John O’Regan penned this epic review.
‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ was the title of Fairport Convention’s second album for Island records in 1969. To paraphrase said title a little, what I did this year on my holidays was go to Cropredy in Oxfordshire for ‘Fairport’s Cropredy Convention’. But it wasn’t for the first time. In fact this was my eighth trip to Cropredy in the last ten years. So I am by no means a ‘Cropredy Virgin’. While it was familiar this year, it was also different, and exciting for reasons that will be revealed in the course of this review.
As Cropredy 2004 had the potential to be the last hurrah of one of the most intimate, yet successful, large-scale gatherings in the UK festival diary, the regrouping of the forces and the return of Cropredy was akin to a phoenix’s rise from the ashes, a miracle in itself. But due to the good will extended to Fairport by their audience and the local people of the Cropredy area (where they once lived during the 1970s) the plan was hatched and put into operation for Fairport’s Cropredy Convention to happen once again.
Credit for this must go to the organising committee — which includes Dave Pegg, Rob Braviner, Simon Nicol, and Gareth Williams — for undertaking the work (as pioneered by Christine Pegg) to make the festival happen. Their Trojan work coupled with the PR services of Iconic Media, run by Stevie Horton and Andy Farquarson, when combined with excellent, courteous on-site staff and security, allowed the world’s largest village fete to become a reality. The 20,000 plus people who made the trip from all over Europe, USA, the UK and anywhere else that the Fairport flag has flown will vouch for its success on a musical and personal level.
Cropredy is unique in many ways. Firstly, it is a music festival, a big production that must work commercially to ensure its survival. However, the secret lies within the manner in which it is handled. The organisers think globally, but work locally in tandem with neighbours and social and youth groups to make something that is a big event, yet has the conviviality of a local village fete. Secondly, the setting is also worth mentioning: a peaceful Oxfordshire village built on the river Cherwell, which is the site of an ancient battle fought during the Cromwellian campaign and remembered by Ralph McTell in his song ‘Red and Gold’. This sense of living history takes on an extra poignancy when Fairport Convention performs ‘Red and Gold’. The village of Cropredy is full of distinct character and local history and has a population of over 600. Every second weekend in August, some 20,000 extra inhabitants visit, and the result is a wonderful social occasion, as well as a momentous event in the local calendar. Co-operation and respect for the village, the music, musicians, and people’s wishes to have a good time achieve the level of intimacy and neighbourliness extant at Cropredy.
Cropredy is a three-day event, with the music starting on Thursday afternoon. This year’s festivities kicked off with Tickled Pink offering a very lively start. Tickled Pink is a dance band in the English folk-rock mould, led by Simon Care’s melodeon, which is flanked by Gerald Claridge’s electric guitar; Little Johnny England’s fiddler, Guy Fletcher playing drums; fiddler Mark Jolly; Trevor Landen on bass; keyboards man Rob Kay and finally vocalist/guitarist Mark Hutchinson, who exhibits a hard gutsy voice. While they play dance music in a typically English folk-rock style, Tickled Pink are hardly a normal four-square Ceilidh band, as their take on Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’ as a Country and Western tango shows. Solid, hard-edged renditions of chestnuts like ‘My Son John’ and the stirring ‘Davey Lowston’ showed plenty of spirit and made them worth spending time with.
Hilary James and Simon Mayor are brilliant multi-instrumentalists, switching effortlessly from guitar, mandolin, mandola, fiddle and mandobass. What they can’t play repertoire-wise or attempt instrumentally is not worth playing. On stage they are very laid back and their programme ranged from Vivaldi’s Mandolin concerto to Texas Fiddle tunes via Django Reinhardt, laced with original children’s songs and dry humour.
