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Concert Review by Nick Morgan
 
FESTIVAL SPECIAL: FAIRPORT'S CROPREDY
Cropredy, Oxfordshire, August 9,10,11th 2007 - Part One
Traffic Stop! Before you turn away thinking “Not another year’s worth of this Cropredy rubbish” let me explain something. It’s a special year, and we’re all here for a reason. And I don’t mean that we’re celebrating the fact that it’s Fairport Convention’s fortieth anniversary, nice ‘though that might be, or that Fairport bassist Dave Pegg (who also spent sixteen years with Jethro Tull during Fairport’s somewhat fallow years of the late seventies and eighties) is celebrating his sixtieth birthday this year. Neither are we simply celebrating the fact that somehow the weather gods relented and the floodwater that had covered much of the festival site receded just in time to allow the bash to proceed, nor that we somehow survived a three and a half hour journey in blistering heat over the last six miles of heavily congested roads to our campsite. No – it’s far more important that that. You see, on Friday night the original 1969 line-up of Fairport (minus the sadly departed Sandy Denny, who is replaced by Chris While) are on stage playing Liege & Lief, the album that is widely considered to have written the rule book for folk rock music, and which is also rightly considered to be one of the defining albums of the era. And by way of a bonus, Richard Thompson will be on stage afterwards playing with his band. As Friday nights under the stars go, it doesn’t get much better than that.
What about Thursday? Well – as a result of the Festival being sold out (for the first time in 30 years) and the obvious anxiety that many had to be there in good time for Friday evening, the journey in a gridlocked North Oxfordshire is a nightmare – and the site is already almost overflowing (as are many of the lavatories). We could hear Wishbone Ash (not to be confused with original vocalist Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash) as we prepared dinner on our modest van. They’re led by founder guitarist Andy Powell. You may remember they were famed for their double lead guitar sound – pioneered I always felt by the Allman Brothers – and were managed (along with a raft of other highly successful bands of the time) by Miles Copeland. From where we are they sound pretty much like, well to be frank, Wishbone Ash, bashing out tunes like ‘Warrior’ from their hit album Argus in perhaps a slightly more folky way than in the past. They were followed by Seth Lakeman, whose set, again from a distance, got more interesting as it progressed from predictable folk-rock stuff to more contemporary sounding folk stuff. I wish I could have seen the set. But we are down in the mosh in time for Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra who play a thoroughly enjoyable, if rarely challenging, ska-tinged set.
Jools Holland
Jools Holland
The Orchestra are about sixteen strong, and in addition to Holland on piano and a surprisingly impressive guitar, include veteran trombonist Rico Rodriguez (who played that trombone solo on the Specials ‘Message to you Rudy’) - who ably led a willing audience through ‘Enjoy yourself (it’s later than you think)’. The Orchestra also featured the hugely impressive Birmingham vocalist Ruby Turner (who sang an excellent version of ’Sitting on top of the world’ accompanied by Holland on keyboards), and the remarkably well preserved Lulu, who naturally yelled her debut 1964 hit ‘Shout’. Very entertaining.
The Liege and Lief album was recorded in the wake of the road accident in May 1969 that cost the lives of Fairport’s then drummer – Martin Lamble, and Thompson’s girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn. The album was put together in that summer, with fiddler Dave Swarbrick and drummer Dave Mattacks joining Thompson, bassist Ashley Hutchings, guitarist Simon Nicol and singer Sandy Denny (who died in 1978). The musical background was the realisation that the country rock style that the band had toyed with on their earlier albums wasn’t going to work, particularly in the light of the music coming out of the States from groups like the Band. Liege and Lief
Interviewed recently for the Guardian, Thompson explained “Music from the Big Pink showed us that Americana was more suited to Americans, and we needed to explore Britannicana, or whatever the equivalent of that was”. As a result the new album, recorded in October and released in December, was a combination of traditional tunes dug from the archives of Cecil Sharpe House, and new compositions in a traditional mode, such as Thompson and Swarbrick’s ‘Crazy Man Michael’. The result was an engrossing combination, joyful but dark, and musically pathbreaking.
Thompson Swarbrick The 1969 Fairports took the stage following a rousing set from Roots folk duo Show of Hands who preached an infectious sort of anarchy in the safe confines of this rustic time-warp. Of course they’re older but wiser – Denny, Hutchings and Thompson had all left the band within two years of Liege and Lief – a delayed reaction, some said, to the traumatic accident. All forged successful careers, Denny’s being cut short by an untimely death.
Swarbrick, one of the few musicians to have survived having his obituary published in the Daily Telegraph back in 1999, had been confined to a wheelchair for many years due to lung disease, but a recent transplant now sees him in sprightly form. He and Thompson, not always the best of friends despite their outstanding collaborations, spend the evening sparring musically from opposite sides of the stage.
The music sounds as though it could have been written yesterday – and hearing the album live in its entirety reveals just how complex and challenging many of the arrangements are – Thompson had said “I don’t actually need to rehearse it. I could sit down and play it today …” but it’s clear that a lot of preparation has taken place. And probably because the set is being recorded for a live broadcast no-one wants to hit a wrong note – and by and large they don’t, although Swarbrick’s fondness for his wah-wah pedal does occasionally get a little intrusive. While’s singing is superb, and Thompson’s guitar – warming up for his own set – often more intricate than on the album. Tinged with sadness and not a little nostalgia the result is an enchanting hour or so under the Cropredy stars.
Chris While
Chris While
Liege and Lief
Liege & Lief
The start of the Liege and Lief set was delayed by microphone problems that not only put some pressure on Thompson’s set, but also emerged during his opening song, ‘Needle and thread’ from his new ‘Sweet Warrior’ album, when we couldn’t hear a word of the lyrics. That apart, the set was faultless, with Thompson supported by Danny Thompson on the double bass, Pete Zorn on rhythm guitar, mandolin and horns and Michael Jerome on drums.   Richard Thompson
Highlights – well it’s difficult to pick – but I was engaged by ‘Mingulay boat song’, the simply magnificent solo on ‘Take care what you choose’ (which I think left most people speechless it was so good – certainly my son was open mouthed), ‘Dad’s gonna kill me’ – the story of a soldiers experience in Iraq, and favourites such as ‘Read about love’, ‘Wall of death’ and the cheekily misogynistic final encore ‘ Tearstained letter’. But I’ll leave it at that as we’re off to see him at the Roundhouse in October and will report back fully then. In the meantime it’s back to the luxurious mobile home, bed and preparation for another days worth of Fairport fest. - Nick (photographs by Kate)
 

