May 01, 1996


Filed under: Archive,Music


Fairport Convention

Royalty Theatre

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Fairport Convention are a bit like the family axe. It has had so many replacement heads and handles that it is hard to know whether you recognise it after all these years. Twenty six albums later-more than forty if you add up all the solo ventures- Fairport continues to lay claims to being at the still centre of the turning world of British traditional music. They run their own record label, Woodworm,  based in the Oxfordshire town of Banbury and convene annually at the Cropredy Festival, now established as the largest folkie kneesup in Europe.

Twenty-nine years ago Fairport single-handedly changed traditional music. They  pumped its veins full of electricity and took  it on such trippy excursions as A Sailor’s Life and Sloth. Now, in the current mode, they are offering their acoustic option. Sans ace drummer Dave Mattacks, the touring band consists of Simon Nicol on guitar, Maartin Allcock on guitar and bouzar, fiddle player Ric Sanders and Dave Pegg on bass.

Shambling onstage at the Royalty Theatre the band potter with their chairs and their drinks and begin to chat. There is extended introduction and much boisterous bonhomie until eventually they set to with Slip Jigs and Reels from The Jewel in the Crown, last year’s studio album. It is good ersatz folk -resonant harmonies from Nicol and Allcock, plaintive cadences from Sanders and vigorous thrumming from Pegg’s five string electric. The band is unsettled with the lack of foldback and continue to fuss about on stage while Ric Sanders introduces the Stephane Grappelli-ish instrumental, Woodworm Swing.

The Hot Club of Banbury acquit themselves stylishly well but the old Jangling Rhinoheart sound- as Sanders, with laboured wit, refers to it – has been pretty much plundered already. Jim Kweskin did it thirty years ago, Dan Hicks, twenty. It is a reminder that like their rivals Steeleye Span,  Fairport have a repertoire problem almost as soon as they move out of the Childe ballad archive. Richard Thompson built his songwriting gifts on the folk of ages, as did the gifted Sandy Denny, but no-one else in the Fairport lineage has really been able to manage it.

Paul Metsers’  There Once Was Love is a find however, a contemporary ballad which gives the band a chance to focus. Nicol’s vocals are a little hoary but Sanders and Allcock are splendidly fluent. The rest of the first half is devoted to a slow moving instrumental Portmeirion, followed by an unimaginative exhumation of the McGarrigle sisters’ standby, Foolish You and more jigs and reels with Mock Morris Ninety.

Perhaps it is the venue; the Royalty is a daunting bit of old proscenium empire. Perhaps it is the fact that the audience, though appreciative, is modest in number and the band is looking for a bit more action. Maybe it is that we are all as sober as judges at a temperance meeting. Whatever it is, despite the talents of the band, this gig is foundering.

Determined to do our bit for the cause we went round the corner to King William Street to find an inspirational ale. On return we  find that interval has been extended while the band do more sound checks. They then amble into the second half with a bundle of jigs and more banter. It is at this point that I have that sinking feeling that Fairport are not going to get this together.

Simon Nicol introduces Crazy Man Michael, the Thompson /Swarbrick original from the band’s 1969 masterwork, Liege and Lief. It is a good chance to ground the proceedings and is well-suited to the acoustic setting. But despite the beauty of their sound the band is determined to undermine its own success. When Allcock is taking a solo, Sanders is pulling focus with silly faces, Dave Pegg stands upstage chatting to Nicol and overall the band  gives an excellent facsimile of a group who could perform their repertoire in their sleep.

The stage chat is now wearing thin. All that false cheer about pie floaters and whatever-  while the band takes forever to get to the next item. The audience is getting uncomfortable with the sub-Python wit, do these guys think they are the Goodies or what ? And when we don’t pick up the ball, the zany grins tighten and like all bad comics they start to turn on the crowd. Is there anybody out there ? asks Nicol tetchily, is this the soundcheck ?

The tunes keep trickling. A Surfeit of Lampreys, Maartin Allcock’s nimble tune taken like a baton from Sanders to Pegg and back to Allcock again. All momentum is lost though as they dawdle between  numbers, introducing the truly execrable faux ballad, The Naked Highwayman. James Taylor’s The Frozen Man atones with its delicate tune and quirky cryonic theme and Allcock’s tune Lalla Rookh is another highpoint- if lost again in a tedious catalogue of banjo jokes and blue humour. The Hiring Fair, a Ralph McTell original, stretches lugubriously, pleasingly decorated but essentially prosaic.

It is Liege and Lief which again anchors things as the band concludes with an extended version of Matty Groves, the Appalachian variant of Little Musgrave. The heavy strumming from Nicol and Allcock’s intricate fretwork join forces with the soaring melody from Sanders and Pegg’s resolute bass rekindling the dark energy of one of Fairport’s all-time signature tunes.

The band are sounding fresh yet it also conjures up the splendid Fairport legacy -Sandy Denny’s wraith like vocal and Thompson’s saturnine guitar. Maybe it is finally happening. Fairport sounding like Fairport, giving the work some space, letting the intrinsic drama of balladry take effect. In short, taking themselves a bit seriously. But no, Sanders is still pulling nerdy faces and Nicol is doing the Lord Arnold dialogue in different voices. This powerfully grim ballad doesn’t need embellishment. And it certainly doesn’t need the Four Stooges.

Then, as they round the bend into the tandem jig Dirty Linen ,with Sanders in full flight, Dave Pegg, who has been capering about all night, apparently good-humouredly, suddenly lunges to the microphone and bellows to the sound desk – Turn up the violin, you f-ing c’s.  Chucks his bass clattering on to the nearest chair and exits stage right. Is this happening ? Did he just say that ? Is the real show suddenly going to happen in the next four seconds ? Did this merry bunch of happy-go-lucky Banbury boys just call the sound engineer a f-ing c. ? The bloke from the local Fairport fan club comes on stage apparently unaware that the sound engineer is a f-ing c. And we give the band an extra big round – if partly to see what will happen next. Will Dave Pegg come back and call us us all f-ing c.’s. For being so …so, reticent.

The band comes back and plays Meet on the Ledge as if no-one is, or has ever been, a f-ing c. But the sound person is still looking ashen and the promoter has headed back stage, presumably to have to a word in Mr Dave’s peg-like ear. The man from the fan club comes back onstage. That’s it he says, ethereally. He confides knowledgeably that the band never play after Ledge. It’s their signing-off tune. That -and the old f-ing c. battlecry ? –  we wonder.

Promoter Lee Miller did a good job bringing Fairport to town and she deserved better. The sound was fine and if there were foldback problems they didn’t notably alter the performance. What did affect the show was the fact that Fairport played sixteen songs in the time it would take to perform two dozen. Never mind Meet on the Ledge. They took us to the brink then frittered their talents and wasted our time. There’s an excellent live album just out –Old New Borrowed Blue. It’s worth a listen because it’s the show we should have had. They’ve cut out all the stage prattle. And no-one gets to be a f-ing c.

The Adealide review, No.152, May, 1996, pp.22-3.

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