Fairport’s Cropredy Convention 2018: Festival Review
The second weekend in August traditionally sees two of the UK festivals being held. In Derbyshire, scores of metal fans head to Bloodstock. Further south, the folk world descends on Oxfordshire for Fairport’s Cropredy Convention. Louder Than War’s Dom Walsh makes his umpteenth visit to one of his favourite places in the world to report back while Mike Ainscoe makes his first trip to add a few notes and take some photos.
2018’s incarnation of Fairport’s Cropredy Convention saw a typically diverse list of artists treading the boards, curated as always by folk rock pioneers, Fairport Convention.
As has become tradition in recent years, the festivals curators opened the weekend with a short acoustic set to welcome revellers to one of the best festivals in the world. This year they introduced a special guest in former band member, Maartin Allcock. Sadly, Maart (as he’s known amongst FC fans) has terminal liver cancer and this years’ festival marked his retirement from public performance. His appearances across the weekend were ever more poignant but this first one was great in that the set served up The Brilliancy Medley & Cherokee Shuffle from FC’s album, Nine. It was a rare outing for the instrumental composition.
The easy pace of the opening of the festival continued with Smith & Brewer. The young duo built a quick rapport with the crowd – their stage manner was excellent and their country tinged acoustic songs warmed the crowd up well for the rest of the day.
Police Dog Hogan upped the ante considerably. Initially, the well-dressed group group had some serious technical difficulties with the PA sounding like it had blown out. When things levelled out, Police Dog Hogan delivered a superb set that ensured the beginning was forgotten, was packed full of humour, and some absolutely fantastic Americana influenced music. A rousing, crowd pleasing cover of Galway Girl united the crowd, an acoustic lament to the battle of Paschendale showed the bands more tender side, but the biggest cheer of all was for the incredibly witty, Shitty White Wine!
Folk-punk veterans, Oysterband, continued the high tempo. Appearing at Cropredy for the first time in 14 years, Oysterband delivered an assured and professional set that pleased the more traditional folk clan, as well as more contemporary folk fans. In many aspects, they were preaching to the converted. The Oxford Girl and the punkier Blood Wedding both got massive receptions from the huge crowd.
When Brian Wilson was announced as headliner for the festival, it was seen as a big coup, and a fit that was perfect for this festival; years of classic hits, a revolutionary sound and a history to rival any band. Sadly, Brian Wilson looked unwell and was helped onstage, but this veteran star and his band did not hold back. They delivered close to two hours of pure joy and sunshine on an increasingly clear and chilly summer evening. Opening with a set of hits and album tracks, the 11 strong band featuring fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine and his son Matthew, displayed the amazing harmonies that The Beach Boys were famed for. California Girls, I Get Around and Little Surfer Girl were all early highlights. Feel Flows and Sail On, Sailor also proved huge highlights before the band launched into The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
Matthew Jardine displayed great vocal range throughout the set of songs that make up arguably one of the greatest albums, nay symphonies, ever written. Sloop John B was delivered with perfection and God Only Knows is probably the greatest song ever written. Hearing Brian Wilson sing parts of this song is like witnessing a monumental moment in history. I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times feels so pertinent today, 50 years on from its original release. The whole record was delivered with a class and integrity that you would expect from such consummate pros.
With peaks already explored in the set, there was still time to wow the crowd. A stunning encore run of Good Vibrations, Help Me, Rhonda, Barbara Ann, Surfing USA and Fun, Fun, Fun had the entirety of the Cropredy crowd surfing happily back to their tents. The whole set was just summer showcased in song. Whilst clearly not well, Brian Wilson delivered the songs he wrote with his band impeccably. It was a joyous and triumphant end to a superb day of music on day one of the festival.
Day two was met with some horrific rain. Festivals and rain go hand in hand in England but this was a seemingly biblical downpour. The downside of this is that harpist and BBC2 Young Folk Award Winner, Mera Royle had to play her set in driving rain which saw more than a few people diving for shelter. The same happened during Midnight Skyracer’s set. The ardent amongst the crowd stayed put with brollies up and ponchos on to give both acts a typically warm Cropredy reception. Midnight Skyracer showcased a fiery set of traditional bluegrass numbers with Leanne Thorose’s vocals stealing the show alongside musicianship of the highest order.
As horrible as the weather was, it turned for the better on a sixpence just before The Travelling Band hit the stage for the third time at FCC. As far as festival sets go, The Travelling Band hit the nail firmly on the head. They got the plum draw with the weather being a lot better but they also opened with two of their biggest and best songs in Sundial and Passing Ships. From there they showcased their latest album, Sails, and got a typically rapturous reception. An incredibly funky new track called Super 8 Surrender was placed mid set before a genius cover of Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. Prior to Battlescars, singer Jo Dudderidge encouraged the crowd to look after their DVT’s by standing up and getting involved with the incredibly punchy song. Their rousing crescendo was something akin to Bruce Springsteen in full flow with glorious saxophone and fist pumping tempos.
