A trip down the River Rhine in the company of Fairport Convention? What a good idea!
As a dedicated waterways traveller, the prospect of a week-long trip down the Rhine river, with stops at a whole list of iconic places along the way had always held a certain amount of appeal for me. But I’d always wondered whether I’d get bored and, particularly, whether I’d be able to hack what I perceived would be the pretty bland entertainment that I’d pictured would be the standard fare aboard… after all, if I didn’t like it, there’s not too many places to hide on board a river cruise ship. Then, in autumn 2019, a message appeared on Fairport Convention’s website, announcing that the band had signed up with Harmony Voyages for a cruise on the Rhine, to take place in June 2020. There’d be concert performances and even an opportunity for cruise participants to perform, using Fairport as their backing group. We were immediately sold on the idea and we booked our passage that very day – roll on June 2020…
We all know what happened next. The Rhine cruise went the same way as Glastonbury, Download, Barn on the Farm and Cropredy – into that huge waste bin labelled “Victims of COVID.” The cruise was cancelled, with the promise that it would, instead, take place in the summer of 2021 when, surelytobleedin’goodness, COVID would just be a vague memory. Dates and an itinerary for a rescheduled cruise, to take place in September 2021, this time on the Danube, between Bucharest and Budapest, were duly circulated and we packed our suitcases and started, once again, to rub our hands in eager expectation. After all, we were all getting vaccinated and COVID wouldn’t bother us again. Would it?
It took a little while to mutate, but when the Beta variant of the virus struck, it was a corker and summer 2021 went down the same COVID plughole as its predecessor. Once again, there’d be no Cropredy and no Fairport cruise. Would things EVER get back to normal? Would the cruise EVER happen? Would we ever see Fairport again?
Well – as we’ll see, the jury is still out on the first of those questions but, happily, the second and third questions can both be answered with a resounding YES! Fairport have made their way back into circulation – tentatively at first with a Cropredy Weekend 2021 concert in the garden of the Brasenose in Cropredy village (we were there) and then with a few autumn tour dates. The band’s Winter Tour went ahead as normal in 2022 and, as I write, preparations for Cropredy 2022 are moving full steam ahead.
And, at 2pm on the afternoon of Tuesday 21st June 2022, 140 or so lucky punters started to make their way aboard mv Amadeus Queen at Amsterdam’s River Cruiser Dock to join the re-rescheduled Fairport Rhine Cruise. We’d jumped through all the hoops (and, with rail strikes, airport delays and flight cancellations, these were still being raised right up until the last moments) and the cruise was going to happen! Nothing was going to stop us now. Was it??
Harmony Voyages is a wonderful set-up. Basically, the company is the brainchild of husband/wife team Andrew and Angela Schofield. The idea of folk-rock river cruises arose from the couples’ participation in the organization of the Costa Del Folk Festivals and started to float, literally, in 2016, when Harmony operated their first river cruise – a Rhine voyage with At The Barrier favourites Show of Hands. The cruises were an instant success and the company now operate a packed itinerary. In 2022 alone, their schedule includes river cruises with Richard Thompson, Thea Gilmore, Show of Hands and Paul Carrack – in addition to this Fairport cruise – and Harmony are also deeply involved in Costa Del Folk (this year, it’s in Portugal on 3-9 October) and in The Aviemore Folk Festival. Their website is well worth a look, for anyone who is enticed…
The cruises are a pretty comprehensive package. The Fairport Rhine Cruise was undertaken in partnership with Amadeus River Cruises, who provide the vessel and its crew. The accommodation and facilities aboard mv Amadeus Queen are top-notch; the food is excellent, plentiful and included in the package, drinks are provided with meals and the crew are friendly and helpful. Tours ashore are charged additionally but, as the ship usually docks right in the centre of the towns and cities that are visited, passengers can opt to explore on their own, and lots of helpful information, including local maps and details of places to visit, are provided by Amadeus. And, of course, on the Fairport Rhine Cruise, there were copious servings of piping hot Fairport to enjoy most evenings.
Life aboard built its momentum slowly. After a relaxed dinner, our first evening aboard was spent in the ship’s Panorama Bar, with music from the resident on-board duo, Todor and Reilsa. Likewise, our first day afloat was a similarly relaxed affair as Amadeus Queen made its way down the Amsterdam-Rhine Canal, before joining the Waal River at Tiel in the southern Netherlands. The building excitement level was palpable over dinner as the restaurant crew struggled to meet the demands of a roomful of people who were keen to get the dining niceties over with, so they could get into the bar to take their seats for Fairport’s first appearance.
