Cropredy Folk Festival,
Cropredy, UK
(8-10 August 2002)

Broderick • The Dubliners • Fairport Convention • Oysterband • Richard Thompson • & more!

2002 marks Fairport Convention's 35th anniversary, and where better to celebrate it than at Cropredy, their festival named after the small Oxfordshire village in which it is held. While they didn't quite pull out all the stops this year, the talent and history amassed on stage, particularly on Friday and Saturday nights, was hard to beat. What did make the weekend, rather than special effects and last-minute guest artists, were the number of pleasant surprises and interesting covers. Saturday night fireworks aside, it truly could have been any other year at Cropredy but for the reunion of Fairport "oldtimers" onstage.

One of the more unpleasant surprises took place on the hill itself, not onstage. While the usual banners swung in the breeze high above the crowd, proclaiming the folks sitting beneath them to be Welsh, fans of pigs (by a banner with a black pig on a pink field), or perhaps NASA astronauts (a space suit flew in the wind), the beach shelters constructed within the audience were a new phenomenon. Vendors sold the beach shelters for a relatively cheap price, and while these open-to-the front creations weren't actual tents and weren't tall enough for an adult to stand inside, people could sit in relative comfort if it rained. Rather than reach for all the raingear, they merely moved their chairs inside the shelter. While the shelters weren't allowed near the front of the audience, where pretty much everyone stood anyway, they were allowed elsewhere on the field. The result was to block the view of people who merely were seated in camp chairs. As the weekend continued, more shelters and some actual small tents dotted the landscape as well. It seemed as if a number of festival attendees were more interested in personal comfort than seeing who was performing. What's up for next year? Camper vans parked on the grass?

Oh well. Opening the entire gig on Thursday afternoon was Britain's Freeway Jam, who were lively and entertaining during what has been termed the "graveyard slot," when people are still arriving. Later in the evening, E2K performed a fusion of all sorts of styles and sounds, ranging from jazz to traditional folk to pure Ghanaian, demonstrating their various influences. Keyboardist and percussionist Kwame Yeboah, from Ghana, had given all of the band honorary Ghanaian names, so they returned the favour and bestowed him with an honorary British name, Eric Smith. While awaiting their encore, crowds chanted, "Eric! Eric! Eric!" They were a rousing wake up call after the Dubliners, who basically did what they've been doing for 40 years; their set wasn't bad, it simply was unadventurous.

One of the lesser-known names on the bill, Sarah Jory, took the audience by surprise Friday afternoon with her lively energy and superb pedal steel guitar playing. While she focused on cover material, she has the talent to make her own songs written by artists such as Sting. When she wasn't playing pedal steel, she climbed up on the monitors and leaped into the air for the final chord, a la Fairport's Ric Saunders. Her voice, energy and guitar playing should make her a force to be reckoned with in the future.

Another relatively new act, Broderick, a quintet from Southampton featuring BBC Young Tradition winner Luke Daniels on guitar and fiddle/viola duo Colm Murphy and Clare Garrard, had the scheduling luck to follow Oysterband. (That timing did seem odd; did Oysterband have someplace to go quickly?) Initially, I wasn't too impressed by them. They started out sounding like a decent pub band, but nothing more. However, as their set progressed, they seemed to grow in confidence. Their playing became stronger and destroyed my original poor assessment of them. Like Jory, they have the potential to become compelling contenders in the folk world.

It did seem odd that Broderick would play after Oysterband, a group already in the big-time. I still can't help wondering if Oysterband had to run off to make another gig. They were their usual lively, fun selves, performing crowd favourites such as "Put Out the Lights," but they also delved into cover material when they played the Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere."

Until Friday evening, the skies had been an odd mixture of threatening storm clouds and sunny spells. It had rained a little that afternoon, but it wasn't until right before Richard Thompson took the stage that the deluge hit. Thompson himself asked the crowd, "Does it rain every time I come here?" -- perhaps referring to the massive rainstorm that occurred during his 1999 set. Not even the rain could diminish his performance, however, as he played guitar against Danny Thompson's bass. The two of them have the amazing capacity to make two instruments sound like more, as they played old favourites; a number of songs from Mock Tudor, Thompson's most recent original studio release, and previewed a couple of songs from a forthcoming new album tentatively scheduled for a January 2003 release. If those songs are any indication of the album's strength, it should be an remarkable disc. Amidst the usual morose and reflective lyrics, Thompson also played three of his more amusing numbers, his anti-Madonna song, "Madonna's Wedding"; "My Daddy is a Mummy," originally written for an Egyptian unit at his son's school; and his fun cover of Britney Spears' "Ooops!? I Did It Again." That one has to be heard to be believed; I hope he records it some time in the future. Other extremely pleasant surprises included the American ballad "Shenandoah," and his even more beautiful rendition of a 15th-century Italian ballad, "So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo."

The rain ended as did Thompson's set, but Thompson wasn't offstage for long. Next up was the highlight of the weekend: Fairport Convention -- the early years. Ashley Hutchings (who was signing copies of his just released authorized biography on Saturday) helped present what basically was the history of Fairport Convention. Past grievances (as outlined in the Hutchings biography, which I started reading the next day) seemed to have been put aside in favor of recreating some of Fairport's best music. Practically every former Fairport artist, with the obvious exceptions of the late Martin Lamble, Sandy Denny and Trevor Lucas, was there, including Judy Dyble, their first lead vocalist.