Jah Wobble and The English Roots Band played an unusual mix of familiar folk songs rarely sung, with heavy bass and dub backings with echoed guitar and French pipes. It sounded like what Malicorne or early ’70s Steeleye Span might have sounded had they re-emerged nowadays. The be-suited Wobble, playing his characteristic bass runs, looked like a visual cross between Ashley Hutchings and Phil Collins, and spoke with a Cockney accent. Two excellent female singers, Claire Rose and Liz Hunter, added to the vocal contrast. Hunter’s sombre deadpan appearance and solid traditional voice recalled an early Maddy Prior, while Rose swooped and dived like a Jazz chanteuse and provided delicious eye candy also. Wobble walked off stage after 45 minutes but returned to complete the set. While the fans seemed pleased, many found Jah Wobble’s ethnic musical crossbreeds both baffling and unusual.
Once the penny dropped that Country Joe McDonald and Band featured the band’s classic line-up, bar one member, the curiosity level increased. Comprised of Bruce Barthol, David M. Cohen, Gary ‘Chicken’ Hirsch, and Country Joe McDonald, they offered an excellent reproduction of their mid ’60s sounds. The set included familiar songs like ‘Section 43’ from *Electric Music For Mind and Body*, dedicated to the memory of John Peel, and ‘Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine’ and some acid-tongued political observation and comment on mid ’60s America. Material from Joe’s solo albums ‘Love Is A Fire’ and ‘Paradise With An Ocean View’ also surfaced. Unfortunately no ‘Save the Whales’ this time, but there was one new song, ‘Support The Troops’. Individual solo spots from David Cohen on guitar and piano stood out, as did Gary ‘Chicken’ Hirsh’s two drum solos. ‘Super Bird’, dedicated to one-time US president Lyndon Johnson, was a riot of cosmic energy, while a rave up of ‘Rock and Soul Music’ and the ‘Fish Cheer’ and the Vaudeville strains of ‘I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag’ (complete with a manic spoons player — I kid you not!) made for a set that was both compelling and a time capsule. The fact that these guys could still deliver and do it so well made for a startling end to an intriguing day.
Friday was the second day, beginning at midday and running until midnight. After such an exciting and varied Thursday night, Friday’s bill promised both the usual and unusual in equal measure. Due to my late arrival from Banbury, meeting aficionados who have since become friends, and also visiting the various craft and CD stalls I missed Big Eyed Fish, Bob Fox, Edwina Hayes, Stuey Mutch and Henry Nicol, and Chris While and Julie Matthews. Reactions from those present sounded generally positive, especially for Chris and Julie who had not appeared at Cropredy for some years.
I was in time for the Muffin Men, featuring Jimmy Carl Black. Although I know about Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa’s lives and music I could scarcely proclaim myself an authority of their work. However, that said, I enjoyed this band to no end for their sheer musicality and the professionalism with which they played. This was solid classy jazz/rock with streams of Chicago and BST mixed with complex time signatures and goofy off-the-wall pyrotechnics. The anoraks loved it, and the rest — like me — just bathed in the sheer musicality of it all. It was a breath of fresh air for Cropredy to move into something different by running this band, and it worked.
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain presented another contrast. This is an act to watch as well as listen to; they’re fun, different, strange and completely entertaining, with their dress suits and music stands and ukuleles. Wisely, instead of heading up an academic blind alley, they concentrated on songs people knew, including Steppenwolf’s ‘Born To Be Wild’ and Hawkwind’s ‘Silver Machine’, which became a crowd favourite. After Chic’s ‘Le Freak’, their performance began to wander, but the enjoyment level carried them through anyhow.
A certain dynamic exists when Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson work together. Such is the dynamic that people refer to them as brothers. I have to confess that I am not the world’s biggest Richard Thompson fan; neither am I a scholar of his work, nor claim to be an expert in his material. I have seen him twice solo and twice with Danny Thompson, and when these two get together something indescribable happens. As a writer, it’s up to hands like mine to disassemble this alchemy and make it palpable to readers. There is an intensity in Richard Thompson’s stage persona and shyness when he mutters vague introductions or pretends to be OTT, but when the music is playing, it’s a different language altogether. The performance featured material from the current ‘Front Parlour Ballads’ album, including the acerbic ‘Let It Blow’ — which was, for me, one of THE songs of the weekend — and some back catalogue songs. Particularly impressive were ‘Bathsheba Smile’, ‘Vincent Black Lightning 1952’ and a few others. Quite a show, and it didn’t rain: Danny Thompson’s presence must have been solidifying; as Richard said, ‘it didn’t rain so it’s not my fault’.
