Fairport Convention & Luke Jackson – The Atkinson, Southport – 4th March 2022
The Bus Rolls On – At The Barrier catches up with Fairport’s Wintour 2022 at The Atkinson – Southport’s swish concert venue.
And the bus rolls on… Despite the recent COVID-induced interruption, Fairport Convention’s 2022 Winter Tour has carried on regardless and arrived in the gentile Lancashire resort of Southport on Friday 4th March. At The Barrier went along for another dose of Fairport fun.
We last caught up with Fairport on Thursday 3rd February when they played at Exeter Corn Exchange. The 29-date Winter Tour had just got underway, the Exeter show was the third date of the tour and all looked to be Rosie in the Fairport garden. But then… the dreaded COVID struck. Bassist Dave Pegg tested positive on Tuesday 8th February, the band performed without him at their sellout show at Solihull’s Core Theatre that night and a whole run of dates had to be cancelled or rescheduled. What rotten Fairport luck.
But Fairport Convention have learned how to roll with the punches and, undaunted, the tour runs on. Nevertheless, I was greatly relieved when I arrived in Southport on Friday afternoon to see various Fairporters taking the air on the town’s Victorian pier. The boys, it was clear, were back in town.
Despite my own Lancashire origins, I’m ashamed to confess that I hadn’t been in Southport for almost 35 years before Friday’s visit and I was pleased to see how chipper the town was looking. The aforementioned pier (Britain’s oldest iron pier and its second-longest – for any of our readers who are amongst the growing band of pier enthusiasts…) has lost none of its grandeur and elegant Lord Street (on which The Atkinson is situated) looked positively radiant. The Atkinson itself is a fine venue, a building that incorporates Southport’s Central Library and Art Gallery as well as a comfortable, intimate theatre space. It’s a perennial stopping point on Fairport’s annual winter jaunt and a great place to enjoy live music.
As has been the case throughout this tour and, perhaps, particularly since that stark recent reminder that COVID hasn’t yet gone away, Fairport have eschewed their usual “Meet and Greet” sessions around the Merch stall and, instead, pre-signed copies of the tour programme and the recent(ish) Shuffle and Go album are left at an unattended table in the venue’s foyer, for audience members to purchase via an “honesty box.” The box seemed to be doing a brisk trade on Friday evening, but we all miss the personal interaction that we’ve learned to take for granted at Fairport gigs; I’m sure I speak for many of the band’s followers when I say how fondly I look forward to the days when we can once again have a nice natter with the chaps.
Lest we were to forget, our continent and our world currently sits on a parlous precipice and, whilst Fairport are always keen to keep politics and current affairs at more than arms length, Ric Sanders’ dedication of the show to the people of Ukraine during his introduction of opening act Luke Jackson was welcomed and appreciated. Luke is clearly enjoying his Fairport tour experience and his entire performance has been noticeably honed during the month since I last saw him in Exeter. I loved his comment that “The venues on this tour are certainly at the swanky end of the places I’ve played!” and every song was delivered with a passion and intensity that has blossomed during the tour.
Like Fairport, Luke has stuck with the same nightly setlist and regular showgoers will, no doubt, now be getting very familiar with Luke’s excellent songs: the acapella, finger-click-driven Trouble Now, the bluesy, passionate Honeycomb, the beautiful Tiny Windows (perhaps my favourite of the lot), the harrowing Eliza Holt, the sad Oh Channel – probably the most poignant song ever on the subject of migration – and last – but by no means least – the rocking, mocking Nothing But Time, Luke’s swipe at the tribulations of lockdown and the centrepiece of his recent mini-album, Of The Time. As we’ve already pointed out several times in these pages, Luke Jackson is a gentleman who is going places. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure, make sure you check him out – you won’t regret it!
As is the long-standing tradition on the Fairport Winter Tour, the support act is joined for his/her/its final number by Fairport, as a neat link between the respective sets of the support act and Fairport themselves. During this year’s tour, Fairport assume the role of backing band for Luke’s final number, Nothing But Time. It’s a genuine exchange of favours – Fairport’s backing adds a dose of real oomph to a great song and, as Peggy only semi-jokingly pointed out, Luke’s inclusion in Fairport ranks “reduces the average age of the band by about 40 years…”
And then – off we go again! A “1-2-3-4” from Simon Nicol and the band swing into Walk Awhile, Fairport’s default choice of opening number for the past 52 years, and it still sounds coffee-pot fresh! It’s already been noted that Fairport’s current setlist focuses particularly on Shuffle And Go – their excellent 2021 album that didn’t get the live exposure it so thoroughly deserved after COVID made its appearance, and upon the seminal Full House album that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020. So it was that, after a short dialogue from Peggy concerning childhood holidays in Southport and Fiat 500’s, we were treated to a sublime version of Cider Rain, one of my favourite tracks from Shuffle And Go, before Gerry’s wonderfully subtle percussion signaled the start of Don’t Reveal My Name, the album’s alluring opening track.
The performance of Lalla Rookh, one of Chris Leslie’s several tales of a fateful sea voyage, was, once again, immaculate, before Ric stepped forward his comedy interlude and the (now) fondly familiar Je-hoover’s Witnesses gag. The routine was the precursor to the dazzling Steampunkery, Ric’s latest instrumental offering. It’s breathless, super-speedy and delightfully confusing; as Simon pointed out – “We like playing that one, because, when we are, we know he isn’t writing another one like it!”