And what a pleasurable first appearance it was, indeed. Ric Sanders’s passion for Gypsy Jazz and, in particular, the work of Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt is well known to many, but it was clear that several amongst the assembled throng were surprised and delighted by Fairport’s choice of material for this show, as well as by their accomplished delivery of that material. The band were introduced by their long-time buddy John Watterson – the erstwhile Fake Thackray, and now part of the Harmony Voyages Team – as “Unconventional Fairport,” an epithet that they certainly lived up to, as they worked their way through a set that included copious servings of swing, Gypsy jazz, rock and roll and a few old favourites. “We haven’t risked compromising the spontaneity of the performance by over-familiarity with the material,” joked Ric, as the show got underway, but that remark was very much tongue-in-cheek, as the band – and particularly Ric – played the old tunes with a fondness and respect that really shone through.
A whiz through Victor Young’s Sweet Sue was followed by a divine take on Gershwin’s Summertime and a version of the Ellington-Reinhardt classic, Don’t Mean a Thing if You Ain’t Got That Swing that was simply breathtaking. Chris Leslie dedicated the version of Buddy Holly’s Everyday to Morris Dancers, as he enticed the audience to join in with a revised chorus of “I can dance the Shepherd’s Hey – a-hey, a-hey-hey,” a reference that puzzled some of the American members of the audience, before the band switched direction again for a blistering run through Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Lady. Ric was, as usual, on top form, but, for me, it was Simon Nicol’s guitar contribution that really stood out on this number and I was, not for the first time, left appreciating the contribution that Simon makes to the overall Fairport sound. That was a somewhat ominous contemplation, as events later in the week were to prove…
A sublime passage of bass mastery from Dave Pegg was the introduction to Bankruptured, a tune that has recently ended a long period of neglect to become a favoured cornerstone of Fairport’s live repertoire, and then it was time for an interval with a difference. Harmony’s budget for the trip didn’t run to engaging David Copperfield for the interval entertainment, but we got the next best thing – Chris Copperfield – aka Chris Leslie, who circulated the room to astound and delight an unprepared audience with his repertoire of card tricks. Is there no end to this man’s talent?
Could Fairport follow the prestidigitations of the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist? Well, yes, of course they could and part two of the show picked up where part one had left off, with a lightening blast through Woodworm Swing, Ric’s Gypsy Jazz piece-de-resistance from Fairport’s often-overlooked 1996 album Old-New-Borrowed-Blue, before we were treated to what I strongly suspect was a Fairport First, as Ric took the vocal lead for a wonderful Makin’ Whoopee. The vast Django-Stéphane catalogue was plundered yet again for versions of Honeysuckle Rose and Nuage and a fabulous St Louis Blues allowed Fairport to show off their versatility to best effect as they drafted in slices of blues and tango to complement the tune’s base layer of slippery Gypsy Jazz.
It couldn’t go on all night, although many of us in the bar that evening would have been delighted for it to do so, and Fairport steered the evening to its climax by resurrecting their version of James Taylor’s Frozen Man, another song from Old-New-Borrowed-Blue. It’s a song about a shipwreck – a detail that Simon pointed out with a relish that was just a little disturbing – and the fate of the wreck’s sole survivor, and it was great to hear Fairport perform it again after what seems like an age. And, to conclude a show that was as sensational as it was unexpected, the band finished with a run through Sweet Georgia Brown, the tune that Stéphane Grappelli would turn to, to end his own concerts.
Tonight was Fairport with a difference, and we loved it. Is it too much to expect a few of these marvelous old tunes to find their way into the Fairport set – perhaps for the Cropredy acoustic spot, or for the spring and autumn tours? Fairport’s Unconventional Swing deserves to be heard by a wider section of their audience that could fit onto Amedeus Queen on the night of 22nd June 2022.
And Ric’s Spike Milligan interludes were great fun too!
By Day 3, Fairport’s Rhine Cruise was in full swing. We awoke just as Amadeus Queen was passing the city of Leverkusen on its way into Cologne, where we would spend the day. Cologne is a fine city with a stunning twin-towered cathedral and a delightful Altstadt and is the home of Kölsch, a beer style unique to the area. We sampled all three delights in copious quantities and enjoyed scorching sunshine into the bargain. But, for most, if not all of us, on board, the highlight of the day was, without doubt, Fairport’s BIG show, that took place in the Panorama Bar that evening.
