Fairport Convention
at the Cropredy Folk Festival,
Cropredy, England
(11 August 2001)

The stage is dark. The roadies have disappeared and the audience is on its feet waiting with anticipation. Suddenly, without fanfare or announcement, Fairport Convention takes the stage and launches into "Rocky Road." The crowd roars its approval. This show is the culmination of three days of live music under skies that have ranged from bright sunshine to grey clouds threatening rain. The main field finally is dry after the Thursday afternoon deluge (right before the festival's opening) that made walkways between it and the camping fields muddy.

During the past 34 years, in one incarnation or another, Fairport Convention has been performing and producing musical recordings. For a good chunk of those 34 years, the band also has sponsored a folk festival named after the small Oxfordshire village in which it takes place. From humble origins, Cropredy has grown to three days, with more than 14,000 people in attendance. Saturday, however, is by far the busiest day. Granted, it's the day most people don't need to take off work, but it's also when Fairport closes the festival with a culminating three-hour plus concert featuring performers from earlier during the weekend and the occasional unannounced special guests.

While the first song, "Rocky Road," was written by Steve Tilston, and the second, the traditional "Hexhamshire Lass," was learned from the singing of Bob Davenport, the third number took the band back to its own roots. As guitarist and vocalist Simon Nicol announced, "This next song was written by Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick in 1970." Chris Leslie, Dave Pegg and Nicol shared lead vocals on "Walk Awhile," a song written by two original Fairporters who have since left the band. (While Thompson often attends Cropredy, he missed this year. Swarbrick, however, was in attendance. He spent some time in the Woodworm Records stall manning a CD table and chatting.)

The band played two more favorites, "The Deserter" and the title track from their latest album, The Wood and the Wire, before inviting their first guest onstage. Vikki Clayton, who had appeared earlier in the day during her own set, arrived to sing lead vocals on "Crazy Man Michael." Dressed in what appeared to be a stereotypical "witch" outfit -- black dress and pointed hat, Clayton's voice rang out against Ric Sander's sweet fiddle. Clayton has often covered the work of an early Fairport member, the late Sandy Denny, and another guest, original Fairporter Ashley Hutchings, soon joined her. Bassist Dave Pegg managed a quick break as Hutchings took over on bass. "We get a lot of requests to do this song, but I'm not man enough to attempt it," said Nicol with a grin. "It's a delight to have Vikki here to prove it can be attempted. It takes us back to the special days of Fairport." Immediately, the unmistakable opening drumbeats and bass notes of "Tam Lin," a long ballad of magic and intrigue originally sung by Denny, commenced.

All band members, except for drummer Gerry Conway, took a break after that dramatic piece. Guest Steve Tilston, accompanied by Conway on bongos, performed his very danceable "The Naked Highwayman." The rest of the band returned for a seemingly odd bit immediately after -- a convincing cover of the Elvis hit "It's Now or Never." While the band played a number of crowd pleasers, they were quick to promote the new album they're currently working on. They showcased several new songs, "Madeleine" by Kenny Kravit, Anna Ryder's "The Crowd in Your Eyes" (both Kravit and Ryder were present and onstage), and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Leslie's own "My Love is in America." The Kravit song sounded as if the band was going to break into a hoedown, and Ryder's material featured two brass performers, a bass clarinet player, and a crowd sing-along. However, Leslie's number, a song inspired by the book The Living Note, has the potential to receive radio airplay in the States, particularly on AAA stations with folk shows. Another new Leslie song, "The Light of Day," is a longer one. Introduced as "an epic tale of mystery and superstition," it perhaps is meant to recapture the spirit of Fairport's work with traditional ballads.

More guests soon arrived, including respected folk stalwarts Beryl and Roger Marriott. With Beryl on piano and Roger on mouth organ, the sound mix was a bit off for their first number with Fairport, a medley of tunes from Beryl's latest album. Beryl introduced the next guest by mentioning she'd met him when he was 16 and that he'd babysat her son. Former Fairporter Dave Swarbrick arrived on stage in a wheelchair and with oxygen (Swarbrick is still dealing with the repercussions of a severe chest infection that hospitalized him two years ago) to much applause. The assembled group then launched into a series of tunes, many of which were written by Swarbrick. A group of young Irish stepdancers from Coventry took the stage during one of those sets.

While Swarbrick clearly was the crowd's sentimental favorite among all the guests, there was a loud roar when the most commercially accessible guest, Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson, came on board. "It's good to see you," Anderson, holding his flute, told the crowd. "Let's inject some rock and roll into the system." Anderson and Fairport, of course, have a history of performing together, as Fairport has opened for Jethro Tull, and Fairport members, perhaps most notably bassist Dave Pegg, have played with Tull.

The rock 'n' roll didn't start immediately. They first played a gentle Anderson rocker, "Life's a Long Song," on which Anderson contributed flute and shared lead vocals with Pegg. Ric Sanders' "Portmerion," to be included on the forthcoming Fairport album, followed. After that, however, it was a blast from the past, with numbers such as "John Barleycorn," "Serenade" and "Locomotive Breath." They went all out on the latter both musically and in terms of special effects. "Shit, we're on fire!" exclaimed Anderson in mock shock as the smoke machine did its job.

There wasn't much they could do to follow "Locomotive Breath" except play a slow, soft and popular Fairport number, Ralph McTell's "Hiring Fair," to lead up to the grand finale -- the moment for which all the fans were waiting -- "Matty Groves." This long traditional ballad traditionally signals the close of Cropredy, and most people took to their feet and sang along. After that, everyone who'd attended the festival in the past knew there was only one song left -- Richard Thompson's "Meet on the Ledge." It always seems as if practically everyone who performed at some time during the weekend -- and even some who didn't -- may turn up on a very full stage. David Hughes, Jacqui McShea, Paul Kovit (from Whirligig), Chris While, Julie Matthews, Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson were among those guests who crowded along downstage for this requisite Cropredy closing.

Then it was all over but the clean up. Thousands of fans gradually headed towards the exits, but even then, some of them probably were thinking about Cropredy 2002 -- Fairport's 35th anniversary. What treats could be in store then?

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 29 September 2001