During this year’s tour, we’ve been taken into the interval with a marvelous version of Sloth, the Swarbrick/Thompson classic from the Full House album. The current version is somewhat pared-down particularly in comparison to the full-blown epics that are delivered when Richard T is back within the Fairport ranks (and which we can – hopefully – look forward to at Cropredy). The overall sound is softer, with Simon playing acoustic guitar and Chris on his mandocello, and it’s thoroughly enjoyable. Study each member of the band in turn and you’re guaranteed to hear something new and awesome, no matter how often you’ve heard Fairport play the song before, and, as always, Peggy’s bass solo was stunning. How does the man do it??
Fairport’s continuing ability to win over new followers was brought home by a conversation I chanced to overhear in the venue’s washroom during the interval. A delighted convert remarked that this was the first time that he’d seen Fairport; “It’s great music,” he said. His friend replied – “Oh – I go to Cropredy every year, and it sounds like you should do too.” Wise advice and, if the gentleman concerned is reading this, I can confidently assure you how much you’ll enjoy the festival and how welcome you’ll be made to feel. Take the plunge and buy a ticket (available here) for a life-changing experience!
From my perch at the back of the hall, the temperature in The Atkinson was warm and comfortable but, it seems, that wasn’t the case on the stage. When the songs require the instrumental dexterity that Fairport’s do, it’s not a good idea to be cold, so it was a relief to see that, for the second half of the show, Simon had chosen to wrap himself up in a couple of extra layers and Peggy had his coat on. And second-half opener, The Journeyman’s Grace, was just the thing to warm up any members of the audience who may have similarly been victims of the over-enthusiastic air conditioning.
An oblique comparison between barnacles on the hull of an old ship and the comfort of the seating in the group’s trusty van was the cue for a storming version of old favourite Honour And Praise, before Ric returned to the mic to introduce the ‘extra-cholesterol’ tale of UFO sightings over Banbury, Chris’s The Year of ’59. Bankruptured, Peggy’s autobiographical instrumental (is that possible…?) from the 1978 Tippler’s Tales album was next, before attention returned back to the 2020’s and Shuffle And Go. Rob Beattie’s Moses Waits is another of the outstanding tracks on that album and it was interesting to hear Simon’s recollections of how Rob came up with the idea for the song after a stay in a Kenyan resort hotel – and the version performed at The Atkinson was sheer perfection.
In his recent interview with At The Barrier, Fairport’s Chris Leslie explained how his interest in all things space-related was piqued at a young age by the 1969 Apollo moon landing and Chris once again waxed enthusiastically, this time describing his awe at the achievement in launching and deploying the Webb Space Telescope in January of this year, as he introduced his latest piece-de-resistance, the awesome Moondust And Solitude. As Fairport followers will know, it’s the story of Michael Collins, the member of the Apollo 11 crew who stayed on board the command module Columbia whilst his colleagues Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong descended to the moon’s surface during that historic expedition. Chris’s passion for Collins’s situation and the solitude he experienced as he orbited the moon on his own continues to be infectious, and Moondust And Solitude is destined to remain a mainstay of the Fairport live repertoire for a long time to come.
Doctor Of Physick has become a regular feature in the Fairport set over the past couple of years and its inclusion at The Atkinson show was a timely reminder that August is a-coming and that we can all look forward to hearing Fairport perform Full House in its entirety when the band take the stage at Cropredy, complete with former members Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks, on the evening of the 13th of that month. At The Barrier will, of course be there… The recently revived Hiring Fair was well-received by The Atkinson audience, who were sufficiently lifted to clap along right from the opening bars when the band launched into traditional set-closer Matty Groves. I’d guess that Fairport have been doing the Chris Leslie banjo-enhanced version of Matty for around ten years now, but – somehow – the novelty has yet to wear off and it’s still a version of the song that I love.
As always, Fairport bade their encore-farewell with Meet On The Ledge; the audience sang heartily along, Luke Jackson made his reappearance, and that was it for another show. Another wonderful evening and another great Fairport performance. We don’t know where the time goes, but we do know that it all comes round again. As Simon said with his parting shot – “See you in a field in North Oxfordshire in August!“
Actually, there’s a lot more Fairport activity to go before we set out on our journey to Cropredy… The Wintour still has a few shows left to run – in Worthing (8th March), Bexhill (9th March), East Grinstead (10th March) before the tour ends at London’s iconic Union Chapel on 12th March. Full details and ticket applications can be accessed here. And that’s not all – Fairport’s 25-date Spring Tour kicks off at the Victoria Hall in Settle on 28th April and, perhaps most thrillingly, the band will be hosting a cruise down the River Rhine from Amsterdam to Basle at the end of June. I’m pleased to confirm that At The Barrier will be present to bring you the story of that epic voyage but, better still, why not come along? There are still some spaces left! Details are available here. And after that? Cropredy! It promises to be a fantastic summer!
Photos by Mike Ainscoe on the Nikon D3/24-70/70-200 combo, like its owner, still rattling on in its old age.