Cropredy Festival, Oxfordshire

Published in Mojo, September/October 2001

 

            Fairport Convention spent their original lifespan (1967-79) making fabulous music and no money. Reconvening by stealth in the mid-eighties, after a series of vibrant reunion festivals near bass player Dave Pegg’s Cropredy home, the new music may be routinely patchy but the annual reunions have become a wonderfully relaxed, family-oriented tribal gathering with an enviable demographic reach – and a dependable yearly pay-day for Peggy and the boys, which none could begrudge them.

Now covering three days, the Thursday bill was perhaps unfortunately the most satisfying. Tarras are a young band ably fronted by electric pianist/vocalist Ben Murray, with compelling stage presence. Their seductive, classic James Taylor-ish songs should probably be all over daytime Radio 2 and probably aren’t. Yet one wondered if the interspersed jigs and reels were merely a case of keeping a foot in a camp than at all relevant to their musical progress.

By the time Steve Ashley took to the stage the rain had dissipated (Friday would have great weather, Saturday dreadful). The Inspector Morse of the folk world – a gentle romantic with a flair for mystery – Steve’s recorded work deals in quasi-mystical and elemental themes within the context of real life, and thus it was here. Visibly surprised, nay, delighted to get through his seventies calling card Fire And Wine without the earth opening up beneath him it was daring indeed to risk next the serene Candlemass Carol and to follow that with the desperately beautiful Say Goodbye. But that’s Steve Ashley. Underneath the almost absurdly self-effacing exterior is a man who cares about things enough to sing fireside dream poetry on wide open stages, and in questionable weather.

            One’s enjoyment of the Dylan Project (a downtime exercise featuring people from Fairport and the Steve Gibbons Band) is necessarily influenced by one’s attachment to Bob’s songs. A tight, ballsy unit, as you’d expect, they were infinitely more polished and palatable on the ear than any current Bob concert. There has developed a Zen-like quality to Lonnie Donegan. The father of British pop, mothballed for decades into cabaret by the advent of the Beatles, Donegan has not in any way reinvented himself but simply come around again with the same infectious, universally toe-tapping zest of his old skiffle repertoire, subtley injected with bluesier arrangements and a fabulous band. Simultaneously self-deprecting, faux-camp and outrageously swaggering, like a Danny La Rue-ish pantomime archetype, he is a national treasure – and doesn’t he know it! His current fee is reputedly vast, and every penny is deserved.

            Friday – like Saturday afternoon – felt a bit second division. By teatime, Sugarland Slim’s ‘Delta funk’ bluster was staking a claim (unrivalled in my experience) for the grey area between Mungo Jerry and Whitesnake. Eliza Carthy’s new song Lazy Angel suggested her pop career might not be an entirely busted flush – though a lukewarm response suggested she was trying her luck in the wrong field. The night’s main acts, Musafir (daringly audio-visual, consequently not enticing the far half of the field) and De Dannan (Irish legends perhaps, but clinging to a desperately quaint, music-hall style that felt out of place) never reached fifth gear.

The sun refused to shine on Saturday, which was too bad for ex-It Bites comeback man Francis Dunnery, whose langourous, luxuriant prog-pop cried out for a doff of the solar cap. Or an aquarium to watch. As with most Northern end-of-pier types there was something intolerable about compere/Saturday performer Keith Donnelly. But you had to admire his balls. Canadian bluesman and James Coburn voice-double Amos Garrett was, undoubtedly, the first truly class act since Thursday – soulful, wry and effortlessly entertaining his show was tellingly checkled out by most other performers.

            The Fairport finale was, of course, the weekend’s pinnacle. Fewer ex-members than usual were paraded: Ashley Hutchings cameoed in a splendid, unrehearsed Tam Lin while Dave Swarbrick (recovering from illness) was literally wheeled on for ceili sets with Fairport’s fairy godmother, pianist Beryl Marriott. Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson came on for half an hour of ‘a little light music’, though carrying the crowd towards a deftly-judged climax in Locomotive Breath, featuring ex-Fairport/Tull man Martin Allcock on overdrive pedal. The big name walk-ons are presumably being saved for next year’s 35th anniversary, but the low-key vibe felt good, with the current Fairport showcasing their forthcoming new album (due October, and sounding their punchiest in years). With turn-out down this year the banter reflected a genuine gladness that we’d come.

Cropredy is a lovely event, and a core will always come for its cameraderie alone. But frankly this year’s line-up was dangerously weak, with a whiff of penny-penching and/or croneyism, given the number of current and former Fairport members and their relatives playing in the supporting acts. Next year we really must see some programming imagination and the wallet open.