This time, the band were introduced to the stage by Simon Care of Banter, Albion Band and Little Johnny England fame. Opening number, Walk Awhile, was greeted rapturously by an audience that was, by this stage, totally relaxed, absolutely comfortable and pleasantly lubricated, and the atmosphere was electric.
The previous evening’s Gypsy Jazz explorations were referenced by Peggy as he remarked how nice it was of Harmony to “…book a proper band [tonight] instead of a dodgy jazz band” before the band kicked on with Cider Rain from the Shuffle and Go album, their most recent studio offering. The nature of the cruise, and the bar-room setting for the concerts both served to limit the amount of sound equipment that Fairport could sensibly bring on board and it was interesting to hear them play using the minimal set-up they had. In my notes, I wrote that “They sound like a bar band – in a very good way.” I’m not sure that’s the best way to put it, but I’m sure that those present will know what I mean.
Gerry Conway’s percussion was as stunning as ever for Don’t Reveal My Name, Chris’s tale of a wild west card shark, and the song took an extra dimension after the demonstration of Chris’s mastery of “The evils of card tricks” (Simon’s words) the previous evening. An attempt by Fairport’s partners to get the audience swaying along to Over The Lancashire Hills didn’t quite come off, but it was, nevertheless, wonderful to hear the song, a particular favourite of mine, back in the set. As a Lancastrian, it was wonderful to hear this number whilst floating down the Rhine – thanks Fairport!
Simon made a hint of the ominous shape of things to come as he mentioned that he had “…a number of small amphibia in my throat” (I’ll come back to this…) before we were treated to Festival Bell, another perennial favourite. We all joined in with the one-word chorus and, thanks to Simon’s warning, none of us were premature on the “Jack.” Old-New-Borrowed-Blue was visited for the third time of the tour for Lalla Rookh, the song about a ship’s figurehead that Chris wrote with Maartin Allcock back in 1996, and then it was time for Ric’s “Comedy” slot. Pleasingly, he’s come up with a whole set of new gags, and I particularly enjoyed his revelation that Handel had teamed up with Hinge & Bracket to form The Doors. Maybe you had to be there…
Ric’s Steampunkery took us up to the interval and, yet again, I was left flabbergasted by Peggy’s work on the bass. The man is a genius – a fact that was to become more evident as the cruise progressed, but more of that shortly.
If you think you’ve had everything that life has to offer, then try listening to Fairport playing Sloth as the River Rhine slips silently away beneath your feet. In many ways, Sloth is the perfect song for a chilled-out river cruise and, on Amadeus Queen, Fairport delivered one of their best ever versions. Peggy’s bass parts were as fantastic as ever and I loved the short clip of Stairway to Heaven from Simon. Once again, the absence of sophisticated sound equipment played to Fairport’s benefit and the lack of echo effects just emphasized the band’s peerless musicianship.
The Year of ’59 had the whole boat, including the Indonesian bar staff, hand jiving and the “Jambo Bwana” refrain from Moses Waits was sung with real African passion. Any inhibitions that any cruise participants had brought on board had been cast into the Rhine many miles back! Perhaps the sole concession to sound effects was made for Chris’s exquisite Moondust and Solitude, which did include the recording of the radio comms between orbiting astronaut Michael Collins and his colleagues at Mission Control. It’s a song that never fails to take my breath away. Hiring Fair was performed as Amadeus Queen passed the riverside civic building of Bonn, the former capital city of West Germany. It wasn’t Casterbridge or Cropredy, but it was splendidly idyllic and an experience I’ll never forget!
Once again, time had gone to wherever it goes – nobody knows where that is – and it was time to bring the evening to a close. The week still had some days to run, and there were more Fairport appearances in the pipeline, so, for the first time in many years, we attended a Fairport show that didn’t close with Meet on the Ledge. Instead, that honour fell to Matty Groves, with Chris starring on banjo as usual. Satisfied, inspired and knackered, we made our respective ways back to our cabins – and it’s fantastic to commute to and from a Fairport show in a matter of seconds – to prepare ourselves for the exertions and treats of Day 4.
