Fairport’s Cropredy Convention 2014
Cropredy, Oxfordshire
August 7th – 9th 2014

It’s friendly, It’s special. The beer’s great. Can Fairport’s Cropredy Convention live up to it’s reputation? idp went to find out.

There’s been a lot in the papers about us over forties at festivals in the past few weeks. Should we be banned, even culled perhaps, to maintain the vigorous youthful integrity of popular music? Should we at the very least be prevented from dancing like idiots and exposing our prodigious geriatric beer bellies? A lot of people seem to think so.

All in all it’s been a bit depressing, so it’s good to spend a weekend at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, the spiritual home of the grey gatherers, and one of the longest established annual music festivals in the country. If you’re under forty round here they look at you a bit odd, as if you might be attending because of some sort of weird gerontophile fetish, but in fact there’s a broad range of ages present from the quite old to the young, to the extremely young, and even some people who appear to be under thirty.

Cropredy has been running since 1976, a time when a music festival was still a major event and for those not equipped with a map it is forty five years east of Woodstock and five miles north of Banbury, on the banks of the Cherwell.

It’s my first time, but I know people who’ve been coming every year for the past quarter century or more. They all tell me how much I’ll love it and how friendly it is and how special. In fact, I get told so often that after a while my hackles start to rise and natural perversity sets in. I mean, it can’t be that special can it? And what does friendly even mean in the context of putting 25,000 people in a field to listen to music? What do they do, get on first name terms with everybody? The answer, as least as far as getting signed in at the press tent and figuring out the system for obtaining pit passes is that yes, they do get on first name terms with everybody.

Presiding over the system is Moira, who is so famous she even has a backstage gate named after her, and it’s so nice not to be treated like shit that I’m won over already. Add to this the presence of a supply of free hot water which means that I am seldom to be seen without a cup of tea in my hand for the entire weekend and things really couldn’t get much better. Even the mug and the inaugural tea bag come free from the nice people at Blackbeard’s Tea Party. Of course, having one hand full of tea compromises my ability to take pictures somewhat but as Groucho Marx might have said “A picture is only ever a picture, but a good cup of tea is a brew,” so I work hard on mastering the skill of snapping one handed.

I also try to keep two sets of notes running; one on the music and one on things about Cropredy that seem to contribute to its uniqueness (which I shall designate USPs because I have seen Dragon’s Den) but eventually they get jumbled together after a while so that’s the way they’re coming to you.

USP One. There is only one stage. This is an idea that could be copied elsewhere. The gates to the field open at eleven and by half past most of the crowd have arrived, arranged their chairs and blankets for the day, got a beer in (all real ale of course, Fairport’s own brew) and settled for the duration. The concept of a music festival where people actually sit and listen to music all day is so revolutionary I’m not sure it can ever catch on, but as well as there being no second, third or fourth stages there is no pop up cinema, no comedy tent, no circus skills workshops, no art installations and no street theatre. There are lots of activities for kids, of whom there are plenty in attendance, and I must admit making enormous sculptures from reams of unwanted sticky labels does look like a lot of fun, but I give it a miss because my hands are full of tea and cameras.

USP Two. The toilets are clean. I shall probably refer to this again.

Whatever it is about the atmosphere it seems to rub off on the performers and throughout the weekend everybody turns in top notch performances. The festival kicks off with the traditional acoustic opener from Fairport themselves and when I get onto the field Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble are making an attempt on the record for how many people you can get on a stage at once. I think there are about forty of them but I may have missed a few. As well as several guitars and violins there are three or four clarinets, a tuba, a harp (a proper big one not one of those lute things), a cello and a double bass, a woman with a blue face and a man in a union jack cap. They make a fantastic mix of rock, folk and samba that gets the crowd up and dancing early in proceedings. Later I see them all trying for the record for the largest number of people playing musical instruments in a small family frame tent.

USP Three. The main stage is situated at the foot of a sloping field, so that even the people at the very back have an unobstructed view of the stage. The sound system is also first rate so there’s no problem hearing what’s going on either.

USP Four. The toilets are clean. Come on people at other festivals. It can be done.

