’, ‘Don’t sit on my Jimmy Shands’ and ‘Hokey pokey’. Fired by an excess of Ozzies and red wine one of our party shouted ‘We don’t want this shite, we want pain, we want alienation’, much to the consternation of some. Appropriately enough we got it all in the final song ‘Razor Dance’. Anyway – Thompson’s in London next week and we’ll be there too, so more later.
Finally the evening dwindled away with a set from the Dylan Project, a combination of Fairporters Pegg, Nichol and Conway, pedal steel guitarist P J Wright, and front man, alleged Birmingham rock god Steve Gibbons (a man for whom the word ‘legendary’ is used with mystifying liberality).
I saw Gibbons years ago at The Rainbow supporting a faux Who put together by Pete Townsend for a charity gig and was less than impressed – all I can remember is some ‘Not fade away’ style dirge about spitting on buses. Birmingham rock indeed. Ah yes – and he also had an album called Rollin’ On where he looked alarmingly like a Bee Gee on the cover. Unforgivable. Anyway Mr Gibbons lacks nothing in the self-belief department, or in the dissolute rock and roll appearance department, or the ability to work very hard department. But with the Dylan Project – in reality no more than a Dylan tribute band (and do I need this when I’m off to see the Bobster himself in November?) it adds up to nothing.
So to be frank the lure of our Whiskyfun tent got the better of us (did I say tent? Sorry I meant our feather eiderdowns at the ‘unspoilt’ and excellent Bell in Shenington) and along with most of the audience we wandered away after about thirty minutes to gird our loins with a dram or two before our Saturday adventures.
More to come … - Nick Morgan (all photos by Kate and Nick except motorcycle)
 

CONCERT REVIEW - Festival Special: FAIRPORT'S CROPREDY CONVENTION
Cropredy, Oxfordshire, 11th-13th August, 2005 by Nick Morgan
PART TWO - THE MIDDLE BIT, AND THE END
Now there are probably two things that I haven’t made quite clear about this Cropredy thing. The first is that it is, possibly due to the average age of the average Festival goer (average=old), a bring your own chair event – now far more so than it was when I last visited.
So after a hearty yeoman’s breakfast at the Whiskyfun tent we made our way into that once pretty market town of Banbury, now a desultory and rather depressing testament to the paucity of town planning expertise in the UK, to buy our chairs. Luckily as canny local shopkeepers were well clued up to the event, we were still able to find a final few in stock – fishing chairs, I should add, handily equipped with a tankard/glass/can rest on the right hand arm. The second thing is rain – Richard Thompson or no, the rain does inevitably fall, and with the BBC’s forecast firmly imprinted in our minds we also picked up a few handy bits of downpour survival kit.
Thirdly (where was I?) there are the people, to a man, woman, child, baby and dog, universally and delightfully bonkers, a tribute to the thickly spread layer of eccentricity that remains, like Marmite on a piece of toast, undiminished by either the long arm of political correctness or the creeping trend towards a complacent and cramping conformity that seems to surround us more and more each day.
Take the crew who surrounded us on Saturday in our very well chosen spot in line with the sound tent. To our left was Tankard Man and his family (14 year old son’s been coming since he was a baby). The dog. In front of us at least three generations of a Drinking Academy, and by them the Pork Pie Club, been every year since 1983, and so named because …well, they like pork pies. To our right the man who for reasons of anonymity shall simply be called Demented Dave, artfully recording the whole event onto an i-Pod through a very sophisticated microphone, proudly flying his national flag, still wearing wristbands from the past thirteen Festivals, and feasting on a complex cocktail of beers that included Marstons, Tetley’s, Spitfire and Theakston’s Old Trouser Press.
Behind us there was the man in the plastic bag (we all checked his pulse every thirty minutes to make sure he was still alive), and the mutton chopped Bearded Ladies from Bolton. I should add that – if you haven’t noticed, that it was raining cats and dogs by the time we arrived. In fact to be honest we’d spent an hour or more snoozing in the Whiskyfun van outside the Festival site listening to the football before we dared step out into the deluge. As a result we missed, but did catch occasional echoes of, the reggae funk folk artistes T & Latouche, and Uiscedwr, a world folk fusion outfit who sounded like fun.
And we were still eating a rather nice lunch when Richard Digance performed – apparently voted one of the Magnificent Seven of British Entertainment by some panel or other, but to be frank a decent and witty folk singer ruined by the demands (and I guess the regular pay checks) of what can at best be called British light entertainment programmes.
So by the time we were seated it was the Hamsters, not the sort I’d be trying to photograph in the pet shop in Banbury (good joke I thought, but did you know Serge, that the little buggers seem to spend all their time asleep, wrapped up in cotton wool?), but the ones who are described as, or who describe themselves as, ‘the UK’s best blues rock band’. Actually, to do them justice they do add a witty ‘probably’ on their website, which is maybe just as well. I’d heard so much about these boys – well, they’re really very grumpy old rock and rollers – but was frankly very disappointed. They made a lot of noise for a three piece band, and were very tight (as befits a band that tours endlessly, and has done for 18 years or so) but beyond the Jimi Hendrix tribute stuff (and I should add that guitarist Slim plays a mean Jimi riff or two) didn’t seem to have a lot going for them. Maybe it was the wrong place, maybe it was the rain.
