There is some dispute about when the first Cropredy festival took place. The most common view is that it was the farewell concert Fairport Convention played in what was then the home village of several of its members, in August 1979. If we accept this it is an interesting fact that one of folk rock’s most celebrated festivals started when the group associated with it broke up.
The next year saw the first annual reunion concert, and by 1985, when the group restarted on a permanent basis, the Cropredy Festival was established. Now 38 years later it has grown to a three-day event with 20 acts and attracting about 20,000 people every year.
Fairport Convention advertises it as Britain’s most friendly festival and who am I to argue. Cropredy is a friendly festival. There are people of all ages, from the newly born to old age pensioneers, lots of dogs, good ale and food, and a very relaxed atmosphere. The setting, with just one big stage situated at the bottom of a slope, makes it possible to set up your chair and lean back to enjoy the music for the whole day. And if you want you can always walk down next to the stage to get a closer look. The sound is always perfect, almost all of the groups have a signing session where you can meet them, and in spite of having the longest bar in Britain and food of all sorts, you are free to bring your own if you want. And talking of the bar, there is no such thing backstage, so when you order your pint you might be standing next to a present or past Fairport member or some other headliner.
Cropredy is so much more than just a music festival. It is a place of pilgrimage for true Fairport fans. Some come every year; others like me turn up now and then. This was my tenth, the first being in 1996. But some come for other reasons and, to much surprise, there are some who turn up not aware that it is run by the headlining group.
The 2017 festival was something special, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the band. Every living past member had been invited to take part, and the tickets sold out two months in advance. Even the weather seemed to celebrate. There were a total of 40 minutes of light rain during the whole event, in spite of it having poured down earlier that week, and it was an enjoyable 20 degrees Centigrade with spots of sun every now and then. Perfect for good music and a few pints.
So what about the music this year? Here are my notes on it.
As usual, proceedings started at 4 p.m. on the Thursday with Fairport themselves doing a 20-minute acoustic set.
The first band on after that introduction was a big surprise to me. Feast of Fiddles‘s lineup reads like a ”Who’s who” in British fiddle music. I was expecting a lot of jigs and reels, with members including Chris Leslie of Fairport, former Steeleye Span member Peter Knight, Brian McNeill, once in the Battlefield Band, and drummer Dave Mattacks. I was wrong. They played a highly varied set, based on their recent album Sleight of Elbow. The highlights for me were a song about smugglers, a new song about how the world can be changed by a flutter of a butterfly’s wings, Chris Leslie singing Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and the band’s version of ”Arthur McBride,” once recorded by Moving Hearts.
Show of Hands were on next and they always deliver. It is a wonder that they have never won international fame. Having been around for what seems like forever, they have an abundance of Steve Knightley songs to choose from, and that combined with the fantastic musicianship of Phil Beer (another one featured in Feast of Fiddles) and the steady bass playing of Miranda Sykes, they have grown to be one of my favourite bands. And yes, they played my favourite song, ”Roots.”
It has to be stressed, Fairport’s Cropredy Convention (that is the official name) is not a folk music festival. Yes, there will be folk music played on the stage, but there will also be music that has nothing at all to do with folk, like the Trevor Horn Band. This is a group made up of Trevor himself, fellow producer Steve Lipson, former 10 CC-er Lol Creme and a bunch of superb younger musicians and singers. They played a string of hits various founders have been involved in as players, composers or producers, including ”I’m Not In Love” (10 CC), ”Relax” (Frankie Goes to Hollywood) and ”Owner of a Lonely Heart” (Yes). They also had a couple of guest musicians, most notably Russ Ballard, the singer, composer and guitarist responsible for more hits than I imagined.
But I must say the thing I appreciated most was their T-shirts. Each member, including the backing singers, wore a shirt for his or her band, ”The Lol Creme Band,” ”The Steve Lipson Band” and so on.
Thursday night closed with The Divine Comedy and they left me puzzled. At first I decided not to like them, then they won me over with some hilarious songs about bankers, but I left wondering what I had witnessed. Was it a concert or a theatrical performance? The front man Neil Hannon is one of the real originals in the music business. Singing the first part of the concert dressed as Napoleon, sometimes giving us lyrics with sharp observations, sometimes childlike rhymes or real nonsense, like when he sang about loving Sweden (thank you very much): ”Don’t ask me why/I will tell you a lie.”
Thursday had a strong lineup. Friday was less to my liking, so I will only write about a few acts.
BBC each year hosts a festival for young folk musicians and groups as a way to support young talent within that field. The winners each year get to play three of the major festivals including Cropredy. Here they always get to open on the Friday.
This year’s winners are Josie Duncan and Pablo Lafuente: she’s a Scot singing in both English and Gaelic, he’s a guitar player of Spanish origin. They played a short set and proved they were worthy winners. Duncan has a voice to amaze you, and Lafuente’s guitar playing is second to none when it comes to backing a good singer. I like guitar players who see it as their task to lift the singer and the songs, not to shine on their own. Lafuente is just that, adjusting his playing to whatever suited song Duncan sang.
