Part 1: 11th October 2022 – Oswaldtwistle Civic Hall
As they say in Chorley “Who’d a’ thowt?”
When the Autumn tour for Fairport Convention was announced, the last place I expected them to appear was the small town of Oswaldtwistle. Walking along its Golden Mile searching for food one couldn’t help but notice that there were more barbers open than pubs. Yet this town boasts a fine musical venue, The Civic Centre, which proved to be an ideal setting for our Fairport quartet to stop off on their way to a wedding in Scotland and warm up their musical chops for the Autumn tour.
Clearly glad to be back on the road with a short acoustic tour they gave a warm welcome to the East Lancashire audience which was calmly returned. The traditional opener, Walk Awhile followed by Doctor Of Physick, set up a mini visit to Full House, which was extensively covered at the Cropredy festival. Immediately the overall sound, minus percussion, allowed for greater prominence of the splendid vocal harmonies and in particular, the electric effects of Ric’s violin seemed more to the fore. The traditional but lesser-known Banks Of Sweet Primroses also exemplified the rich full sound the quartet produce.
Every Fairport concert is like a musical journey and we were suddenly whisked to the present with the psychedelic lyrics of Cider Rain which is most pleasingly becoming a setlist regularly showcasing Simon’s vocal range and Peggy’s nimble electric bass lines as his fingers danced all evening up and down the fretboard. There was also some nifty finger picking from Simon highlighted at the beginning of one of Dave Pegg’s compositions, Bankruptered.
Whilst searching for songs when recording a slightly ruptured Fairport’s whilst recording Glady’s Leap a gift came from Ralph McTell in the form of Girl From The Hiring Fair. Highlighting Simon’s more sombre vocal skills and Rick’s violin virtuosity, particularly at the end when it is totally entrancing.
Their latest album Shuffle And Go has revealed some of their strongest material and rightly many songs from it feature on current setlists. Moses Waits penned by Rob Bentley and Chris Leslie’s rocky Year Of 59 along with his Moondust And Solitude, which completed the first set are fast becoming group and fellow Fairporter fan favourites. The spacy echoing backing vocals complemented the cosmic theme in the tribute to Apollo11 astronaut Michael Collins. Ric’s chuckleworthy joke interlude is also a regular feature and his dry wit was in full flow this evening. Steam train and morris dancing wouldn’t typically have any affiliation but in Travelling By Steam the romanticism of steam travel and stick-waving frolics are neatly married together.
Fairport are never shy of paying tribute to past members and tonight the collaboration between Chris Leslie and the late music maestro Maart Allcock was made during Lalla Rookh, which has a strong seafaring link. The group have had a penchant for songs with a seafaring theme over the years and the lovely ballad Honour And Praise was also given an airing later in the evening.
In the second half of the evening, some instrumentals came to the fore, pre-empting their forthcoming visit to Scotland to play 3 gigs and party at a friend’s wedding. We were given a vibrant violin jig duet with Chris and Ric on Royal Selection 13 and later they traded licks on fiddle and mandolin with the popular doleful waddle, bowlful of salad Portmeirion – confused? you had to be there to get that… A high-speed fiddle duet reel was added to Chris Leslie’s tale of John Gaudie, which also highlighted the close singing harmonies the band have in their locker.
It’s arguable whether Fairport has benefited or not from the tag Folk Rock, as it wasn’t until deep into the second half we actually got a folk song. Their arrangement of John Barleycorn (named after a narrowboat often seen at Cropredy or is it the other way around?) ended with a competition to hold the longest note which we can call a draw!!
Many accomplished female singers have accompanied Fairport in their emotional tribute to Sandy Denny but none of them come near to the sensitivity and passion with which Simon exudes on Who Knows Where The Time Goes. A plethora of lumps in the throat were felt in the audience but not bless him for the chap behind who ‘sang’ along. As my dad would have said..he would be a good singer but for his voice!! His enthusiastic applause at the end mirrored the feeling in the room and gave him some redemption (apart from the belching which I don’t think Sandy included in her version!)
Sadly dropped from the Cropredy set due to time constraints, the second folk song of the night, the tragic tale of Matty Groves, made a welcome re-appearance and the evening traditionally ended with the anthemic Meet On The Ledge.