So how do you review three days of music and keep the whole thing to a length where someone might realistically read it? I’ve got no idea. There are a few themes that emerge over the weekend though. The first of which is prog, in the form of Genesis Extended with Steve Hackett on the Thursday, Australian Pink Floyd on Saturday and Marillion on Sunday. Now I’ll level with you. I know nothing about prog. When I was at school you needed a lot more money than I had to like it because there were no singles and you had to own a lot of albums to be considered a prog fan. It was the posh kids music of choice and it seemed to go hand in hand with having read all of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy. I never even finished The Hobbit. I haven’t seen the films either.

Genesis Extended have Steve Hackett, in top hat and steam punk goggles out front, smiling as he surveys the crowd like a roman emperor about to extend a condemnatory thumb and Nad Sylvan on vocals looking every inch the rock god. You can tell he is a rock god because he has fingerless lace gloves and a man who comes on between songs to waft him with a towel. If I am ever famous I want a wafter. They play a set of dazzling virtuosity that goes down a storm, full of complex guitar arpeggios, a bit sacred, a bit Philip Glass and sometimes a bit frenzied free jazz. The songs start small and build and build until it seems that they must topple over under the weight of their own intensity and then just as you feel they’re about to collapse the pace changes, the emotional levels drop, and they pull it back in and make it human sized again. The lyrics are of course deeply complex and I can’t follow them at all but there is a faint susurration as several thousand blokes whisper the words to themselves with their heads nodding gently in time in the world’s quietest and most reverent singalong. From the stage side it looks like a hillside full of meerkats surveying the Savannah for predators.

Marillion are the only band of the weekend to try to take the stage by main force of rock and roll. Steve Hogarth is a mass of restless energy as he bounds across the stage laughing, pulling faces and striking huge poses and playing air guitar on a cricket bat. He is clearly having a very good time and is giving it the proverbial 110% especially on an impassioned Easter and on Kayleigh which produces one of the biggest cheers of the weekend.

Second musical theme is the female folk voice. Over the course of the festival we are treated to a wide range of styles as some of the best contemporary female vocalists in the UK take to the stage, starting on Friday when the afternoon is given over to The Mischa Macpherson Trio, Deborah Rose and Edwina Hayes and continuing on Saturday with Cara Dillon.

Deborah Rose has a voice of remarkable and slightly austere beauty and purity and a nice line in combining erudite between song banter with pop culture, introducing The Lady Of Shallot as a tribute to Tennyson’s 203rd birthday and taking a straw poll after the song as to whether or not the heroine had made the correct decision.

Cara Dillon’s set is so lovely that all my notes seem to have spontaneously combusted but she has a traditional Celtic folk voice of astonishing and mesmerising clarity, the beauty of which is such that at times the whole crowd is hushed and hanging on every note as if they might break them just by speaking.

Edwina Hayes, by contrast, wears her roots in the northern folk clubs on her sleeve and when she chats to the audience between songs you get the impression that she really is in love with what she does for a living. Her set includes her own Leave A Light On For You, Richard Thompson’s Galway To Graceland and the Joan Baez reading of Famous Blue Raincoat all delivered in her distinctively warm, soft and Americana tinged style and with loads of self deprecating humour.

Highlight of the festival is Mischa Macpherson whose voice is as pure and fragile and tremulously heartbreaking as anything I’ve ever heard although she has the advantage of singing in Gaelic, a language in which shopping lists sound like haiku. In particular her mouth sung traditional songs, with rapid rhythmic lyrics laid over minimal instrumentation are a revelation. Designed for making music for dancing at times when few instruments were available this is antique Scottish beat boxing at its finest and The Mischa Macpherson trio will be on the list for seeing again in the near future.

USP Five. The performers play full sets, up to an hour and a half in the evening, which means you get a proper performance and not just a perfunctory run through some greatest hits.

USP Six. Nettle and lentil curry is much nicer than it sounds. In fact, it is excellent.

USP Seven. When I sneeze one of the security guys blesses me. I’d always understood that these guys are trained to have a vocabulary consisting of “Wristbands please”, “No, you can’t go in there” and “Fuck off” so this is a bit of a revelation.

Third theme is folk bands. This may not be so much a theme as a catch all for me but we are treated to sets by Blackbeard’s Tea Party, who are great fun as always, Reg Meuross and his band, The Travelling Band, Churchfitters whose set incorporates both the musical saw and hub cap banjo, and The Treetop Flyers, who are new to me, and I suspect to lots of others, but are definitely a band to look out for.