Cregan and Co continued the upbeat tempo with a string of hits that Jim Cregan played on. These hits took the form of many of Rod Stewart’s finest cuts such as Baby Jane, Hot Legs and Maggie May, during which the band were joined by Fairport Convention and Anthony John Clarke on mandolins. Another hit that Cregan contributed to was Steve Harley’s Come Up And See Me (Make Me Smile) – the feel good vibes were certainly flowing through the Cropredy crowd after the damp start. The charismatic Sam Tanner led the group from the keys with his soulful voice adorning every track. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand.
And so began a run of the sort of diversity that you could only get at somewhere like Cropredy. The French Canadian style of high energy folk that made such an impact at Cambridge Folk Festival in 2015 with De Temps Antan, arguably had the way paved by the whirlwind that is Le Vent Du Nord. It’s the sort of joyous noise that reminds people why they enjoy folk music and surely must have convinced those proggers awaiting the arrival of their hero Fish, that this folk thing has some merit. Impossible not to get caught up in the waves of passion and fun billowing from the stage be it in unaccompanied song or in vibrant and brisk tunes, the quintet crossed boundaries literally with language and cultural references in a folk powerhouse.
From folk thunder to a dark progressive tinge, in a similar way, Fish might have been a puzzle to some of the dyed in the wool folk fans (“All I can see is Brian Pern” was one comment overheard from one wag) yet having been on the bill in 2015 and following in the footsteps of his former colleagues in Marillion who graced the Cropredy stage last year, seasoned Cropredy veterans should have known what to expect. Having said that, perhaps no-one might have predicted the heavy balance in the set towards much of Marillion’s 1987 ‘classic’ (ie, the last one Fish did with them) album Clutching At Straws. Ruminating on the passage of time – there’s the spectacles and need for a lyric sheet these days while he has been talking retirement but seems to be still going strong with the promise of a new album in the works – the highlight was perhaps the refreshing lack of hecklers you might normally get at a Fish gig, while musically in the form of the groove of Circle Line from the 13th Star album in a solo canon that provides more than enough material without having to celebrate a thirty year old piece of work from a former lifetime.
Contrasts upon contrasts as we switched from a 6 and a half foot Scotsman to the diminutive and infinitely more wholesome and angelic Kate Rusby. Her first time at Cropredy in a twenty plus year career and she was suitably delighted. Oh yes! Typical Rusby charm and class climaxed in the lush swell of Hunter Moon where Duncan Lyall’s switch from his usual double bass to the more recent acquisition of the most proggy of instruments, the moog, added a striking element to the careful and intricate arrangements. Yorkshire hero Big Brave Bill had an outing yet it was the pared down trio of Kate, Lyall and Damien O’Kane who provided one of the ‘moments’ of the festival with an poignant rendering of Underneath The Stars – “why on earth am I pretending?”, phrasing to die for.
After being lulled by Kate & Co, anyone expecting, as many of us were, the usual electricity of a fired up show from The Levellers to let off some steam, might have been a combination of shocked, surprised and intrigued when another ruched backdrop and line of chairs across the front lip of the stage gave way to what could best be described as ‘Levellers Classical’. The We Are Collective album should really have been a big clue really as Mark, Jon, Simon, Charlie and Matt (no Jeremy? – one fan claimed to have spotted him at the back but when you have an icon such as Jez Cunningham he would surely take up a prime spot).
Nonetheless, it was ‘hits’ all the way yet presented in a very different and reworked fashion a la the album. Marking their territory with the title track, it wasn’t really until One Way that the original template was followed. A punky Fifteen Years and the drinkalong Just The One topped an appearance from the seasoned festivallers with thirty years on the road behind them, it was a brave move to shift from what would be a crowd pleasing bounce around to a set which proved to be something unexpected and to some maybe disappointing, yet good to see the rule book getting a typically maverick Levellers snub.
And so to Saturday which saw the return to Cropredy of Richard Digance. “One of the survivors” he called himself as, like Fish the day before, the contemplation of old age was tempered with the musings of how it’s now much harder to pull someone – the prospects aren’t always that good. From the tender We Are Searching to the pathos, empathy and insight that comes with the lament to Mrs (“bugger off”) Johnson, it was a case of re-establishing one of the traditions that he himself broke last year with his absence. At least the 12lb carp was fair recompense and prompted the “where do fish go in a flood?” question. As much a Cropredy institution as Fairport themselves as is his ‘world’s biggest Morris dance’ moment for which everyone was duly prepped with their white hankies/tissues/hurriedly gather toilet tissues – a moment as symbolic as listening to The Archers over the PA on Sunday morning at Cambridge.
Eric Sedge carried on the acoustic fair with a short set after Richard Digance. After two acoustic sets, the Cropredy crowd was not prepared for what was about to follow.
The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican completely owned their festival slot. Hailing from Barnsley-Rock City, the trio ploughed through a heap of hilarious parodies that hit on pressing subjects such as unfortunate male injuries, toilet floors, eyebrows, Greggs, global ‘cockwombles’ and gender. They rocked (gently) whilst getting the entire field (save for a few) on their feet with belly laughs aplenty. Again, Maart made an appearance during The Devil Went Down To Barnsley before Jump Ararnd when Scott Doonican took to a dinghy to surf across the crowd! It was an unprecedented moment at Cropredy, and one that the crowd lapped up vociferously. This set from Alan (on his massive throbbing organ), Scott and Bjorn Doonicansson was one of the absolute highlights of the weekend. The whole band were onsite and in their unique knitwear lapping up every moment of the festival each day.
