Fairport Convention – Off The Desk 2020: Album Review

Not the 2021 Winter Tour – But a brilliant memento of Fairport Convention’s last show pre-lockdown

Release Date:  26th April 2021

Label: Matty Grooves

Formats: Limited Edition CD + Programme (Run of 2000)

It goes without saying that, for all music lovers, one the huge frustrations of the past year has been the enforced cancellation of live music events.  And for people like At The Barrier, who adore Fairport Convention, the absence of the 2020 Spring Tour, the 2021 Winter Tour and above all, the 2020 Cropredy Festival has left a massive hole that just can’t be filled.  Well – not entirely anyway…  Fairport have done their best, under almost impossible circumstances, to offer some consolation to their hoards of admirers; for instance, we’ve had the “non-event” merchandise – tee shirts and wristbands for the festival and tours that didn’t take place, the magnificent Cropredy Connection livestream (watch here) that went out on the Saturday evening scheduled for the festival’s climax, and now, this truly excellent memento of the last show that the band played before lockdown kicked in.

Off the Desk 2020 is no ordinary live album.  First of all, it’s a full multitrack mix of the performance at Winchester’s Theatre Royal on 23rd February 2020, without any overdubs or re-recording.  Secondly, instead of a conventional CD booklet, the package comes complete with a pseudo-tour programme dubbed Not The 2021 Winter Tour #Lockdown2021 – and what an item THAT is – I’ll tell you more about it in a moment…  But, most importantly, Off The Desk 2020 is an album that features a great band at the peak of its form playing a fantastic selection of music with passion and enjoyment that are clearly evident.  Amongst the many, many live albums that Fairport have released over the years, this one stands out as one of the very best.

This is, of course, not the first time that Fairport have used the Off the Desk concept for one of their live albums – selections from the band’s 2004 and 2005 winter tours were issued under the same name back in 2006.  2020 started as a momentous year for Fairport.  Their latest album, Shuffle and Go, the band’s strongest set for years, was released in January and they were also preparing to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of their classic Full House album by playing it in its entirety at Cropredy, alongside the new material.  Sadly, those plans had to be placed in suspended animation but, hopefully, the release of this new album marks the first steps of a spring reawakening process… Let’s hope so!

But let’s talk about the pseudo tour programme that accompanies the CD.  It’s a peach!  Each band member has taken the opportunity to write a personal message and update to the fans; Simon provides us with a recipe for fish pie and a sponge cake and some indoor plant-rearing tips, Peggy and Gerry talk about how they spent their time during lockdown (lots of DIY, and Peggy grew a beard) Chris reminds us that he recorded an album (the excellent Fiddle Back) and tells about reviving his violin-making skills and Ric goes on about anything and everything! 

There’s a lovely and very touching message from the recently deceased Darren Beech at folking.com, there are some wonderful photographs (I love Simon’s I am silently correcting your grammar tee shirt) and, best of all, the booklet is littered with QR codes that allow the reader to access web pages (including the “Why I Love” articles that the members of Fairport wrote for At The Barrier, we’re delighted to say!) and videos of Fairport and each of their recent Winter Tour support acts.  This fantastic innovation probably expands the scope of the document ten-fold or more!

Regular visitors to At The Barrier will recall that we were present at shows in Southport, Manchester and Bath during the 2020 tour – you can read our combined review of those concerts here.  Fairport’s front-of-house sound man, John Gale, often records the band’s live shows and, fortunately, the last show of the 2020 Winter Tour in Winchester was one occasion when he did just that, and the bulk of the material on Off The Desk 2020 comes from that recording, although John did also take the opportunity to add in four songs from a 2019 concert at The Gulbenkian in Canterbury.  The new Shuffle & Go album and the Golden Jubilee celebrant Full House provided the bulk of the setlist for the 2020 tour and that balance is reflected here with seven selections from Shuffle And Go and four from Full House and they all sound wonderful.

Fairport Convention – Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, February 2020 (Review)
Picture: Mike Ainscoe

Anyone who has attended one of Fairport’s Winter Tour shows will be familiar with their tradition of joining their support act as a backing band for the last number of the support act’s set, before Fairport kick off their own performance, and that’s how Off The Desk 2020 kicks off too, as Fairport join the magnificent Smith and Brewer on their lively samba, Don’t Say You Don’t Love Me.  And then, with a “One-two-ticketty-boo” from Simon, Fairport launch into Walk Awhile, and we’re off.  From the outset, I was struck by the crisp, clean sound that is a real credit to the production efforts of John Gale and backline tech Tristan Bryant, as well as to Fairport’s own extraordinary instrumental skills.