The Wonder Stuff are excellent as always and unlike most bands who save their biggest hit for the end of the set they always seem to try to slip Size Of A Cow in quietly in the middle of the set so no one will notice. They do notice of course because it’s a great song and people love it and because it’s quite big and it’s a highlight of Friday afternoon.

Traditional folk styles are represented by Capercaillie who deliver a set that mixes the Gaelic wistfulness of walking songs with the danceability of reels and of mountain music, a rapid rhythmic rap laid over a background of piano and accordion that has plenty of people in the field up and bopping. It’s not all light heartedness though and a cover of Sandy Denny’s One More Chance, made all the more poignant by recent WWI commemorations has the field deep in a thoughtful silence.

Among the up and coming acts at the festival is Ben Folke Thomas, a Swede who has been making a name for himself in London over the past couple of years. He’s got loads of stage presence, a nice line in upbeat folk rock, a band that sounds like The Band and a voice that sometimes recalls seventies Dylan, sometimes Johnny Cash and, on Lay Down Little Girl (I have tried to find the proper title but Google let me down), he strikingly recalls Springsteen’s stripped back Nebraska sound.

Headlining Thursday and a big deal for me are The Waterboys whose set includes loads of favourites from their great eighties albums and highlights from later material including a fine rock infused Glastonbury Song. The band’s folk roots are highlighted with covers of The Raggle Taggle Gypsies and Low Down In The Broom which switches from traditional folk styles to up tempo blues and back as it progresses and Whole Of the Moon is of course a showstopper.

Which leaves me with no category in which to place Al Stewart so I’ll just say that at every music festival you discover one new performer who you know will become a favourite for keeps. Mine for this year’s Cropredy is Al Stewart. (Oh and Mischa Macpherson.) Before the weekend I knew Year Of The Cat and On The Border but I’ll admit to a high level of ignorance on most of his back catalogue and to being blown away by the sheer quality of his songs. I’m a sucker for songs full of observation and complexity and storytelling and for anything that looks like prose set to music and Stewart is like an English John Darnielle which is about the highest praise I have to offer. He also has the best diction of any performer I’ve ever heard, the overall effect being a little like Noel Coward reciting Highway 61 Revisited. Just wonderful.

USP Eight. There’s no fancy dress. There’s a lot of quite odd clothes and some bizarre headgear but very few cartoon characters.

USP Nine. The beer is excellent (so I’m told) and there’s hardly any queue at the bar.

And the toilets are clean.

Closing the weekend it’s Fairport Convention themselves. They enter to the Match Of The Day theme and play a two hour set of folk rock that tends slightly more towards the rock end of that spectrum than might have been the case when I have heard them previously. There is a pair of songs from Ralph McTell and a tribute to the late Sandy Denny in which the band are joined on stage by Sally Barker for an affecting Who Knows Where The Time Goes. Of course the whole thing comes to an end with Matty Groves and a rousing version of Meet On The Ledge with Edwina Hayes and the whole backstage crew up on stage and thousands of people singing along and hardly a dry eye in the house.

 

There’s a small gallery of shots from the weekend above but there are also galleries with more images of individual performers on my website.

So there you go. Nice people, great music, nettle curry, loads of tea. Did I have a great weekend? Yes. Was it friendly? Indeed it was. And special? Very. And was it full of mature and sensible people dancing drunkenly, wearing ridiculous headgear and making fools of themselves like drunken uncles at weddings? Of course.

Wouldn’t want it any other way.

~

The Cropredy Convention shares a site with Fairport Convention: www.fairportconvention.com.

Fairport’s Cropredy Convention on Facebook and Twitter as @faircropfest,

Performers mentioned in this review can be found on the following social media links – Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk EnsembleGenesis ExtendedMarillionAustralian Pink FloydThe Mischa Macpherson Trio, Deborah Rose, Edwina Hayes, Cara DillonBlackbeard’s Tea Party, Reg Meuross, The Travelling Band, Churchfitters, The Treetop FlyersThe Wonder StuffCapercaillieBen Folke ThomasThe Waterboys, Al Stewart.

All words by idp. More work by idp can be found in his Louder Than War archive. His photography website is here and his photo blog is here.

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