The downstairs section of the Town Hall was full, and there were only a handful of seats left upstairs. The lobby was crowded with people chatting and raffle ticket sellers raising money for the Teenage Cancer Trust.
The evening kicked off with the support artists, Ken Nicol and Phil Cool, who performed a mixture of serious and humorous material. Nicol is a singer/songwriter/guitarist and member of the folk-rock group Steeleye Span. Cool is best known as a comedian and impressionist, although teaming up with Nicol lets him occasionally show a more serious side as a singer. Their act was gentle — or at least it was until they reached Cool’s impressions which included a cruelly accurate Paul McCartney and a series of routines about George W. Bush, backed up by Nicol’s banjo-pickin’ Donald Rumsfeld. The audience was appreciative, more of the comedy than of the songs.
Fairport walked onto the stage and the audience came alive. They sang the first song — LPG — with Nicol and Cool, who Simon Nicol of Fairport praised as ‘a very large rabbit out of a shiny black hat — music you might not otherwise have a chance to hear’ — although he also claimed to like them because he likes the juxtaposition of the words Nicol and Cool in the same sentence!
Fairport then swung into ‘Ye Mariners All’ from their 2007 album, Tippler’s Tales, a lively drinking song with the signature Fairport Convention folk-rock sound. This was good live music, the sort that reminds you why concerts are better than listening to a CD at home — at least when you have a band that plays with the energy and verve of Fairport. Although tonight was the 32nd gig in a 32 town tour, the music felt and sounded fresh. The band clearly like each other and like playing — there was considerable interaction between band members as they played. Ric Sanders, in particular, was all over the stage, playing with first one musician, then another.
Fairport have now been performing for 42 years, and have been one of the most influential folk-rock collectives, although the line-up has changed many times during their long history. The current line-up seems to work together very well: Simon Nicol (rhythm guitar, lead vocals), Dave Pegg (bass guitar, backing vocals), Chris Leslie (lead vocals, fiddle, mandolin), Ric Sanders (fiddle) and Gerry Conway (drums and percussion). They intersperse the songs and tunes with easy-going banter — and with rather too many plugs for the merchandise stall and Cropredy festival tickets!
The evening was a mix of oldies and newer numbers. Highlights from the first half included Chris Leslie’s singing of ‘Reynardine’, a traditional ballad telling a story which held the audience rapt; a Northeastern tune, ‘Random Notes’, which Simon Nicol claimed to have collected from the piper Alistair Anderson in a bar in Birmingham many years ago; and the final set of tunes, ‘Mock Morris 90’, written by Ric Sanders and played on two fiddles by Sanders and Leslie.
The audience was occasionally a bit of a challenge — there were at least 25 latecomers, some arriving as much as half an hour late, and a certain amount of coming and going throughout the evening. Maybe this was an audience more used to folk clubs and festivals than the rather more restricted atmosphere of the Town Hall.
The sound was flawless throughout the evening, and every note could be heard clearly, whether it was played on an electric guitar or a much quieter acoustic mandolin. The lighting was a bit random, with individual band members sometimes picked out by the spotlight, regardless of whether they were the main feature at that moment, and lights reflecting off the instruments onto the walls of the Town Hall.
The second half began with a beautiful slow air played again by Sanders and Leslie. ‘Festival Bell’ celebrated the church bells at Cropredy in Oxfordshire, and we then returned to story-telling mode with several songs from Dave Swarbrick’s ‘Babbacome Lee’ series. Babbacome Lee was a real-life suspected murderer in the 19th century who beat the hangman three times. Each time at the scaffold, the bolt jolted but the trap door didn’t open, and his capital sentence was eventually commuted to life imprisonment. ‘Breakfast in Mayfair’ presented the murder as a piece of gossip and hearsay, discussed over the breakfast newspaper, ‘Cell Song’ — ‘There’s a tiny little window and the sun comes shining through, Dancing with the dust that’s in my cell. There’s a sparrow sitting on the sill and he stays for a minute or two, But he’s frightened by the ringing of the bell…’ was sung unaccompanied and very powerfully by Nicol, Sanders and Leslie and finally the much more strident ‘Hanging Song’ told the rest of the story, the whole sequence greeted by enthusiastic clapping and whistling on the part of the audience.
Ralph McTell’s song ‘Hiring Fair’ — described by Nicol as ‘a song about a young man who falls in love with a co-worker’, the classic Matty Groves and a final set of demonic whirling music ended the second half.
The raffle was drawn with CD prizes donated by the band and the announcement that they had raised £800 for the Teenage Cancer Trust; and then the band came back for an encore — a rather strange one with four ukeleles and Gerry Conway on the washboard but one that obviously delighted the band. A final rousing performance of ‘Meet on the Ledge’ with the whole band and Ken Nicol and Phil Cool and the evening ended, although the band stayed in the foyer for a long time after, chatting with fans and signing autographs.
Fairport Convention obviously have a lot of fans that go back a long time, but the evening didn’t feel like a nostalgia trip. Both the audience and the band were there in the present tense, enjoying the music as it is today, rather than trying to recapture a set of memories. Fairport’s music is still evolving and changing — and it is their continued inventiveness that enables the band to still fill venues year after year.
Review & Photos – Betty Hagglund