Pierce Brothers went down a storm in 2016 and were invited back this year; the first group except for a certain Convention to play Cropredy two years in a row. I still wonder why. Two Austalian brothers on guitar and percussion, they were one of the most energetic acts I have ever seen, jumping, running, waving and always asking for audience participation. They used every trick in the book and I must say I was in a small minority when I was not the least impressed. To me it lacked musical and lyrical content. Over 90 minutes they only sang one or two songs that made me want to check them out again.
Petula Clark is 84 years old, with one of longest careers of show business, making her radio debut at 9 years old. Dave Pegg recently saw her in a show and immediately invited her and her musicians to play Cropredy. To everyone’s surprise she said it was her first appearence ever at a festival. She sang a selection of songs from her career, sometimes put together in medleys, told stories of meeting people like Charlie Chaplin, Fred Astaire and John Lennon, and gave us all an insight to a whole life devoted to music and acting. Her voice sometimes shows signs of her age, but who cares? Just to hear her sing ”Downtown” was worth watching the whole show.
Friday night ended with Richard Thompson, and what can I say? I have seen him a number of times, but this was one of the best. He started off on his own with about 30 minutes worth of acoustic numbers, brought on Christine Collister as a backup singer for a couple, and then the backing band. And what a band. Dave Mattacks on drums, Dave Pegg on bass and Simon Nicol on guitar. I will not mention any songs, because every one was a highlight; sometimes smooth and soft, sometimes as heavy as music can be. He really knocked us out.
For me Saturdays are always the best at Cropredy, and not only because they end with a long set by Fairport. And the beginning of this Saturday would be very special indeed. The three first acts had very clear Fairport connections.
First on stage was founding member Ashley Hutchings (later that day introduced by Simon Nicol with the words “the man that got me into this mess in the first place”) and The Morris On Band.
For those of you who do not know the history of Morris On: In 1972, after having left both Fairport and Steeleye, Hutchings collected a fine group of musicians — Mr Mattacks, Mr Thompson, John Kirkpatrick on assorted squeeze boxes, and Barry Dransfield on fiddle — and recorded a number of tunes and songs from the Morris Dancing tradition of England. With guest singers and musicians and even Morris dancers on a few tracks (with bells on their legs, they can be heard on recordings) it was a groundbreaking album, and was part of a Morris revival in England. It was followed by Son of Morris On, Grandson of Morris On, Great Grandson of Morris On and maybe some more.
This time he brought a five piece band, often augmented by guest like Chris Leslie and others. They put on a marvellous show, something like a Best of the Morris On albums, complete with Morris dancers on many numbers. A glorious Cropredy hour and to me one of the real highlights of the weekend.
Then it was Judy Dyble and the Band of Perfect Strangers. Dyble was Fairport’s original singer, replaced by Sandy Denny. I have never been that impressed by Dyble and I must say the music her group played sounded a lot like 1970s prog music without the excitement prog often created. But it was good to see her back, and reportedly she has written a book about her long career.
Iain Matthews was the male singer with Fairport on the first two albums. After that he has had a long career, turning out some fantastic albums, most notably ”In Search of Amelia Earheart” with the group Plainsong. And it was as a third of Plainsong, together with Andy Roberts and a guitar player whose name escaped me, he played at Cropredy.
The set was mostly made up by songs from Plainsong’s latest album Reinventing Richard, a collection of songs written by Richard Fariña. Plainsong see it as their mission to introduce one of the best song writers of the 1960s to a newer audience, and they do it well. Just two acoustic guitars, an electric, and two voices. When the songs are that good you do not need more.
Many had turned up for Marillion, but I must say their music leaves me cold. However, the singer had some amusing between-song banter and the friend I came with adores them, so maybe it is just me.
I feel a little sorry for Dougie McLean. One of Scotland’s finest, lovely voice, good guitar playing and an armoury of good songs, among those one of the greatest songs of all time in ”Caledonia,” squeezed in between Marillion and Fairport. He did his best, but where I sat his music was often disturbed by people around me talking too loud. I would like to hear him again in a small theatre or a folk club, where I am sure he will knock me out.
And so time for three hours and 10 minutes of the heroes themselves, Fairport Convention. With the anniversary it was clear that they would focus on old material. So we got large chunks of Liege & Lief and Full House, plus a few from the first album and a selection from later releases, a few never released tracks, but almost nothing from the last 20 years. Dyble, Matthews, Hutchings and Thompson were there of course, as well as Maartin Allcock and Sally Barker, warming up for the winter tour this year.
To me it was just as good as I had hoped for, proof that Fairport is both a living band and that they have the ability to breath new life in to their old songs. To me Thompson was the star of this show as well, playing on almost half of it. And the last section with two of the best drummers in the world, Mattacks and Gerry Conway, playing together was a treat. A perfect ending to one of the best Cropredys yet.
If there ever is a 60th anniversary for the band I will be at Cropredy that year. After all, Petula Clark performed this year being 84 years old, and most of the band will be younger than that in 2027.
Here’s a decent audience video of “Dirty Linen” from Fairport’s closing set.