Vikki Clayton, who took over Denny's vocals on some of the songs, opened the set by leading the anthem "Come All Ye." "Oldtimers" were gradually invited onstage. Iain Matthews took the lead on "Time Will Show the Wiser," and Dyble, who hadn't been featured at Cropredy since 1967, sang lead vocals on "One Sure Thing." Thompson took over the lead vocals on "Jack O' Diamonds," and the trip down memory lane continued. It was an informative visit, particularly for those too young to have seen the earlier incarnations of the band perform live. After years of hearing a newer Fairport play "The Deserter," I personally enjoyed hearing a different "The Deserter," one that was originally recorded back in 1969.

What could Fairport do to top Friday? Saturday would be a challenge, but Little Johnny England, a group that sometimes reminded me of early Steeleye Span, was up for it. Eddi Reader played songs from her most recent recording and various other popular songs from her repertoire. While successful in her own right, Reader's songwriting ability and brilliant voice should have taken her even further in the music business. Of course, there's still time for more members of the album-buying public to discover her. Later, after the Alison Brown Quartet had wowed the audience with Brown's superb banjo picking and her band's overall excellence, Brown invited Reader and Boo Hewerdine onstage to join her in her bluegrass rendition of Hewerdine's "Hummingbird," a song Reader had played during her own set. Reader sang two very different versions of the same song that day, and both of them came across very positively -- a credit, perhaps to Reader's voice, Brown's arrangement and Hewerdine's composition. To be honest, however, I think I was the most impressed by Brown's announcement that she would be signing copies of her CDs as soon as she nursed Hannah Brown, her five-week-old daughter. Touring with a child that young and playing such remarkable music impresses me a lot.

However, I soon found myself just as amazed by Deborah Bonham, although for different reasons. The little sister of the late Jon Bonham from Led Zeppelin, her act was less folk than rock 'n' roll, but boy, could she rock 'n' roll. There were lots on drums on "Black Coffee," a song from her latest album, The Old Hyde. However, she could rock just as well on an acoustic version of Led Zeppelin's "Battle of Evermore," which she dedicated to her brother and to Sandy Denny, who had sung on the track on Led Zeppelin IV. Bonham later confessed that she'd lost her voice the previous week and had been worried about this gig, but any evidence of laryngitis was missing, particularly during her performance of her new album's title track and her cover of Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll."

Minor fireworks and a traditional song, "The Widow of Westmoreland's Daughter," kicked off Fairport's three-and-a-half hour closing set Saturday night. Guests, some of whom appeared Friday night, joined the current Fairport line-up. Richard Thompson, introduced as "the rainmaster himself," first returned for "Walk a While." Ashley Hutchings and Eddi Reader appeared on a cover of Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere." Richard Thompson, Dave Swarbrick and Jerry Donahue led "Sloth." "God bless Trevor Lucas," was proclaimed after performing "Polly on the Shore," a song on which the late Lucas worked with Swarbrick on arranging the traditional lyrics to Dave Pegg's music. Vikki Clayton once more took on the Sandy Denny role on "Stranger to Himself" and "Rising for the Moon." Ralph McTell sang lead on some of his songs Fairport has covered, including "The Plainsman" and "Red and Gold," the latter a song about an English Civil War battle in Cropredy itself.

Anti-war songs did seem prevalent, with pieces such as the aforementioned "Sloth," "Red and Gold" and "Polly on the Shore," along with "John the Gun," which afforded the band several electric solos, and "Flowers of the Forest." Julie Matthew's superb ironic take on British colonisation, "The Jewel in the Crown," when juxtaposed with the anti-war songs, seemed to take on new meaning. I'm sure it was just coincidence, but part of me wonders if Fairport might have been making a subconscious statement about current world affairs. Probably not, but it's interesting to note.

One advantage to having so many guests onstage was that it gave the current line-up the occasional chance to rest during this incredibly long set. Perhaps that was made Chris Leslie and Ric Saunders so lively and fresh on song No. 32 of the evening, "The Bowman's Retreat," which featured the two of them on a fine fiddle (or scraper, as Ric Saunders called the instrument when Allison Brown had asked him whether he referred to the instrument as a violin or a fiddle). At 11:36 p.m., song No. 33 appeared. It was time for the night to draw to a close with the band's traditional finale, "Matty Groves." The numerous verses and instrumental solos, which segued into "Dirty Linen," took the band close to midnight and the expected encore, Thompson's "Meet on the Ledge," on which Fairport was joined by numerous friends who had appeared on stage earlier, along with more fireworks.

"Thank you, thank you," said an exuberant, if not exhausted, Simon Nicol, the only original band member in Fairport's current line-up "Words are not enough for the opportunity you've given us over the last 35 years." Nicol is correct. Mere words are not enough. Instead, the music is what makes Fairport what it is, has kept the group going and continually evolving all of these years regardless of the line-up, and draws fans back every year to a small, Oxfordshire village. Thirty-five years is not enough for Fairport either. The souvenir program lists the dates of their autumn U.S. tour and their winter shows in the UK. And Christine Pegg, who organizes the festival, has little time to rest. The 2003 Cropredy dates have already been announced.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 24 August 2002