Fairport’s Cropredy Convention 2012
Here is a piece I wrote for Rhythms magazine on the Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival in August 2012
By Rob Dickens
It’s become quite a phenomenon – members of the English electric folk band Fairport Convention (whose recent album Babbacombe Lee Live Again was reviewed in last month’s Rhythms) have organised an annual music festival in the village of Cropredy in Oxfordshire, England. The gathering dates back to 1976 when Fairport played in a back garden to a gathering of 750 locals. The performance was repeated the next year with other fans allowed in and 1978 saw the first organised event.
The band played a farewell concert at Cropredy in 1979 and promised to return each year as a reunion vehicle, thereby preserving the identity and aura of the band (in its many guises – over thirty musicians have been through the band over the journey). The evolution of the event has continued to where there’s 30 hours of live music over three days for 20,000 fans. Its setting is stunning – a large gently sloping field, bordered by a myriad of bar, food and goods stalls, rolling to a single stage, surrounded by pretty countryside. One stage only so almost everyone brings their own chairs, anchored in the same place all day.
Jon Boden of Bellowhead
The 2012 event took place August 8-10. The bill was strong and varied – that it was the 45th anniversary of Fairport gave it an extra appeal. Day One got going with an extended trailer on the large screen of the forthcoming movie The Last Shop Standing: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Independent Record Store. A great way to start proceedings and fill in the time for patient punters (Australian festival organisers – take note!). The traditional opener, a short acoustic set with the current Fairport line-up (Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, Ric Sanders, Chris Leslie and Gerry Conway) was well received. Kieran Goss followed – an engaging and likeable Irish singer-songwriter, described by Rodney Crowell as “one of Ireland’s national treasures”. Legend is a seven-piece outfit dedicated to the life and music of Bob Marley and they certainly got the crowd moving with an energetic set. But for me the highlight of the day was Bellowhead – an eleven-strong collective mixing a number of styles – jazz, classical, driving sea shanties about fair maidens, all over a firm base of English traditional music. Lead singer Jon Boden had a significant presence on stage. Their 2012 release Hedonism, produced by the legendary John Leckie, is definitely worth checking out. Squeeze completed proceedings with a strong, pop-based segment which featured their late ’70s hits ‘Tempted’, ‘Hourglass’ and of course ‘Cool For Cats’.
Ellen And The Escapades
Ellen and the Escapades started Day Two with an enchanting blend of folk and pop with Ellen’s gritty voice a cornerstone of the band’s sound. They have supported First Aid Kit and Paolo Nutini. Dead Flamingoes, on the other hand present a much darker text, featuring James Walbourne and Kami Thompson (Richard and Linda’s daughter who released her debut Love Lies last year. A collection of interesting and spiked songs – “Before you fed your neck through the noose, did you fashion one for me?” Their only release so far is a four-track EP entitled Habit – worth looking out for this duo, if your tastes veer toward the dark and macabre. Next up Tarras – in the early 2000s Mojo named their debut release Rising album of the month but, after a period of intense touring, the band split in 2002. Now regenerated, they provided vigorous interpretations of original, defiant English folk traditional material, driving at full speed but never losing the melodies and subtlety of the core.
Songwriter sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell front Larkin Poe who gave the assembled a stylish and distinctive display of clever instrumentation. They supported Elvis Costello on his European tour last year. A Richard Thompson solo set followed – showing precisely why he is so highly regarded –one of the top 20 guitarists according to Rolling Stone magazine, some forty album releases and a songwriter’s award from the Americana Music Association this year. His solo set on Day Two showed his ability to play fast and slow, exquisite and blistering guitar pieces in turn. ’1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ and ‘Saving The Good Stuff For You’ were my highlights.
Joan Armatrading closed the day – I haven’t heard much of her lately but, with a new album out (Starlight) and in very fine voice, she crafted an impressive set – I’d forgotten how many hits she has had – ‘Love and Affection’, ‘Down To Zero’, ‘Me Myself I’, ‘Drop The Pilot’ and ‘All The Way From America’. In hindsight I think the organisers made a mistake with the order and Thompson should have closed the day. However, I was told by a reliable source that Joan won’t have anyone follow her on a bill. Anyhow, a corker of a day.