When talking of the Dylan Project, this question arises: When does a tribute band rise above simply paying lip service, and become an obsession? On paper, The Dylan Project ought to work, the ingredients are there — a cultural icon with a repertoire of classics to grow up by and a group of professional musicians whose affirmative stance on the importance of ‘His Bobness’ is an open secret. Put them together and it ought to work. In action it defies this and goes way beyond mere tribute: it becomes them. Steve Gibbons masters the vocal delivery and the preambles with such success that his own personality becomes fused with the Dylan muse, and the join become impossible to see. Musically it rocked, from P.J. Wright’s stunning electric guitar work to guest member Phil Bond’s atmospheric Hammond organ and accordion. The rhythm section is as tight as it can be, and Simon Nicol offers backing vocals. But it’s Steve Gibbons’ show. He picks the songs and knows the tunes inside out, and the white-haired rocker isn’t giving in yet. For that we ought to be grateful.
Saturday, things again kicked off at noon, this time with Richard Digance. Unfortunately, I missed him yet again. Someday I’ll catch his noontime ‘Graveyard slot’ which is the only place he wants to play at Cropredy.
T&L La Touche was a good reggae band. Again, the variety of music at this year’s Cropredy festival was eclectic and outstandingly good. A whole spectrum of styles nestled happily together and was appreciated. This E2 offshoot band played a mix of covers and originals, and while spits of rain mixed with showers during the performance, they proved to be the ideal festival band in such conditions. Bob Marley’s ‘Waiting In Vain’ and Gregory Isaac’s ‘Night Nurse’ sent the crowd reeling happily into the afternoon despite the rain.
Uiscedwr is another interesting act. This English/Irish Celtic trio is highly touted because of their BBC Young Traditional Musician award and plentiful press coverage. With the addition of ex-Dando Shaft guitarist Kevin Dempsey, they now mix age with youthful dynamism. Their presentation was pleasantly un-precocious, their playing was good and the sets of tunes well-arranged. Kevin Dempsey adds some extra maturity and experience, and they promise much for the future. Only thing against them is the limitation of a fiddle, bodhran and guitar line up. It needs some extra colour and range, if only to add zest and spark the fire into more a dangerous overdrive.
The Saturday 5 p.m. spot is usually the rock and blues slot played by everyone from Amos Garrett, Blodwyn Pig, Debbie Bonham and more. This year The Hamsters returned for their third Cropredy appearance. While they play solid, no messing blues and hard rock, and are a very popular live act, there is nothing commanding to make them stand out. They walk the walk and talk the talk, but without an outstanding front man present, as in Dr Feelgood’s late lamented Lee Brilleaux, there is nothing to separate them from the league of worthy Blues/Rock outfits on the UK, US, and European scene. Had Wilko Johnson, with whom they will tour in October, even just walked out on stage and joined for one number, then the dynamic would change considerably.
At 6 p.m., the sun shone, offering solace after the torrential rain at the tail end of The Hamsters’ set. The sun received a standing ovation and it looked good for the evening ahead. And what a night there was yet to come.
Singer/songwriters are dime a dozen almost everywhere now. However, some do go the extra mile and uncover their personal experiences with an extra grace and humanity. Beth Neilsen Chapman is one of them, for reasons less obvious than most. I first heard Beth Neilsen Chapman in the early ’90s and noticed she had recorded with Fairport alumni on her 1992 album You Hold The Key, which was intriguing in my eyes. However, for me, it was through her Sand And Water album that the real connection appeared. Her experience of grief at the tragic loss of her husband and her wearing of that said grief publicly found personal resonance with the grief I felt after my father’s death in 1998. Here was someone emoting that sense of universal and private grief, which I thought nobody could put out through song. Somehow she did, and Sand And Water assumed diary-like proportions. Having heard her discuss her situations on RTE radio and following her career through other recordings, such as Deeper Still and Look, made me look forward to seeing her live. Hearing Sand And Water was cathartic, and other songs from the collection, including ‘No One Knows But You’, sent shivers down my spine. She was ably backed by Martin Allcock and Pete Zorn, who proved to be able choirboys for a Catholic Latin hymn — must be a first for Cropredy! Finishing with two hits, ‘This Kiss’ and ‘Happy Girl’, she took her leave of an impressed, and in some cases, love-struck audience.