FESTIVAL SPECIAL: FAIRPORT'S CROPREDY
Cropredy, Oxfordshire, August 9,10,11th 2007 - Part Two
Morning There’s something special about waking at dawn in the heart of the English countryside, the strong rays of the early morning sun cutting through the swirls of mist that rise from the nearby canal. Walking through the dew sodden grass, the only noise is occasional birdsong, the bleat of sheep from the gentle hillside that slopes up to the honey-coloured Georgian mansion to the south, or the lowing of calves and the gentle response of their mothers in the nearby fields.

And then, like a reluctant participant in a game of Russian roulette, choosing a toilet block for your morning ablutions, never knowing if you’ll be the unlucky guy who picks the one that’s just witnessed an impromptu sphincter Olympics.

Ah yes – the joys of the countryside indeed. And then breakfast – everywhere the smell of overheated oil, frying bacon, and bubbling beans fights to overcome the rank stench of body odour accumulated from two days without showers, whilst for some petit dejeuner comprises only the first beer (in the case of Roger in the van next door his own malodorous home-brew) and cigarette of the day. And if you don’t want to cook there are no shortages of opportunities to start your Cropredy day in true yeoman style before heading to the festival field, fishing chair in hand, tankard strapped to your belt, for an afternoon of ale, ale, err…. ale, and more ale...

Breakfast
Tankard Man
Stakeout

They’ve been out here at the crack of dawn, to reserve their seats …the bastards. It’s worse than trying to get a decent spot by the swimming pool when you’re on holiday in Spain. But with our coolbags and rucksacks we manage to get ourselves – just where we were last year, and, err…the year before that. And who should be over to our left but Tankard Man, who’s got his paint box out and is making a nice picture of the stage, bothered only by the fact that it’s too hot for his acrylics. And just in front of him the Pork Pie Club (you remember Serge, they like pork pies).

Yes, with a precision worthy of the dining room of a faded British seaside private hotel, everyone is exactly where they should be; or, as Robert Browning wrote, “God’s in his heaven – all’s right with the world”. Well not quite – it’s the hottest day of the year (again) and the sun is beating down on us – for the whole afternoon. The kamikaze are tucking into the Wadworths with a vengeance and falling like flies before too long – the Photographer produces something a little more Mediterranean. Nonetheless the heat is so bad that I spend much of the afternoon under a tablecloth, thereby missing opening act Richard Digance.

I did emerge to listen to Giveway, four charming albeit rather gauche sisters from Edinburgh who played a set of lively jigs and reels – they have a couple of albums under their belt and are just off to do a month long tour of the USA, including the Celtic Classic Festival in Bethlehem PA, which includes a ‘traditional haggis eating contest’. Cor! They’re followed by The Bucket Boys who have come all the way from Cornwall to play a rather superior pub-rock set with some nice country tunes.

