Going to see Fairport Convention is like catching up with old friends. It certainly is for this reviewer who tonight was nine days short of a half century since his first Fairport gig. If the welcome was any guide, most of the audience could do much better. The current four-piece is Simon Nicol who co-founded Fairport in 1967, Dave Pegg who joined two years later and Chris Leslie and Ric Sanders who have notched up 26 and 29 years respectively.
Seated facing this full house Nicol greeted the audience with, “Let’s not let each other down”, a canny reminder that just because we have all been here many times before we shouldn’t take each other for granted. Wise words, and prescient too but this was no nostalgia-fest. Of course, we had come to hear old favourites, songs that have become part of our life but equally Fairport write new songs and release new albums. Bookended by some all-time classics the performance’s newer material demonstrates that this is a working, touring band making some very fine music.
Starting with an album “We released only fifty-three years ago” the unmistakable jaunty fiddle intro from Sanders led into ‘Walk Awhile’ from ‘Full House’. Taking turns leading each verse then harmonising over the chorus this acoustic version captured, if more sedately, all that plain good feeling of the original. Next up from that album came ‘Doctor of Physick’, again gentler than the electric original, the tale remains sinister as, “Doctor Monk unpacks his trunk tonight”. Nicol and Pegg gave their deep appreciation to the writers of these first two songs, Fairport stalwart and one of the finest fiddlers ever, “David Cyril Eric Swarbrick” and Fairport co-founder “Lord” Richard Thompson.
Advancing only a year further to the next release ‘Angel Delight’, the lilting ‘Banks of the Sweet Primroses’ particularly suited the acoustic quartet led by guitarist Nicol whose vocals interspersed with the others with none showing not a single hint of wear. We may have been in rows of seats but the intimacy of the occasion felt more as if we were fortunate guests in the real Angel Delight, the pub/house that once housed the entire band and their families. Greatly boosting that amiability was the chat between songs. Fondly remembering Swarbrick, bassist Pegg gave a hilarious account of how the local constabulary once pursued the fiddler to a gig before demanding he open his fiddle case. Finding a small block of resin inside, Inspector Snapper thought he had caught this drug-crazed beatnik red-handed only to discover that in front of him was another form of the substance, the purpose of which was not for the player’s inhalation but for the care of his instrument.
From 1971 they wound the recording clock right up to their most recent album, ‘Shuffle and Go’ , released just before the pandemic struck. ‘Cider Rain’ depicts a sunny vista of Pegg’s new home in Brittany -whether the local produce falling from the sky is just wishful thinking remains unclear. The first set contained much to remind us of how much “newbie” Chris Leslie has brought to Fairport both musically (fiddle, mandolin, bouzouki, African palm piano) and in his writing. On ‘The Year of Fifty Nine’ he reminisced about the UFOs reported flying over rural Oxfordshire. To a mixture of folk and doo-wop he perfectly captured the fascination with space then, “Oh Dan Dare on the radio/ Was he flying in? Could he save the show?”. ‘Festival Bell’ is a celebration of a bell that rings out from St Mary’s church in Cropredy on the eve of the annual Fairport festival there. What sounds like a traditional air so beloved by Fairport, it is hard to believe this was written a little over a decade ago. The year before he joined the band Leslie’s ‘Lalla Rookh’ appeared on ‘Old New Borrowed Blue’ for what was then dubbed as ‘Fairport Acoustic Convention’. Such foresight for 27 years later as this haunting ballad is so perfect for tonight’s line-up. Two instrumentals, described as an “amuse-bouche” added a touch of jazz on ‘Bankruptured’ and ‘Steampunkery’, well you can guess the unlikely genre here. Introducing the latter gave Sanders an opportunity to share various experiences about his age, health and collection of puns.
Then second set got off to a stirring start with the jigs of ‘Royal Seleccion No. 13’. Nicol described ‘Honour and Praise’ as a “proper folk song”, as indeed it was, complete with a ship on distant seas whose captain rued he hadn’t gone down with his crew. After more japery from Sanders, ‘Portmerion’ showcased his serious side with a flowing violin introduction leading this beautiful instrumental piece. Leslie’s ‘Happy Man’ brought things back to more English traditional lines, the rhythm beating in time to those oddly dressed Morrismen and then it was northwards for the fast and furious ‘John Gaudie/ Shetland Tunes’ as Leslie and Sanders duelled.
“Too good to leave behind” said Nicol of ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’ in a tender tribute to Sandy Denny. No prizes for guessing the final two songs. “Nineteen verses, two chords and a banjo” was Nicol’s intro to ‘Matty Groves’. In case anyone didn’t know the story Pegg’s sign language should have helped. There could only be one encore. Not so much a song, ‘Meet On The Ledge’ is a hymn in celebration of all that’s Fairport Convention.
This was the final show of Fairport’s five week autumn tour. Pegg seemed surprised by Nicol’s announcement that they will soon go into rehearsals for their next run. If the songs need little practice tonight’s show put no doubt the great care Fairport take in their selection. Fairport remains a touring band who hit the road again in February. See you then.