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Fairport Convention: The Theatre, Chipping Norton: Live Review

A triumphant Fairport return to the intimate surroundings of Chipping Norton Theatre

At The Barrier was overjoyed when we were informed, way back in August, that Fairport Convention would once again be hitting the road this autumn for a tour of their favoured smaller venues. Our man John made it to The Theatre, Chipping Norton, to catch the guys strutting (well… sitting) their stuff on Saturday 23rd October. A wonderful time was had by all, as John reports…

It’s been a long, long time. Dave Pegg’s parting words (captured on Fairport’s excellent live Off the Desk 2020 album) as the band left the Winchester Theatre Royal stage on 23rd February 2020 were “See you at Cropredy.” But then along came COVID and all face to face contact was lost. No Cropredy 2020, no 2021 Winter or Spring tour and no Cropredy 2021. It’s been a tough time all round. We were delighted, therefore, to welcome Fairport back to live performance when they resurfaced in the garden of The Brasenose in Cropredy on a rainy 5th August and now, 20 months to the day after that optimistic farewell to the people of Winchester, here they were again, back on their home patch, to enliven us all once again.

Fairport’s current tour is a fairly short and fairly low-key affair, as the band’s autumn and spring tours usually are. Focused upon mainly smaller venues in a variety of off-the beaten-track towns and villages, the tour kicked off on 14th October at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts in Maidenhead and concludes on Saturday 30th October at the Ragged Bear Festival in Nuneaton. If you haven’t managed to catch a show so far, I strongly advise that you do, and details of the remaining concerts are available here.

The Theatre, Chipping Norton is a regular calling point on Fairport’s autumn and spring tours. It’s a truly delightful place; compact and intimate and nestled comfortably next door to The Chequers, surely Chipping Norton’s finest pub. My wife and I couldn’t resist the lure – we decided to take our pajamas with us down to Chippy and to make a night of it!

As expected, Fairport’s set was just about identical to the one they played at The Brasenose back in August for the show that was broadcast via their website on what would have been the Saturday night of the Cropredy Festival. Only the Cropredy anthem, Festival Bell was omitted this time around. But, with Fairport, repetition doesn’t matter; personally, I never cease to be thrilled by the quality of the songs they choose and the sheer musicianship that the band display whilst delivering them. There’s always something new to admire, even in the most familiar of their songs, and tonight, viewed from my pole position in the centre of the third row back, was no exception. Each band member took the opportunity to show just what they can do and, for me, just a few of the many highlights included the masterful percussion that Gerry managed to squeeze from his trimmed-down kit (basically an electronic drum and a Cajon), Simon’s wonderful guitar fingerpicking – he excelled particularly on Close to the Wind and Honour and Praise, Ric’s cosmic violin explorations during Sloth, Peggy’s still baffling lead-bass on Dirty Linen and Chris’s lovely harmonica and recorder contributions to Honour and Praise. What a band they are!

After a quick greeting of “‘Allo Chippy, Alright?” from Peggy, the band took their seats, and with a “One-Two, Tickety Boo,” from Simon, Fairport launched in Walk Awhile, and show was underway. The current setlist draws heavily from Fairport’s most recent studio album, the excellent Shuffle and Go and from 1970’s seminal Full House album, which reached its Golden Jubilee milestone in 1970 – an event that, as Chris Leslie recently reminded At The Barrier readers, was to have been celebrated at the 2020 Cropredy Festival, before COVID intervened. So, from those particular sources, we were treated to Cider Rain – a personal favourite of mine, with its Breton origins, Don’t Reveal My Name – Chris’s tale of a risk-taking card shark, in which Gerry made an excellent job of reproducing the album’s subtle percussion sounds with his limited kit, Ric’s current pyrotechnic showcase Steampunkery, the sublime Moses Waits and, perhaps best of all, Chris’s Gemini space capsule pairing of the awesome Moondust and Solitude and the 1950s sci-fi The Year of ’59 (which Chris dedicated to his brother John, who was in the audience.)