Our first taste of the Shuffle And Go material comes with Chris Leslie’s Don’t Reveal My Name and as I listened, I pondered how many other bands can get away with going into a brand new number without any introduction, safe in the absolute knowledge that a high majority of the audience will not only be familiar with the tune, but will have also memorized all the words too!  Fairport can!  Next comes Cider Rain, a slower burner from Shuffle And Go, written by James Wood, Luc Boisseau and Phillipe Richalley from Breton band Rosemary and the Brainless Idols.  It’s a song I’ve grown to love after it struck home with me during a car journey across the authors’ Brittany one day last January. 

We stick with Shuffle And Go for Good Time For a Fiddle and Bow, Chris’s companion song to audience favourite John Gaudie before the set takes a step back to 1978 and the Tipplers’ Tales album for a revamped version of Bankruptured, a tune in which each band member is given, and takes, the opportunity to show off a bit.  Two of my favourite songs from Shuffle And Go are Rob Beattie’s Moses Waits and Moonlight and Solitude – Chris’s outstanding contemplation of the isolation felt by astronaut Michael Collins as he orbited the Moon whilst colleagues Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin descended to the lunar surface – and happily, they’re both included here.  The sense of loneliness that Chris’s words in Moonlight and Solitude evoke never fail to astound me.  Incidentally, immediately prior to writing this review, I was saddened to read Michael Collins’ obituary in The Observer.

I remember being very pleased when Fairport revived Close To The Wind for their 2019 tour, and it’s great to see it included on Off The Desk 2020.  The song is a long-time favourite of mine – I love the story it tells, and, somehow, Peggy’s bassline always seems to reach new depths of mellowness every time the song is played.  And, to quote Simon Nicol from many years ago, it’s still the only song around that includes the word “Northamptonshire.”

The final Shuffle And Go selections included on this latest live album are Steampunkery, a frantic piece of Colin Edmonds-inspired magic from Ric and Year of Fifty-Nine, a Purple Spaceships over Banbury yarn that Chris delivers with great joie de vivre.

Full House is recognized by many as Fairport’s finest hour.  It’s certainly the album of their’s that I’ve played most during the fifty years that I’ve owned it, and several of its tracks, notably Walk Awhile and Dirty Linen have never strayed far from the band’s setlists over the years.  Both Walk Awhile and Dirty Linen feature on Off The Desk 2020, along with a blistering version of the sinister Doctor of Physick, a song in which the line “Wear your relic near” never fails to send shivers down the spine and an eight-minute blast of Sloth, which sounds as fresh as a daisy after it’s long(ish) lay off.  And Peggy’s bass playing on Dirty Linen is awesome!

The set is completed by Honour and Praise, a track from 1985’s Gladys’ Leap, played with a softer edge that the original version and enhanced by Chris’s contributions on whistle and harmonica, a faithful rendition of The Journeyman’s Grace with an excellent vocal from Chris and some nice electric guitar touches from Simon and, of course Meet On The Ledge on which Fairport are re-joined by Smith and Brewer for the show’s close-out.

The last words we hear on the album come from Dave Pegg, as he signs of with “See you next year; see you at Cropredy.”  With the hindsight we now all possess, those were ominous words indeed, but hopefully the release of Off The Desk 2020 is an early sign of the spring we will surely be able to enjoy in 2021.  Sadly, there’ll be no Spring Tour from Fairport, but we’re all tremendously optimistic for Cropredy this year and tour schedules for October 2020, Winter 2021 and Spring 2021 are being compiled now.  Is the bus about to roll-on again?  I sincerely hope so!!

Off the Desk 2020 is issued as a strictly limited run of 2,000 CDs, available only from Fairport’s Online shop at here.

Watch the Official video for Don’t Say You Don’t Love Me from Smith and Brewer, with Fairport Convention – live at The Theatre Royal, Winchester, below.

Fairport Convention Online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / YouTube

Smith & Brewer: Official Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram

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