Now good food doth a good festival make, so what did we have on offer? The first experience was a beauty as we visited Leon’s Vegetarian Cuisine stall, a festival stalwart and plenty of delicious offerings, and a signed cookbook to boot for early customers. Other food highlights were English pasties and their flat cousins – oggies, curries a plenty, a very good sausage outlet. Plenty for the sweet tooths and the usual steak sandwiches, pizza and chips.
I do need to mention alcohol. Two bars side by side, where the view to the stage was excellent, enabling happy punters to watch, chat and drink at the same time. A further innovation of the festival is that the artists have no separate drinking area backstage, so if they want a pint, they mix with the punters. You are also allowed to take your own supplies into the festival – there are no bag checks at the gates.
A Drink At Cropredy Cemetery
Day Three dawned – we decided to head off to the local Cropredy Village which is 10 mins down the road by foot. Here we checked out the canal lock, the local pubs, got some supplies for the day, looked at the markets and visited the village church (parts of which dates from as early as 1050 and features in a Fairport song). Luckily the Red Lion pub and the church are adjacent so you can grab a beer and drink in the church cemetery without fear of hitting your head on the pub’s low ceilings! We took the alternative route back to the festival site, walking alongside the canal, checking out the houseboats – the weather was magnificent.
Our first act for the day was Richard Digance, an entertaining performance with just a guitar and lots of stories, who kept the crowd attentive. Something that you are unlikely ever to see outside of England, Morris On is the name of a highly-influential folk rock 1972 release by members of Fairport Convention. Little did they know this would trigger a revival of the quirkiest of English dance traditions and so here we had The Morris On Band – an hour of costumes, white hanky waving and dancing round swords, all to the tune of a traditionally decked out brass band. Brother & Bones cranked up the volume and the energy levels next with a blend of soul stomping and Calan breathed new life into traditional Welsh folk melodies with an eye-catching segment. Big Country reformed in 2010. The band’s debut The Crossing stayed in the English charts for over eighty weeks and their follow-up Steeltown debuted at Number One. They have released over twenty albums since then but have not been able to gain the same traction as their two early ’80s releases. A solid rendition of their extensive repertoire with front man and songwriter Stuart Adamson looking like a calmer and blonder version of Ozzie Osborne. Alas, for me the set never reached any great heights.
The Morris On Dancers
What was left? – Fairport Convention itself of course, who played a mammoth three-and-a-half-hour set, starting with the current lineup and joined by many past members such as Dave Mattacks, Ashley Hutchings, Jerry Donahue and Maartin Allcock, guests the Larkin Poe sisters and English singer/actor Blair Dunlop. The band’s repertoire as you would imagine is extensive – songs like ‘Matty Groves’, ‘Come All Ye’, ‘Crazy Man Michael’, ‘Fotheringay’, ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘The Deserter’ were all on offer. The traditional finale of ‘Meet On The Ledge’ was something to behold, thousands of waving arms and a whole lotta love in the air.
Compared with some of their earlier recorded material, perhaps the current band lacks the edge of the halcyon days. And Simon Nicol who now does most of the singing has a good voice, but not the majestic sweep of original vocalist Sandy Denny. Richard Thompson’s guest spots enlivened the material with his brilliant guitar work and worth a special mention is Dave Swarbrick whose violin playing was almost hallucinatory, blending perfectly with Thompson’s guitar and providing a real sharpness and vigour to the music. But there’s no doubt that the band continues to thrive and add to its already considerable legacy.
Simon Nicol of Fairport Convention
Finally, if you are planning to go, here are some tips: take lots of clothes and sunscreen as it can get very hot during the day and the temperature can really drop in the evening; pace yourself as three long days in a row can be tiring; get a comfy chair, it will be your friend; speaking of friends, take a dog and you’ll really fit in (yes there were heaps of canines and fashionable owners); take your own alcohol in, it will save you a bundle; the grass is quite thick and there is the occasional cow pat to dodge; and do some Fairport research, it will pay you back in spades. A fabulous place and a great event – all hail Fairport!