Then it was time for a quick coffee, food, pint or whatever and back to the field for the main event: the closing concert, featuring Fairport Convention. As is usual at Cropredy, Fairport Convention close their annual festival with a mammoth three and a half hour concert in which they liberally plough through highlights from their back-catalogue, as well as new material, and in which they are joined by numerous special guests. These guests are drawn from friends both new and old, and Fairport alumni. This year their guests included Tiny Tin Lady, Beth Neilsen Chapman, P.J. Wright, Richard Thompson, and the Coventry-based Tommy Connolly Dancers. Fairport’s set saw a good selection of rarely heard material, including some welcome surprises, such a touching solo rendition of Huw Williams’ wartime ballad ‘Rosemary’s Sister’ from Simon Nicol. Fairport’s set balanced the rambunctious with the thoughtful, especially two of Chris Leslie’s featured songs, ‘I’m Already There’ and ‘The Fossil Hunter’, and Ric Sanders’ delightful slow air ‘Some Special Place’. However, the fun level was also emphasised with sprightly takes of ‘The Journeyman’s Grace’ and ‘Walk Awhile’ from the old days of Full House and Angel Delight and ‘a medley of their hit’ ‘Si Tu Dois Partir’. Material from the current album, Over The Next Hill included the title track, The Wassail Song’, and the instrumental ‘Canny Capers’, as well as Ben Bennion’s ‘Wait For The Tide To Come In’. These helped provide a well-balanced set with plenty of good rocking dynamics.
Having heard Tiny Tin Lady at The Mill Theatre upon my arrival, I was pleasantly impressed with the St Helens’ teenagers’ ability to recapture their recorded sound-mixing teenage angst with enthusiasm. So when backed by Ric Sanders, Chris Leslie and Gerry Conway, the sound took on a richer, epic proportion. Regular Cropredy guests, The Tommy Connolly Dancers from Coventry, one of the many Irish dance troupes in the midlands, provided a dash of colour and a Celtic strain. Richard Thompson’s guest slot saw Pete Zorn, Martin Allcock and Fairport jamming their way through an extended ‘Tear Stained Letter’, as well as an electric romp through ‘Let It Blow’.
However, the real revelation was in Beth Neilsen Chapman’s Sandy Denny tribute set. Choosing the rarely heard ‘Bushes And Briars’, and an emotional rendition of ‘Solo’, she bypassed the norm and gave a performance that hinted of nobody else, bar Sandy Denny herself. The effect was akin to hearing Sandy live. Another area in which Chapman excelled when compared to previous Denny flag-bearers (including Cathy Lesurf, June Tabor, Vikki Clayton and Chris While — all big shoes to fill) was the fact that for ‘Solo’ Chapman sang while seated at the piano and for ‘Bushes And Briars’, she played guitar. This may sound like a small thing, but when one tries to recreate or walk in the footsteps of someone great, details like this help. Oh, and the fact that she sings with the right timbre also helps. Here the whole package worked: band and guest artist saluting their one-time heroine.
Of course the seminal ‘Matty Groves’/’Dirty Linen’ set received an airing and ‘Meet On The Ledge’ was the anthemic conclusion. Overall it was a balanced set, and one of the best Fairport shows I have seen in all my Cropredy going years. The fun and tears mixed appropriately well. Musical dexterity and entertainment cohabited side by side for three and half hours that seemed to fly by. While there was an intermittent spit of rain, it never threatened the proceedings.
Cropredy Festival technically ends on Saturday night, with the final chorus of ‘Meet On The Ledge’. However, there are a couple of fringe events, which keep the spirit alive, and have become part of the programme. These are the Sunday afternoon Cricket Match at Cropredy Cricket Pavilion and Monday’s regular post-festival bash with Freeway Jam at The George in Barford St. Michael.