From Full House, Fairport performed faultless versions of Dirty Linen (and I have to give Peggy’s bass-playing a further mention here, such is my awe every time I watch him play those melody lines…), Sloth – the current “abridged” version which, whilst shorter in length that some of the epics that have illuminated so many Cropredy evenings, still provides the space for each band member to stretch out and excel and Doctor of Physick – long overlooked by the band but one of my enduring favourites from the Fairport canon.

But it didn’t end there. The sobering John Condon is always a welcome addition to Fairport setlist and Saturday’s version was fantastic, topped off by Simon’s solemn intro, as he described a recent visit to the war grave of the 14-year old Irish youth who lied about his age to take part in the hell of World War One. I’m always similarly pleased to see Close to the Wind, the story of the Culworth gang that terrorised the lanes and villages of Northamptonshire (until they were caught and summarily executed…) back amongst the repertoire, and I have yet to meet the person who has become tired of hearing Journeyman’s Grace! Tonight, Simon noted that the confectionery company Birds launched their Angel Delight product (which Fairport co-opted for the 1971 album which hosts Journeyman’s Grace) on 27 May 1967 – also the date of Fairport’s first ever gig at St. Michael’s Hall, Golder’s Green. There are, indeed, cosmic forces at work of which we know nothing.

Ric’s comedy interlude took on an extra dimension at Chipping Norton as he met his match in an audience member who seemed to have a response to each of Ric’s dialogue lines. Whilst telling the tale of his life under lockdown, Ric mentioned that, despite his isolation, he did have two regular visitors… “Were they your carers?” asked our audience member… And so it went on until Ric was minded to bring the dialogue to a close with the reprimand “It’s not a duet, madam!” There’s always something new at a Fairport show!

We knew that things were drawing to a close as Simon delivered his touching tribute to Sandy (“…Such a beautiful song to emerge from such a scatterbrained individual”) in his intro to the always beautiful Who Knows Where the Time Goes? It’s a song that never fails to reach right inside every member of the audience – and it did so again on Saturday night. As we moved on, Simon observed that, although Fairport are a folk-rock band, they hadn’t yet performed a folk song – the cue for Matty Groves, the usual pre-encore set closer.

Fairport don’t go through the charade of leaving the stage anymore before their encore; they know their audience well enough to know that they’ll be called back, so they just hid briefly behind their respective instruments before seeing us off, as usual, with a rousing Meet on the Ledge.

The spectre of COVID hasn’t quite passed. Saturday’s show was apparently a sell-out, but there were a number of spaces in the auditorium, generally explained as being due the reluctance of some ticket-holders to attend an indoor event whilst cases continue to rise – an unfortunate, yet understandable decision.

Virtually every audience member wore a mask throughout the concert and Fairport have reluctantly put their usual post-show meet-and-greet activities on hold until things improve further. But there were some encouraging signs amongst the caution; Simon’s entreaty for us to “remain together as a species” drew a deserved round of applause, as did Peggy’s announcement of the forthcoming appearance of star ex-Fairports Dave Mattacks and Richard Thompson at Cropredy 2022 – an event that we’re all determined will go ahead. Likewise, Simon’s pre-Meet on the Ledge suggestion that “…in August, in the fresh air, we’ll all be singing our heads off on this chorus… won’t we,” drew a rousing cheer. My favourite memory though, that I’ll probably be able to laugh about once things REALLY get back to normal, was the muffled chorus singing as, despite our face coverings, we still joined in with Meet on the Ledge in the way that we always do.

Thanks Fairport – you made Chipping Norton a very happy place.

Set List:

First Half: Walk Awhile; Dirty Linen; Don’t Reveal My Name; John Condon; Steampunkery; Close to the Wind; Sloth; Moondust and Solitude.

Second Half: Journeyman’s Grace; Honour and Praise; The Year of ’59; Bankruptured; Moses Waits; Doctor of Physick; Who Knows Where The Time Goes?; Matty Groves; Meet on the Ledge.

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