2022 Cropredy triumph preserved for posterity – Fairport celebrate the 50th -plus anniversary of their 1970 masterpiece – Full House
Release Date: Available for pre-order here
Label: Matty Grooves Records
It was hot. In more than one way, it was hot. Cropredy’s Fairport Convention 2022 was the hottest on record and, many would argue, the best ever. The music was divine, it was soooo great to be back in THAT field after three years of enforced absence, and the sun shone. And shone. And shone. And to top off (some would say eclipse) a magnificent weekend, Fairport Convention celebrated the 50th (+2) anniversary of their 1970 Full House album, the album that some, myself included, identify as the band’s defining achievement.
It was a treat that had been stuck in the pipeline for three years, blocked by the persistence of that wretched COVID thingy, but, at around 9:30pm on the evening of Saturday 13th August, Fairport’s 1970 lineup of Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks and Richard Thompson, plus Chris Leslie who was standing in (wonderfully, as it turned out…) for the otherwise-occupied Dave Swarbrick reconvened on the Cropredy stage, and it was “Game On.” And WHAT a performance they delivered.
And, happily, Fairport have had the good sense to preserve that magnificent performance – not in aspic – but the on digital optical information storage format that we know as a Compact Disc. And, thank heavens they did, because Full House For Sale is destined to become a treasured memory of a landmark Fairport performance. Already, I have a suspicion that this new album may well be Fairport’s best and most enduring “Live” album ever.
Full House was an album that emerged following perhaps the most significant of the band’s occasional periods of turmoil. They’d released three memorable albums during 1969, culminating in the seminal Liege and Lief, the album commonly credited as the genesis of folk/rock, which saw light of day in December of that year, and the Fairport weather seemed to be set fair for an enjoyable voyage of further discovery. However, beneath the surface, all wasn’t well and, for reasons that have often been the subject of speculation, even by the individuals involved, bassist Ashley Hutchings and vocalist/songwriter Sandy Denny had, within a matter of mere weeks, decided to leave the band.
What happened next was, I believe, nothing short of miraculous. Dave Pegg, a mate of Swarbrick’s, was auditioned and recruited as the replacement bass player and the Full House lineup was born. Fairport, together with partners, children, roadies, managers, pets and all their instruments and equipment moved into The Angel, a disused (or “deconsecrated” as Peggy is wont to remark) pub in the village of Little Hadham, Hertfordshire and the band – Swarb and Richard in particular – got down to the serious business of coming up with material for their new album. And that album, Full House, was a triumph. A perfect mix of traditional material – sets of tunes like Dirty Linen and Flatback Caper and self-penned songs (Sloth, Walk Awhile, Doctor of Physick et al) that, even to this day, rank with the best that even Richard Thompson has ever produced, all delivered with the charm and poise that remains a Fairport trademark. It’s a classic album which remains my favourite Fairport offering, and it’s the album that, in a fair, informed world would have turned Fairport into global superstars. That it didn’t is another story.
So back to Cropredy, 13th August 2022. Peggy’s daughter, Stephanie, who was just three years old back in 1970 and who features with her father, the band and the dog on the Full House gatefold photograph, appeared on the festival’s big screen and delivered the introduction that launches Full House For Sale. We’re off!
Like the actual performance, Full House For Sale replicates the running order of the original Full House album and the first song, Walk Awhile (of course…) sounds as full and fresh it ever did. Right from the outset, Chris Leslie sounds comfortable in Swarb’s shoes and the message of what we’re actually hearing hits home, first, when Richard Thompson steps up to the mike to sing his “Two miles down the road…” verse – and also when we get to the wonderful guitar phrase in the song’s closing bars. The crowd loved it, and the excitement comes over loud and clear on the CD!
Like Walk Awhile, Doctor of Physick is a staple of Fairport’s recent live set, but here the song takes on a whole new magic aura. Some of that aura clearly comes from the presence of Richard Thompson, the song’s author, and from Dave Mattacks, playing the drum parts that he, himself, invented – but there’s more to it than that. The glory of this performance is much more than the sum of the band’s individual parts and, in the instrumentation and the searing four-part vocal harmonies, Fairport capture and bottle the creeping terror of the evil Doctor’s presence as he, once again, unpacks that dreaded trunk of his.
Dirty Linen is, of course, a guaranteed show-stopper and the version here is no exception to that rule. Folkier and jauntier than the original album version, it’s still played at a blistering pace – a pace driven, no doubt by the presence of Messrs Thompson and Mattacks and a resulting mindset amongst the rest of the band that 1970 had come round again… This being a Fairport “home match,” the crowd know exactly when to clap along and the sheer enjoyment of 20,000 people comes over loud and clear in the production.