Charged with the task of having to follow the riotously ‘shit hot’ Doonican boys, new-ish dad Will Varley wisely didn’t try. Ambling onto the stage in the humble and modest fashion that’s his trademark, he and his three piece band built a set around his usual solo acoustic appearances. The live promise that came with the Spirit Of Minnie album that featured a wider palette of sound and depth was fulfilled with a band that didn’t overwhelm but gave a subtle support to their foreman. A diversion to solo format saw a stunningly dark When She Wakes Up; a song that might celebrate new birth yet has ominous undertones. Adding a revised version of I Got This Email with Tony Blair replaced by Boris Johnson, the future seems secure for Mr Varley with the expansion into band territory and the way they provide the sort of dynamics where they can build the drama and tension to his acute observations and comments.
What could be said about Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys? Upping the tempo wouldn’t do them justice. Opening up with the sort of thunder set by Le Vent Du Nord on Friday, their version of Dylan’s Down In The Flood (or is it Crash On The Levee or does anyone care) was fair warning that this gang of young men were out for a blast. What became apparent, apart from the fact that Jamie Francis’ banjo was a contender for the award of ‘most notes played at Cropredy 2018’ is what a insanely talented set of guys these are. While Graham Coe kept the bottom end secure with the cello and Archie Churchill Moss added his melodeon flavour, the duo of Ciaran Algar and Toby Shaer ran amok with tenor guitar, fiddles, cittern and flutes in a staggering display of musicianship. Anyone new to The Lost Boys at Cropredy will have had their cars marked as the guys ran rampant on the incendiary Shy Guy’s Serve tune set that closed the set and prompted a first ever onstage Sam Kelly selfie.
As the rain again pelted the crowd, Afro Celt Sound System absolutely smashed the soggy ball out of the park. Their thumping blend of African and Celtic folk superbly meshed together helped the majority of the crowd forget the conditions. A stunning percussive display was the highlight from several members of the band, but the input of Congolese choir Amani in their first performance with the band and the incredibly talented flautist and vocalist Ríoghnach Connolly (also of Manchester’s Honeyfeet) ensured there was a more than culturally diverse feel to the band’s sound. Songs from Afro Celt’s latest album as well as their stacked back catalogue traversed traditional jigs, African style drumming, and almost drum and bass rhythms set to some rib rattling bass made for a quite sublime set, and show why Afro Celt are one of the most revered bands amongst the folk/world music scene.
Another Cropredy tradition is the acoustic slot prior to the weekend’s headliners. This year it was the legendary Al Stewart tasked with the job of support Fairport. Dave Nachmanoff accompanied Stewart with some stunning flamenco guitar especially on Night Train To Munich. An appearance from Cropredy regular, Ralph McTell, preceded the airing of Stewarts most well know song, The Year of the Cat. It was a stark change in pace after the bombast of Afro Celt Sound System.
Fairport’s Cropredy set is without doubt the highlight of the band and the fans’ year. Each year serves up something unique with Fairport and Friends. This year was no different. Taking the stage to a fan created video welcoming the band, Fairport played several standards including Ye Mariners All and new song, Shuffle & Go, before a set devoted to the memory of the late great Sandy Denny who lost her life 40 years ago.
Prior to the bands tribute to the late, great singer, The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood soundtracked a wonderfully emotional video montage to Denny. PJ Wright, Fish, Anna Ryder, Winter Wilson and Iain Matthews all joined Fairport for a tour of some of Denny’s finest solo works, and Fairport tracks. Fish gave a beautiful, heartfelt tribute to Denny prior to delivering vocally on the heart wrenching Solo. PJ Wright tackled Brushes and Briars with Winter Wilson taking the lead on one of Denny’s absolute best; It’ll Take A Long Time. Perhaps Denny’s best known song is Fairport’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes? Simon Nicol echoed Fish’s sentiments in acknowledging the pure privilege of being able to sing such wondrous songs. Newer songs followed the tribute to Sandy in the form of The Gallivant and Bring Me Back My Feathers before Chris Leslie and Ric Sanders showed their sheer class on the fiddle during John Gaudie.
It was however, the closing of Fairport’s set that was the most poignant. Maartin Allcock, of Fairport and Jethro Tull fame joined the band for the closing of the show. A Surfeit of Lampreys, Jewel In The Crown and a quite spellbinding rendition of Fairport’s version Matty Groves were all given a heavier feel with Maart taking centre stage on his black Fender Stratocaster (turned right up). The central slot of the stage slot was reserved for him by the rest of the band as he makes for retirement from public performances due to his illness.
As a stirring Meet On The Ledge came to a close, Maart, along with many guests from the weekend, left the stage with a brief and heartfelt goodbye. It was an incredibly bittersweet moment for the Cropredy crowd as the curtains were drawn on another wonderful weekend in the green fields of Cropredy, by the River Cherwell.
Full gallery can be found here