After the Festival ends at midnight and people head for buses, taxis, camps and bed in a B&B in Cropredy or Banbury, or just go home, the sound of music still lingers, even with the dismantling of the stage. Sunday features an ecumenical service, followed by breakfast in the Village Hall or a pint in ‘The Brasenose’ and, weather permitting, the annual afternoon Cricket Match. Up until 1996, the usual post-Cropredy wind-down was held in Bloxham, outside Banbury, where Fairport members and numerous friends met at ‘The Joiner’s Arms’ for a barbeque and games of ‘Aunt Sally’. However, in 1996, Dave Pegg received an invitation from the Cropredy Cricket club to hold a cricket match between a Fairport team and a local side, with the proceeds going to charity. That game began a regular occurrence. Now the annual cricket match is a chance for the Fairport-associated cricketers to wear whites and bowl. The rest of us can watch, relax, catch up, and enjoy a drink and chat in idyllic surroundings. It’s the ideal place to renew acquaintance and enjoy a pressure-free Sunday afternoon.
The final post-Cropredy Festival meet is to hear Freeway Jam at the George in Barford St. Michael, on the Monday after Cropredy festival. The Barfords are two neighbouring villages of Barford St. John and Barford St. Michael, situated some ten miles from Banbury on the Oxford Road. Barford St. Michael is best known among Fairport ranks for being the one-time habitation of Dave Pegg and Maartin Allcock, and the location of Woodworm Studios. The studio building is under new ownership, and Chris Pegg remains a resident of Barford St. Michael, as do Mick Bullard and his wife Tracey. Mick Bullard, who works backstage at Cropredy, is also the drummer with Freeway Jam. Freeway Jam is a Banbury-based rock band that has close Fairport connections, having played at Cropredy twice and composed (by their lead singer Ben Bennion) Fairport recording material. Musically they traverse the rich waters of American influenced rock, blues, and country, hitting influence points between The Band, Bob Dylan, John Prine, and The Allman Brothers Band. Having played together for almost twenty years, Freeway jam has released two albums, ‘Pictures Don’t Lie’ in 1995, and their most recent set, ‘There’s Life In The Old Dogs Yet’, issued in 2002. The latter mixes ‘Wait For The Tide To Come In’, which Fairport covered on ‘Over The Next Hill’, with some choice covers from Bob Dylan, John Prine and Lonnie Mack to name but a few.
Their live repertoire faithfully reproduces the recorded sound, with an added extra human touch. Powerful and intimate, the band is a Pub Rock outfit of the old variety, playing short sharp bursts of energetic country-flavoured rock combined with elongated jamming. Starting with ‘Mobile Line’ and Lowell George’s ‘Willing’ and heading into ‘Wait For The Tide To Come In’, it was solid old-fashioned good time rock all the way. This is good classy rock music played with courage and heart and conviction, highlighted by energetic takes on Albert Lee’s ‘Sweet Little Lisa’ (also covered by The Hamsters in Cropredy) and the Allman Brothers’ ‘Low Down Dirty And Mean’, from their triumphant ‘Seven Turns’ album. The band is comprised of Ben Bennion on vocals, electric and acoustic guitars; Nick Gould on lead guitar; bassist Andy Vickers and Mick Bullard on drums and vocals. More recently, Ben Bennion’s son, Jim Bennion, has joined them on lead guitar, adding a youthful dash and squaring the energy ante up somewhat. This is immediately apparent when the twin guitars kick into gear — there is new life, breath and energy present. When added to Ben Bennion and Mick Bullard’s gutsy sandpaper vocals, the result is classic AM Radio Rock of the mid ’70s vintage. With the band playing at close quarters on the bar floor, the beer garden open and a wide blue sky to come down to, it was the perfect ending to a wonderful weekend.
Fairport’s Cropredy Convention combines both a musical haven and social event. It is a meeting place for friends, fans and followers, all united under the Fairport banner. Already plans are being formulated for Cropredy 2006. Long may it run!
( Oxfordshire, England, 11th – 13th August 2005)