FolkWales Online Magazine

Fairport conjure a cauldron of ageless folk magic

FAIRPORT CONVENTION – St David’s Hall, Cardiff: January 30, 2016

It all comes round again…  a typical Fairport Convention concert tour is reminiscent of the wheeling year, an old trusty calendar or, like another annual winter custom, the hope that spring will blossom for another year. A Fairport evening is like a meeting of old friends; Simon Nicol was chatting to family and acquaintances in the Lefel 3 Lounge, and nobody batted an eyelid. It was that homely, safe and familiar.

As a callow 17-year-old in that Summer Of Love, I journeyed to Brian Epstein’s Savile Theatre in London to see the acid-rocksters Pink Floyd; the opening act was six untidy musicians, who shambled on stage and launched into ‘One Sure Thing’. They only did two numbers, but they had me hooked. Donovan’s ‘Season Of The Witch’ was a revelation; a shock-haired 17-year-old called Richard Thompson made his rapturous guitar sing and work magic. There were many influences that set me on the folk road to Damascus, but Fairport Convention certainly chivvied me in the right direction.

The band used to meet up in Simon’s house, named Fairport; hence the name. Many well-loved folk musos carved their names on the family tree – Ashley ‘Tyger’ Hutchings, who thought up Fairport; Richard, who left the band and recorded a debut Henry The Human Fly album, an early pathway to a lifetime of brilliant songwriting and guitar wizardry; Iain Matthews, who shot to fame with Joni Mitchell’s smash-hit ‘Woodstock’; Judy Dyble, who formed the duo Trader Horne with Jackie MacAulay of Ulster rock band Them; the lovely Sandy Denny, who contributed so much to Fairport; drummer Martin Lamble, tragically killed with Jeannie Franklyn in the M1 van crash; Dave Swarbrick, whose demon fiddle forged Fairport’s familiar sound; reputed drummer Dave Mattacks, who settled in country capital Nashville as a session percussionist; Maartin Allcock, who emigrated to North Wales, developed as a record producer and learned Welsh; astounding Breton guitarist Dan Ar Braz…

Simon is the only founder member in Fairport’s 50-year career; it says a lot for the band’s staying power in that ‘new boy’ Gerry Conway has clocked up no less than 17 years of drumming for the band. Bassist Dave Pegg joined Fairport in 1969 and has been with the band for an amazing 47 years; he organises Cropredy Festival, which started off as a Fairport reunion festival and now attracts more than 20,000 fans every year. He joined Jethro Tull for 15 years, and apart from busily playing in two bands, he found time to set up Woodworm Records, Fairport’s record label. Fiddler Ric Sanders satisfied his folk and jazz interests as a member The Albion Band and Soft Machine, and he joined Fairport in 1985. Multi-instumentalist Chris Leslie’s first love was the fiddle, and his mentor was Dave Swarbrick. He joined Fairport in 1996 and now plays mandolin.

Singer-songwriter Roger Davies opened the show, and his short performance galvanised the audience; ‘Huddersfield Town’, where he lives, was a highlight. Fairport appeared onstage and acted as a backing band while Roger sang his song ‘James Dean’, and waved to the crowd as he walked away; Simon, Dave, Ric, Chris and Gerry launched straight away into the well-known song ‘Ye Mariners All’, promoted their new album’s title track, ‘Myths And Heroes’ (written by Chris) and delighted the Hall with the Thompson-Swarbrick-composed opening track from their 1970 Full House album, ‘Walk Awhile’.

Fairport have a reputation for constantly digging out new material, and their presentation of Myths And Heroes certainly proved that. Chris contributes a good deal as far as this album goes, writing four songs and sharing the composition of two pieces. Ric writes two instrumental pieces, notably ‘The Gallivant’ which Fairport performed at the Hall, but other major writers had a hand in the 13 tracks: Ralph McTell’s ‘Clear Water’, Rob Beattie’s ‘Man In The Water’, Fairport’s friend Anna Ryder with ‘Bring Me Back My Feathers’, interspersed with the well-known bluegrass tune ‘Angelina Baker’, and the Richard Laird, and Sam Starrett and Tracey McRory tribute ‘John Condon’. Ireland was still part of The British  Empire at the time of The Great War, and many Irish lads lied about their age; John Condon was the first to be killed, and he was only 14.

The songwriting repertoire between Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick created ageless classics which will last and last, and Fairport are reaping the benefit as time goes on. ‘Crazy Man Michael’ was an ultimate storyteller from the classic 1969 trailblazer folk-rock Liege And Lief album, and the audience still hangs on every word. (That album produced the folk ballad ‘Matty Groves’; if Fairport did not play it, the fans would feel somewhat cheated.) For the inevitable encore, Fairport performed their anthem, ‘Meet On The Ledge’, which Richard wrote when he was 17 years old, and the band invited Roger to join them. It’s fair to say that Fairport are an institution; so many beat groups are trotting out their tired old pop hits in the name of nostalgia, but Fairport constantly reinvent their vast repertoire which is built on the solid bedrock of folk tradition. Here’s to another year, lads; you can’t go wrong.

Mick Tems        

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