Anyway the rain stopped (more or less) for next up Beth Nielsen Chapman, playing the last of a short series of gigs in the UK. And I wrote in my notebook – “her unassuming presence grasped the attention of a very damp audience as the storm clouds passed and the evening sun struggled to break through”. Maybe it should have stopped there. The set was, to sum up, something of a curate’s egg, ranging from some really original pieces (the intensely personal ‘Sand and water’ is a real cracker, and her Latin hymn arrangements extremely unusual) but in between there was a bit too much MOR stuff for my liking. So in short I suppose some of the material lacked depth.
I loved her voice when she let it rip, but not when she giggled (I think that was when she was confessing what was a visible liking for ‘Ozzies’). She sang a nice song with Simon Nichol, ‘Dancer to the drum’, with a great line which fixed in my head ‘fast asleep in the dawn of ages’; and another ‘Will and Liz’ which reminded me in both sound and subject of Aimee Mann. And despite their occasionally uncertain harmonies she was brilliantly supported by multi-instrumentalist and ex Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull member Martin Allcock, and multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn. And it only rained when she mentioned the sunshine.
So finally there was only one thing left. Well, actually two. First our dinner, another celebration of the best that the cuisine of the West Midlands can offer, a delicately flavoured chicken chilli masala, and the very same, or so I’m told by a knowledgable local sage, that a young Will Shakespeare gulped down before typing the script for Coriolanus. And then, and what better dessert can there be, three and a half hours of Fairport Convention.
I’ll start by saying this. It was great fun, particularly when a very rocking Richard Thompson joined them half way through. And I was reminded what a powerhouse rhythm section Gerry Conway on drums and Dave Pegg on bass could be. And that ex Soft machinist Ric Sanders’ remarkable fiddle playing has kept the band moving (well, maybe slowly nudging) forward when they could have remained stagnant. And what a good singer Simon Nichol can be. And they were also assisted at various points by the admirable Tiny Tin Ladies (try and find out more about these husky voiced girls Serge, you’ll love them), Jacqui McShee, guitarist Vo Fletcher, some youthful but dire ‘Highland’ style dancers, Maartin Allcock, P J Wright, a young cornet player who’s name I missed, Ashley Hutchings, Beth N C, Uncle Tom Cobbly and all. And we’re going to see them play an acoustic gig in November so they’ll get a more considered review then. And mandolin and fiddle player Chris Leslie is a friend of The Photographer – so I need to be careful what I say. But – even with that degree of variety three hours or more is maybe just a tad too much – and even with such an array of material the paucity of some of it (particularly some from the new album Over the Next Hill) does become evident over such a lengthy set. Oh yes – and why do they have to play so many songs by fucking Ralph McTell?
Sorry Ralph – no offence meant, but while I like the (albeit grotesquely sentimental) ‘Hiring fair’ –a good Fairport standard, the other two songs they played, though performed well, were dire in content. ‘Red and gold’ is an ill-judged and poorly researched slushy dirge about the Battle of Cropredy Bridge in June 1644 during the English Revolution (yes Serge, we had one too …and a lot sooner than yours). Less of a battle than an indecisive skirmish and stand-off, McTell even has the cheek to represent the whole conflict as being over religion, rather than class and capital. For what it’s worth Fairport recorded an album of the same title. And then a dreadful heap of tosh, ‘Wat Tyler’ (co-written by McTell and Nichol), about the Peasants Revolt, with lots of ‘Ye good Kinge Richarde he did say, I’ll come downe to speake with ye goode men of Kenyt toadye’. Primary school history nonsense. And while we’re at it Ralph, let’s put in on record now that I’ve simply never forgiven you for ‘Streets of London’. Ok ?
On the upside – from the new album Chris Leslie sang his own tune ‘I’m already there’, old tunes like ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, Dave Swarbrick’s ‘Rosie’, and ‘Walk awhile’, the sharply ironic ‘We are a proud land’, ‘Let it blow; from Thompson’s new album, and his ‘Tearstained letter’, rocking Richard singing the Beatle’s ‘I’m down’, Ashley and Jacqui joining in for ‘Rolling Minstrels’ and of course, to end the main set the song that has become Fairport’s anthem, ‘Matty Groves’. And in all honesty, what better way to end the whole thing off than with everyone on stage, and the whole audience singing ‘Meet on the ledge’ – remarkably written by a teenage Thompson in 1969. It’s a great and timeless song that should touch everyone, because we know we’ll all meet there some day.
Nice one boys! - Nick Morgan (all photos by Kate and Nick)



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