Sloth, the Full House album’s big centre-piece has survived innumerable iterations, largely driven by the changing membership of Fairport, but here, it’s back its very, very best. It’s packed with almost too many highlights to recall and eleven minutes whizz by as the listener’s attention is grabbed by Richard’s guitar and the faultless vocals. Simon’s acoustic solo – including its reference to Stairway to Heaven is sublime, Peggy dazzles as he fills the air with his twangy bass solo and DM turns the mood of the song on a sixpence as he alternates between gentle subtlety and rampant aggression. Richard’s vocal, particularly in the ”She’s run away, She’s run away…” interlude sends shivers down the most resistant of spines and Chris’s violin and vocals are both seemingly possessed by the spirit of Swarbrick. I don’t believe in ghosts, but it’s tempting to imagine that the great man was looking down (or up, depending on where you think he may have ended up…) with glowing approval. Take your pick of available adjectives: this version of Sloth is massive, magnificent or utterly majestic.
As a timely reminder that the Full House set is now half-way through, Simon comments that it’s “Time to flip the record over, I think. Here’s side two,” and the band launch into Sir Patrick Spens. Like much of the album, this version fulfils the time-honoured live-album tradition of being artfully similar but refreshingly different to the original album cut. Here, the lyrics are phrased slightly differently, the “rough sea” break has the listener bobbing up and down in sympathy and, best of all, Richard’s guitar and voice underpin the whole thing in a way that 1970 technology could never have managed.
Sadly, Peggy’s hilarious introduction to the instrumental Flatback Caper is omitted from this recording, and that’s a pity because, not only did it tell the tale of how Peggy came to be a mandolin player in the first place, it would also have earned the album a “Parent’s Advisory” sticker and an “X” Certificate. The tune is as brisk and enjoyable as ever and Simon’s bass – rightly credited by Chris at the end of the tune – is rich and robust. And just listen to DM as he switches effortlessly from complex time signature to complex time signature!
I was only 14 years old when the decision was taken to omit the magnificent Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman from the track listing of the original Full House album, so it certainly isn’t for me to speculate why such an awesome track was left out. In any case, esteemed writers like Patrick Humphries, Clinton Heylin, Nigel Schofield and even Fairport themselves have all had a shot at providing a reasonable explanation. But, no matter, it was restored to its rightful place when Full House was reissued on CD in 1988 and has remained there ever since – and that’s a good thing, because Poor Will is a genuine highlight of Fairport’s catalogue, and the version included here is glorious indeed. Richard’s vocal oozes menace, and his scorching guitar solo is hot enough to melt an iceberg and, as if all that wasn’t enough, Chris adds a soothing backing vocal to remove any sharp edges. I don’t normally swear but – bloody hell – Poor Will, along with Sloth, are worth the price of the album on their own!
Our Full House voyage ends, as does the original album, with Flowers of the Forest, Fairport’s take on the lament to the fallen of Flodden Field. Simon has dug out his dulcimer for this one (look out Steve Stills…) and it’s great to hear a live performance of a song that (I believe) I last heard Fairport perform during their 1979 “Farewell” tour. The harmony vocals take a few seconds to settle, but, once they’re in mesh, the effect is stunning. As on the album, DM’s contribution is sparse but amazingly effective and adds a huge dose of audio-reality to the image of the vanquished battlefield.
And, so, by this point, Full House might be played out, but there’s still space for one more special treat to come. The frantic, manic set, Jenny’s Chickens/ The Mason’s Apron wasn’t included on the Full House album, but it was a regular feature of the band’s live repertoire, as brilliant versions on the LA Troubadour albums and on the “Live at Maidstone 1970” movie readily testify. Listeners could be forgiven for imagining that Swarb had, indeed, come back down (or up…) to Earth to lead Fairport through this breathless number, such is Chris’s mastery of the wires.
I’ve already suggested that Full House For Sale is, quite possibly, the best Fairport “live” album yet. Time will tell whether that evaluation holds water, but true or not, it’s an invaluable memento of a fantastic performance. As I left the Cropredy field after the show last August, I heard numerous fellow concertgoers speculating what could have happened if the Full House lineup of Fairport could have stayed together. The consensus was that they’d have evolved into one of the greatest and most popular bands on the planet. And I, for one, can’t argue with that. That didn’t happen, of course, but the alternative reality that we were left with didn’t turn out too badly, and with prizes like Nine, Rising for the Moon, Jewel in the Crown, Over the Next Hill, Myths and Heroes and Shuffle and Go to be won, we didn’t do too badly, did we?
I really can’t recommend Full House For Sale strongly enough. It’s a “must” for all Fairport fans and for anyone who had the good fortune to be at Cropredy last August. Advance orders can be placed here and the album will be on sale at all shows on Fairport’s forthcoming Winter Tour – see here for details.
Watch the Full House line-up of Fairport perform the breathless Jenny’s Chickens/ Mason’s Apron at Maidstone in 1970 here and listen to the cut from House Full – Live At The Troubadour below.