Fairport’s range and versatility often go unrecognized with lilting instrumentals, vibrant jigs, romantic ballads, catchy tunes, poignant and tragic stories and amusing on-stage banter. They’ve got the lot and when they want to rock heavy they’ve got the credentials. They will also readily admit they can make the odd fluff but are always a great night out. So well done chaps for an enjoyable start to the 2022/23 tour schedule and well done Oswaldtwistle Civic Centre for giving us top quality artists within close driving distance.
Oswaldtwistle pics Mike Ainscoe
Part 2: 19th October 2022 – The Corn Exchange, Newbury
And so… Onwards and upwards. After the Oswaldtwistle show, the chaps had headed north for a rare(ish) string of concerts up in Scotland – and well-received they were, according to the reports I’ve read… A short three-day break followed before the bus rolled on, to the familiar setting of The Corn Exchange, Newbury – a delightful compact venue in the town’s unspoilt Market Square and well-known for its sound quality.
I’d been anticipating this show with enthusiasm and not a little curiosity – how would the slimmed-down, percussion-less four-piece Fairport adapt to this next phase of their long career? How would they sound without Gerry’s drums or his cajón? Would they be introducing new material that is particularly suited to the drummerless format? Well – the answers to those questions are, respectively: (1) Very well, it seems; (2) Excellent, with each member stepping forward to fill any gaps that may have otherwise been left; and; (3) Yes, a bit. I’ll elucidate further in due course.
But first, let’s talk about the setlist. Those who might suggest that popping along to multiple shows on the same tour is a waste of time, because you’ll only hear the same songs over and over might have to do a bit of Liz Truss-style reconsideration. Personally, I don’t mind hearing repeat versions of the same songs when the quality of the music is Fairport-standard, and, in any case, there were a couple of subtle differences between the material performed at Oswaldtwistle and the fayre offered for consumption in Newbury. I was interested to read that Traveling By Steam and John Barleycorn had made the cut for the Oswaldtwistle shows – they’re both particular favourites of mine (after all, it’s MY narrowboat that Howard referred to in his foregoing review…) but, at Newbury, these were sacrificed and replaced by Chris’s Devil’s Work/ La Rotta, a track from his excellent 2015 solo album, Turquoise Tales, and old favourite, Sandy’s Fotheringay. Otherwise, apart from some tweaks to the running order, the material was tried, tested, accomplished and the same.
Fairport’s spring and autumn tours have always been low-key affairs. even when the band have a drummer in their ranks, and this year’s tour is no exception. The stage layout was a sparse one – just four chairs and a small cluster of instruments around Chris’s pitch, small amps for Ric and Peggy and a row of monitors. But, sparse or not, it soon became clear that the Corn Exchange was living up to its reputation for great sound. Walk Awhile was folky and smooth, with Chris’s mandolin well to the fore; the vocal harmonies in Doctor of Physick were crisp and clear and it wasn’t until the third number, Cider Rain, that I felt that the sharp click of Gerry’s drums was missed in any way.
I was particularly pleased to see Banks of the Sweet Primroses back in the set – it’s been a favourite of mine ever since my student days and tonight’s version was superlative indeed – and I enjoyed Chris’s introduction, in which he admitted that the song’s pastoral imagery reminded him of his beloved Oxfordshire countryside.
Fairport’s on-stage dialogue has long been a key aspect of their live shows. Ric’s ‘comedy’ interlude is, of course, an established part of every performance (and there WERE people in the hall who were hearing his Jehovah’s Witness joke for the first time…) but the light-hearted revelry doesn’t end there. Peggy’s references to Swarb and Richard Thompson (“Neither can be here tonight… For different reasons” and “I never know whether to look up or down when I’m talking about Swarb”) brought chuckles from the audience, as did Chris’s observation that DIY enthusiasts spend days – months – years devaluing their property, Ric’s comparison of the venue’s “Exit” signs to a learner’s guide to morris dancing and his “Peace, love and sausage rolls” blessing at the end of Portmerion. And, perhaps most intriguingly, Peggy’s dedication of Bankruptured to our ailing government received a rousing cheer – even in West Berkshire!!
But, as always at a Fairport show, the lightheartedness is merely an enjoyable accompaniment to the main dish of delicious, lovingly prepared music and, as ever, the musical highlights poured down like silver. Simon can’t help but bring huge passion to his vocal delivery of Hiring Fair, Peggy excelled once again on Bankruptured, his bass showpiece, Simon’s guitar and Chris’s bouzouki meshed together wonderfully in Lalla Rookh and Simon reinhabited his teenage self as he delivered Fotheringay – even though he managed to get the lyrics a little tangled. And the show wasn’t yet even half-over!