Day 4 was Fairport’s day off but, at breakfast time, disturbing rumours began to circulate around Amadeus Queen that all was not well. Simon’s partner, Debbie, was observed taking selections from the breakfast buffet back to the couple’s cabin and word quickly spread that Simon had caught COVID – the previous night’s reference to the “… small amphibia” inhabiting his throat suddenly made sense. He’d clearly been confined to barracks and, as we all know, the only things that spread quicker than COVID on board a ship are rumours… We’d left the Rhine temporarily, and we spent the day cruising down the beautiful Mosel River to the picture-postcard village of Cochem, set amidst the Mosel vineyards, and hoping that Simon would make a quick recovery.
Sadly, the rumours were confirmed on Day 5. Simon had, indeed contracted COVID, but – as the old cliché goes – the show would go on. Day 5’s cruise was, perhaps, the highlight of the non-musical part of the holiday, as we made our way down the “Romantic” Rhine Valley, from Koblenz to Rüdesheim, passing (I counted, though I may be wrong) thirteen impressive castles, numerous beautiful riverside villages, vineyards galore and the breathtaking Loreley rock, whilst the members of Fairport still standing convened in the Panorama Bar to rehearse a Beatles repertoire that would now be delivered sans-Simon.
And, despite Simon’s absence, the evening’s Beatles Karaoke session was a resounding success. It’s often said of the best musicians that you only really notice them when they’re not there, and that statement is certainly appropriate vis-à-vis Simon’s contribution to the overall Fairport sound. But the guys soldiered on, like the true professionals they are and, with Peggy sharing the lead guitar duties with Chris, and Ric switching to ukulele bass when required, they filled the gap admirably.
It was a fantastic evening. Those of the audience wishing to participate, using Fairport as their backing group, had pre-registered, and those of us who hadn’t done so – I was threatened with actual violence by my wife (who has heard me sing) to discourage me from putting my name forward – sang along anyway. And we all know every Beatles song, don’t we?
Chris Leslie’s partner, Linda, did a wonderful job as compere for the evening, in a Cilla Black persona that was both visually and verbally convincing! And she even got the show underway with her version of Step Inside Love! Peggy showed that he’s no slouch as a lead guitarist with solos that drew gasps from the audience during I Saw Her Standing There and Let It Be. Yellow Submarine, with cruise participant Larry Bode on vocals and Simon Care on squeezebox was splendidly daft and Mark Graham’s interpretation of Octopus’s Garden verged upon the surreal, but all efforts were generously and genuinely applauded by an audience that couldn’t get enough. Obviously, the abilities of the volunteer vocalists varied widely, but special mention is certainly due for Mary Goodwin and Jane Kemp whose versions of, respectively, Yesterday and Let It Be, were excellent, and Jim Borrows who brought the show to its climax with a creditable Rocky Racoon.
I recall that, during the days that Fairport were based around the Oxforshire village of Barford St. Michael, Beatles sessions were a regular feature in the village pub, The George. Judging by tonight’s performance, they’ve certainly lost none of their Beatle magic.
After Saturday’s Beatlemania outbreak, Sunday was a relatively quiet day. Most of us took a trip to the famously stunning university town of Heidelburg to see its castle and to wander around its unspoilt streets and squares, before we rejoined Amadeus Queen for a short hop to Speyer, a small city, dominated by its magnificent Romanesque cathedral. The evening’s entertainment was an informal session in the Panorama Bar, presided over by Chris Leslie and Simon Care.
The morning of the last full day of the cruise started in Strasbourg, where we took the opportunity to visit the delightful old town and the soaring cathedral. The evening’s excitement built slowly – we were introduced to the crew, the people who had fed, watered and piloted us to within sight of Basel, our final destination, before we enjoyed our “gala” dinner. But the day’s focus was, of course, the trip’s final Fairport concert that got underway at around 9:30pm.
We all missed Simon – that goes without saying, and his vocal and guitar contributions were even more conspicuous by their absence tonight than they had been for the Beatles karaoke, but, those left standing stepped well up to the mark. Peggy and Chris once again shared the guitar responsibilities and the vocal void was filled, at least to some degree, by The Fairpets – a vocal backing ensemble consisting of Linda and Debs. I don’t know the extent to which the band changed their set to accommodate Simon’s absence, but the choice of material was inspired – as we’ll see.
