Fairport Convention in Dundee’s imposing Caird Hall was my first gig. Aged 15 it was an event that made a lasting impression. Not just because it was the first of what became one of my life’s greatest pleasures, but it instilled in me a relentless curiosity for the music’s origins. With their uplifting jigs and instrumentals, heartrending ballads and own compositions, Fairport expressed a profound sense of musical roots that has fascinated me ever since.
Fairport Convention might appear an odd choice of band for a teenager living in the north-east of Scotland. My pals getting into music beyond the charts tended towards rock, the heavier the better or prog. But I had to admit the likes of Zeppelin and Deep Purple did very little for me and anything in a cover designed by Roger Dean was to be treated with deep suspicion. By the early 1970s a lot of these bands had played the 2,000 seater Caird Hall and stories from mates who’d been to these shows were as fantastical as some of the lyrics they must have heard. Around that time I heard Fairport’s ‘Angel Delight’ album that belonged to a friend’s elder brother. This was completely different, the blend of folk and rock was something I hadn’t come across. The first album I bought was ‘Fog On The Tyne’ so perhaps there was some sort of connection. I wonder what would have happened if it was Lindisfarne who was coming to Dundee? Who knows? That pleasure came later, in Newcastle.
Anyway, not long after that introduction to Fairport I spotted them in The (Dundee) Courier’s list of upcoming concerts at Caird Hall. My three mates who took their music seriously were all up for Fairport Convention. That was the easy bit and if someone had told us that one day we could buy tickets by jabbing a device in our hand we’d think they’d been overdoing the prog rock. Living fourteen miles from Dundee in Forfar, best known for its bridies, a delicious meat and onion pasty or from the football scores (East Fife 5 – Forfar 4), would mean a separate bus trip to buy the tickets. That was fine because any serious record purchasing, not to mention football, took place there.
Pre-gig I do not recall anything much apart from the size of the place. Caird Hall hosted a wide range of events from classical music to graduations but it most certainly was not packed to the rafters for Fairport Convention. Shouldn’t they have been playing the Student’s Union? However, that counted for nothing in the excitement of lights dimming and the announcer beseeching a very warm welcome for Fairport Convention. That anticipation has not diminished in the intervening half century.
Enter Trevor Lucas, Dave Swarbrick, Dave Pegg, Jerry Donahue and Dave Mattacks, Fairport’s 13th line-up since forming in 1967. They had recently released ‘Nine’ to, it is fair to say, muted response. All the founding members having departed, this was seen as a lean time for Fairport Convention possibly heading towards their demise. Perhaps that accounted for the empty seats? The cavernous auditorium held no fears for the band, all in high spirits. Lucas tall with a mane of red hair dominated, Pegg I’m sure put a pint glass on his amp as Swarbrick flitted around in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
Opening the show as it did the new album ‘The Hexhamshire Lass’ is indelibly stamped on my memory. Discounting that this was my first live show, I shall never forget the sheer thrill of that first song. Fiddler Swarbrick skipped around the stage alternating between singing and playing as if possessed. “Away with the buff and the blue/ And away with the cap and feather/ I want to see my lass/ who lives in Hexhamshire”. Into those folk lines resounded Pegg’s bass, the resulting mix sounding a lot more rock than folk. The band played a lot louder than I had anticipated. I was mesmerised.
Again, relying on distant memory but supported by a Fairport website listing all the shows by year with some setlists, they played most of ‘Nine’. That’s where the history bit came up. Drummer Dave Mattacks set the scene for ‘Polly On The Shore’ a song about a man press-ganged into a privateer, “to the East Indies we were bound/ to plunder the raging main”. Before explaining the detail he asked, “any historians in the audience?” There just seemed so much to this stuff. It was a completely new dimension.
Countering Swarbrick’s high speed vocal delivery Lucas sang in a resonant baritone, the Australian folk singer sounding every bit the traditional English folkie. American guitarist Jerry Donahue’s finger-picking styles brought what would have been called a touch of americana to Fairport had the term been in use then. But talented as they both were diehard Fairport fans had been lamenting the departure of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny. Released only six months previously, ‘Rosie’ was considered a far cry from ‘Liege & Lief’, the album that made Fairport, and is often credited for starting the whole folk-rock genre.
As the set progressed such reservations dissipated. They certainly had not occurred to the Forfar four. Back to the history, Swarbrick showed he could slow down and sing with touching pathos. His interpretation of Richard Lovelace’s poem ‘To Althea From Prison’ carried all the grief of a man in the condemned cell saying his last words to his love. This Fairport line-up wrote their share of original material too. ‘Bring ‘Em Down’ with its resounding chorus bookended delicate fiddle and guitar interplay between Swarbrick and Donahue. ‘Possibly Parsons Green’ had a relaxed west coast vibe that would have qualified this line-up for the very first’s description as “the British Jefferson Airplane”.
Lest anyone thinks this is all getting a bit serious the instrumental medleys were full-on hoedowns. Something titled ‘The Devil In The Kitchen (Fiddlestix)’ gives a clue but again I’d no idea how explosive these would be live. Sure, a more intimate venue would have boosted the atmosphere further but with nothing to compare, we didn’t care.
Thus began my lifelong love of Fairport Convention. It was my good fortune to see them a year later after Sandy Denny had rejoined. There have been times when I thought they really should call it a day but others, many in the past couple of decades when they have shown all their old verve. Starting with Richard Thompson there have been some outstanding shows from the many ex-Fairports.
But from way back in 1973 digging into the roots of songs has been integral to my lifelong interest in music, one definitely not confined to folk/rock but to all the many other genres I have embraced since. Whether tracking back to the roots of the Allman Brothers Band, Rory Gallagher or all the country music I went on to discover is thanks to that first time. Those were the roads that led to americana.
As a postscript, my three compadres and I saw many shows at Caird Hall before expanding our horizons southwards to Edinburgh and Glasgow (the magnificent Apollo Theatre) then on to the Knebworth and Reading festivals three years later.