Moondust and Solitude is a sure-fire candidate for inclusion, should Fairport ever decide to produce a second volume of their By Popular Request collection of audience-pleasers. It seems to have become the go-to song to close the first half of the band’s live shows – probably because it must be so difficult to follow; it’s a beautiful reminder of how we can join together to celebrate the achievements of our species and I’ve never seen it fail to hold an audience spellbound. Tonight was no exception.
The merch desk did brisk trade during the interval – copies of the band’s m,ost recent album, Shuffle and Go, was on sale for the bargain basement price of a fiver (“We’d produced 15,000 of them before the 2020 tours, and then the tours were cancelled…” joked Peggy) before we headed back into the hall for more musical treats.
It seems years since I last heard Fairport perform Royal Seleccion No.13, the opening track to the 1977 Bonny Bunch of Roses album and it was great to see Ric and Chris battling it out in a dual fiddle attack, a feature of the Fairport signature sound that we don’t seem to see as much nowadays. And still the highlights flowed… Honour And Praise is usually a drum-heavy number, but the slimmed-down band did it full justice anyway and, like always, I loved Chris’s contribution on the whistle. The hand-jiving was back for the “doop-doop” chorus of Year Of ’59 and Moses Waits, Rob Beattie’s lovely recollection of meeting and bonding with a helper in a gated Kenyan holiday resort, was as thought-provoking as ever; it’s another all-time classic from Shuffle And Go .
I was delighted that Portmerion has consolidated its place back in the Fairport repertoire and was even more pleased to welcome John Gaudie back to the set after a short absence – it’s a firm favourite of the At The Barrier team! The song made its first recorded appearance on Promises, the 1985 debut album by Whippersnapper, the band that Swarb and Chris formed after Swarb’s departure from and before Chris’s arrival in Fairport. It went on, of course, to become a Fairport staple. Strangely, I had played Promises at home just a few days before this concert and, inevitably, it had had me longing to hear the song back in the Fairport set. Wish granted! The song, as most Fairporters will know, is set in the Shetland town of Lerwick and Chris was quick to point out that the story it tells is every bit as violent as the crimes investigated by Detectives Perez and McIntosh in the TV series set in that same location. The double violin attack was back and the house was rocking.
Simon celebrated his 72nd birthday last week. I share the same birthdate, although I’m a full five years younger, and the passing of our mutual milestone drilled home the growing poignancy of the lyrics to Who Knows Where the Time Goes, a song that Fairport never fail to perform with the utmost feeling and respect. In his intro to Matty Groves, Simon mentioned the song’s nineteen verses and two chords and observed that, if that was the other way around (two verses and nineteen chords) it would be a Steely Dan song, and Fairport wouldn’t do it… because Steely Dan don’t do any of theirs. Boom Boom! Peggy acted out the words as usual and Chris dusted down his banjo. And that was that. Almost.
The climax to every Fairport show is, of course, the Meet On The Ledge encore. Written by a 17 year-old Richard Thompson, its lyrics gain relevance with every performance and every passing year and, increasingly, I find myself wondering how many more meetings we’ll be having on that particular shelf before it finally gives way. Hopefully many more yet. Anyway, the audience rose to the occasion and sang along lustily.
And that brings me to the elephant in the room, so to speak. I didn’t broach the subject of a replacement drummer (temporary or permanent) when I spoke briefly with the band members – they’ll let us know their plans when they’re good and ready – but, suffice to say, rumours were circulating within the room. It was actually quite refreshing and novel to see Fairport perform without percussion and they rose marvelously to the challenge, with each member seeming to go the extra yard to compensate. I loved the folkier, unplugged sound, but I also love the fully rocked-up Fairport that, every year (COVID permitting) manages to engage and overwhelm a crowd of 20,000 people in a certain Oxfordshire field, and even the smaller audiences in provincial halls during the Wintour and, until we’re put out of our misery, I suspect that we’ll continue to speculate who will be occupying that drum seat when 2023 rolls around. Please don’t keep us waiting too long…
And – just a footnote – after the show I was privileged to meet briefly with the band (they haven’t been doing the usual meets and greets since COVID struck) and they each contributed to a small and very special message to At The Barrier. Thanks guys!!
Newbury pics John Barlass
Categories: Live Reviews