Steve Sheldon, MC for the evening, explained that, as 20% of the band was missing, they would perform for (hopefully) one night only as “Fairport Convent,” then off we went into Lark in the Morning, with the audience clapping deliriously along. Don’t Reveal My Name was next, but anyone suspecting that tonight’s show would be a rerun of the Day 3 performance had no cause for concern – this was the first of only three songs that would be repeated from the earlier show – and none of us minded that anyway!
The Bar room went suddenly dark as Amadeus Queen entered a lock, whilst Chris introduced Devil’s Work, his ode to the tribulations of DIY from his 2015 Turquoise Tales album. It’s a song that featured regularly in the Fairport repertoire a few years back and we all enjoyed its return appearance. Ric was sounding a bit croaky and I started to worry that he might be next on the list for the dreaded lurgy, but it didn’t stop him from regaling us with yet more gags. I won’t repeat his “five dicks” joke here, but if you see him around the field at Cropredy, you might want to ask him to tell it…
Next up was Rosie, preceded by a wonderful anecdote from Peggy, recalling Dave Swarbrick’s romance (in Shepherd’s Bush) with the lady of that name who inspired this most durable of Swarb’s compositions. It was a great version, with lovely backing vocals from The Fairpets. I don’t recall ever hearing Fairport perform Hungarian Rhapsody live before – it certainly is a highly appropriate song for a river boat cruise, and Peggy once again came up with an entertaining “story behind the song.” Egri Bikaver may longer be five shillings a bottle (as it apparently was in Hungary in 1972) but some of us HAD been drinking generous volumes of Hungarian wine, and we sang lustily along.
A genuine highlight of the evening was Debs’s lead vocal for Crazy Man Michael. After explaining that Simon was “…really gutted [to be locked in his cabin] and sends his love” she absolutely nailed it with a beautiful rendition of a song that means so much to many Fairport followers. Peggy reminded us that Cropredy is just around the corner before the band reprised Festival Bell, and we were taken up to The News with Dirty Linen, which, tonight, was dedicated the Laundry Staff aboard Amadeus Queen. Even missing a guitarist, Fairport managed to fly and Peggy’s basslines were, as always, awe-inspiring.
To kick off the second half of the show, John Watterson donned his Fake Thackray persona for a couple of favourite Thackray numbers, the hilarious On Again On Again and, accompanied by Fairport, Sister Josephine. Anyone who attended a show on Fairport’s 2013 Winter Tour will remember John – he was the warm-up act – and some may be interested to know that John’s biography of Jake Thackray will be out on 11th August, the first day of the Cropredy Festival.
Ric remained irrepressible as he introduced Portmerion, everyone’s favourite Ric tune (“If you take too much LDS it makes you dyslexic” is one example of his intro patter) but that didn’t detract from the sheer beauty of the tune. Yes, Simon’s guitar was missed, but Chris contributed some divine mandolin parts and we all loved it. Year of ’59 was as joyful as ever and, once again, we hand-jived along before Peggy genuinely astounded us all with a fantastic version of Richard Thompson’s Down Where the Drunkards Roll. Dave Pegg on lead guitar and vocals, ladies and gentlemen! – he sang the song with real passion, and Ric’s violin was marvelous.
Chris’s My Love is in America slowed things down a touch before the fiddles were turned to full bore for a rousing John Gaudie – and Amadeus Queen was nearly rocked onto the banks of the Rhine. But now it was bedtime and the party, and the holiday, was over. Debs and Linda stepped back on stage to take Simon’s traditional parting vocal, and the boat swayed once again to Meet on the Ledge. Indeed, it does All Come Round Again and it will be doing so in an Oxfordshire field, very very soon.
All that was left was to bid our fond farewells to our traveling companions, the people who were strangers when we boarded Amadeus Queen back on the 21st June but were now firm friends. Tomorrow, we’d be disembarking in Basel and heading our separate ways, but plans to Meet on the Ledge have already been made – we’ll all be together again at noon on Saturday 13th August at the top of THAT field to relive some memories and, perhaps, to meet up again on the next Fairport Cruise…
And, by the way, if I’ve managed to make our Fairport Rhine Cruise sound like fun – and hopefully I have – plans for a 2023 cruise, this time on the River Rhone in France, have already been made by Harmony Voyages. If you fancy going along, my advice is to get in quickly – there was already lots of interest being expressed by those on board Amadeus Queen. Details are available here.
Get yourself in the Cropredy mood! Watch Fairport Convention perform The Hiring Fair here:
Categories: Live Reviews