fri 23/03/2018

Fairport Convention, 100 Club | reviews, news & interviews

Fairport Convention, 100 Club

Fairport Convention, 100 Club

Britain's friendliest band offer a better way to have fun.

Fairport Convention: duelling ukuleles The Queen's Hall

Fairport Convention in the abstract seem romantic and timely. Their Sixties folk-rock is being rediscovered by many of our best emerging songwriters; the late Sandy Denny is still written about; and their most famous graduate, Richard Thompson next month curates Meltdown 2010. However, in the concrete, the Fairports are a somewhat more problematic proposition. Over 19 incarnations in 43 years, they have recorded almost 50 albums. To top it all they are loved by their fans with a level of detail normally reserved for sci-fi gatherings. This all makes getting your head around Fairport Convention 2010 feel somewhere between daunting and exhausting.

Or it would if they weren’t so consciously welcoming. They bill their annual Cropredy Festival as Britain’s friendliest, and boy do they do friendly. Every chair at the 100 Club bore a newsletter, emblazoned with the legend “Hello Fairporters!” covering invites to various events. Not that they really need to court anyone; they already have a devoted demographic, measuring out their lives in mandolin strings.

Judging by singer Simon Nicol's opening gambit, “It’s good to see so many familiar faces,” Cropredy festival veterans were present in strength last night. These and other “Fairporters” filled the venue in a charmingly haphazard way, some seated in rows and by tables, some standing and others propping up the bar. For the most part they were of a certain age, although there was a smattering of hipsters and teenagers perhaps keen to know what their parents get up to. And what their parents get up to was like a rollicking, slightly tipsy, family music gathering presided over by an avuncular man with more than a passing resemblance to Kenny Rogers.

Original band member Nicol shares lead vocals (and awful jokes) with Chris Leslie who writes most of the recent songs. Nicol promised a night that would include a combination of traditional folk, original compositions and a couple of covers. In what was presumably a tester set for the August festival, the songs seem to have been chosen partly to represent highlights of the back catalogue, partly to showcase some of the more modern Fairport material, and largely for sheer good fun. And this came from the traditional and traditional influenced pieces.

Seeing so many middle aged people losing themselves entirely and unselfconsciously in songs like “The Widow of Westmoreland” or “Danny Jack’s Chase” made me ask myself the question, “have the Fairporters actually found a better way of life?”. And one answer came in the form of Dave Pegg’s introduction to his song “Peggy’s Pub”. At the height of the Sandy Denny era they were all going to get rich, and he was going to buy a pub and retire. But it didn't work out that way and instead he got to travel the world for forty years and have a great time. And boy did he look like he was a having a great time tonight, especially in “Ukulele Central” - three ukuleles, one bass ukulele and a washboard.

Their own compositions have, in half a lifetime, passed the ultimate test of being cover-worthyWhat was perhaps surprising is how well Chris Leslie’s songs – he’s been with the band since 1996 - fitted into the Fairport canon. “Wood and Wire” sounded like one of Richard Thompson’s, “My Love is in America” sounded more like James Taylor, than “Frozen Man”, the James Taylor cover they played, and “I’m Already There” had the feel of a prog rock classic. And he broughts a touch of showmanship by playing the violin, bouzouki, mandolin, and guitar, and with his unrepeatably groan-worthy sense of humour. But the highlight of the two and a half hour set came in the shape of the ghost of Sandy Denny, and an astonishing version of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”. Given the frivolity of the previous number and the almost untouchable status of the original who’d have thought that Nicol could pull off all that psychedelic existential mystery? Although maybe you could have guessed that that the question posed might take on particular significance to some of the audience such as the middle aged men to my right I caught wiping pieces of dust from their eyes.

The evening ended with reworked version of “Meet on the Ledge”, mouthed syllable by syllable by the crowd, and with a gorgeous new violin line from Ric Sanders. A song written by Richard Thompson when he was 20, it still doesn’t seem remotely strange to hear it performed by a group aged around 60. And maybe that is the ultimate compliment you can pay a folk-rock band. That their own compositions, those stories and emotions, have, in half a lifetime, passed the ultimate test of being cover-worthy. As Nicol himself said when introducing “Crazy Man Michael”, “A lot of the songs we play are called traditional, well 40 years on, this song has become traditional”.


Watch the video for Meet on the Ledge from Cropredy 2007 on you tube:

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