Giveway
Nick's tablecloth (is this some kind of British Burkha? - Ed) - Right: Giveway
Ian Mathews
Ian Matthews
Next on is Ian Matthews. Remember him? An original member of Fairport Convention he left in early 1969 and had a smash hit in the following year with a cover of ‘Woodstock’. He made a few albums with his band Plainsong and then moved to the States where he continued to write and record, but seven years ago relocated to Amsterdam. It’s an odd set – he’s still got a sweet voice but a certain sense of discontent seems to run through his songs, the majority of which are rather unremarkable. He ends up getting his set cut short – “Well isn’t that just like me, I’ve run out of time”.
What followed was bizarre in the extreme. It’s the Strawbs, 1960s folk outfit (originally including Sandy Denny) who turned to ‘progressive’ rock under the influence of Rick Wakeman, and had chart success with the singles ‘Lay Down’ and the appalling ‘Part of the Union’, and albums like Witchwood and Bursting at the Seams. I never much liked the Strawbs, and in particular didn’t care for Dave Cousin’s affected singing voice; I never bought any of their albums, and as far as I can recall never saw them. They lurched through a bewildering number of incarnations before throwing in the towel in 1980, only to return in the 90s – now they tour and record in separate acoustic and electric line-ups. And boy have they got some devoted fans – most of whom seem to be sitting around us. So while I’m having a Spinal Tap moment, barely believing that Cousins could dare come out with such dated balderdash as ‘Witchwood’, ‘Benedictus’, ‘Autumn’, and ‘Ghosts’ in 2007, the fans are approaching a state of unbridled ecstasy. The Photographer warns me to stop my Cousins impersonation, as it’s drawing disapproving glances from our neighbours. And when at the end of their set they’re abruptly rushed off the stage by the crew there’s almost an ugly moment – and believe me Cropredy doesn’t do ugly. So in the face of a volley of angry boos and chants Cousins and the band are led out to take a final bow before the adoring masses. Now tell me – who was right – me or them? Either way we’re on the homeward strait – assisted by Tyneside veterans Bob Fox and Billy Mitchell who occupy the difficult pre-Fairport slot with ease. Very funny, occasionally very poignant. If the opportunity arises I’ll certainly go and see these guys again.
It’s Fairport. They’re on stage early (which turns out to be a mistake, as they end up finishing the set early, and have to put in a few hastily remembered fillers before the finale). They have a new album out, Sense of Occasion, and they’ve got back stage projection. Ah yes – and the gig is being filmed so we’ve also got the intrusive arm of an automatic camera rig moving in and out of our view.
Meet on the ledge
As you would expect there are high points and low points as a barrage of guests, including Maartin Allcock, Dave Swarbrick, Dave Mattacks, former guitarist Jerry Donahue, Richard Thompson, Uncle Tom Cobley and all, join the stage. Best for me is the Fairport Full House line-up, playing ‘Walk awhile’, ‘Doctor of Physick’ and ‘Sloth’, the last of which was positively thrilling. My notebook tells me that Jerry Donahue played a guitar solo on Sandy Denny’s ‘One more chance’, which I guess means I liked it. Ric Saunders (who played a wonderful fiddle part on ‘Portmeirion’) deserved a prize for the worst song introduction – “Talking of shooting stars, this song’s about shooting birds…” (it was the Robert Burns’ poem ‘Western winds’). We heard a couple of songs from the new album by the Photographer’s favourite Chris Leslie. ‘South Dakota to Manchester’, like ‘Edge of the world’ showed I thought an unhealthy tendency towards a rather repetitive Ralph McTell style ‘history song’. It’s a format that can work once (or maybe twice) but can quickly become tedious. Talking of which I’ve often been irritated by Dave Pegg’s blokey familiarity and have consequently sometimes doubted his talents. So I should go on record as saying that his bass playing was first class. And that was about it.
Matty Groves
Some controversy when they finally got round to playing the rather bastardised (as the previous evening had reminded us) version of ‘Matty Groves’ that has become a Fairport trademark. Playing a film that used Lego figures to portray the characters in the story was obviously sacrilege for some of those traditionalists around us. Me – I thought it was wonderfully surreal. And then before we knew it was time to meet on the ledge as the cold night closed in around us, with a firework finale to warm us on our way home.
Next year? Same time? Same place? Same people? Well, maybe …
- Nick (photographs by Kate)
Kate's Cropredy 2007 photo album



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