Live Reviews

Fairport Convention – Core Theatre, Solihull: Live Review

And once again, The Bus Rolls On. Fairport’s 2023 Winter Tour is up and running and, as usual, At The Barrier is running alongside. We caught up with the entourage at Solihull’s Core Theatre.

It’s February, folks, and, each year, pandemics permitting, February brings with it something very special – the annual Fairport Convention Winter Tour, an intensive bash around the country by your – and our – favourite folk/rock enterprise. This year’s tour kicked off on 1st February at (as usual) Tewkesbury’s Roses Theatre; At The Barrier will be popping along to several venues as the tour winds its way towards its final destination – The Connaught, Worthing, on 5th March – and we caught our first show 12 dates in, on 15th February at The Core Theatre, Solihull. And WHAT a show it was…!

The Core Theatre is a lovely venue, located smack in the middle of Solihull, a surprisingly pleasant town that is definitely much more than the ‘suburb of Birmingham’ that most who’ve never visited the place probably imagine it to be. The theatre is intimate and comfortable – the ideal place, in fact, to see Fairport on a cold, wet winter’s night – and, for me, it had the added advantage of being only 20 minutes away from my home!

Things are, of course, somewhat different in Fairport land this year, following Gerry Conway’s decision last September to leave the band whose drumstool he had occupied with such distinction for 24 years. Indeed, 2023 is Fairport’s first Winter Tour since 1998 that doesn’t have Gerry manning the engine room. But Fairport have friends. Impressive, powerful friends, and they’re probably the only band on Earth able to entice the mighty Dave Mattacks away from his Boston (Massachusetts, not Lincolnshire) home to occupy their vacant stool for the duration of their tour. And, by the way, the even happier news is that DM has agreed to reprise his guest drummer role at this August’s Cropredy Festival – more of which later…

The anticipation of a great show rippled around the pubs, cafes and restaurants of Solihull in the hours before the show. Speculation was rife in the Panchuli Indian Restaurant on the High Street – how would DM affect the band’s sound? Which songs from Fairport’s extensive back catalogue would get a dusting down? How could Fairport follow that magnificent Cropredy performance of Full House – now available as their new CD, Full House For Sale? All, and more, was shortly to be revealed.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit here. One reassuringly wonderful aspect of Fairport’s Winter Tour planning is the quality of opening act that they invariably manage to attract. A random sample of my tour programme collection throws up such names as Jay Turner (1991), Julian Dawson (1996), annA rydeR (1999), PJ Wright (2006), Edwina Hayes (2014), Smith and Brewer (2020), right up to last year’s guest, the wonderful Luke Jackson. And 2023 is no exception to that tradition, because the responsibility of raising the curtain this year has been accepted by none other than At The Barrier favourites Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage. Back in April 2022, we called the duo’s latest album, Ink of the Rosy Morning, “A piece of magic,” and that’s a judgement that we stand firmly by. They charmed the Solihull audience with their delightful harmonies and their lovely, relaxed, highly competent acoustic guitars. Hannah’s voice has uncannily similar strains to Joni Mitchell’s and their choice of material – an enticing mix of traditional songs and the duo’s own compositions, and a style that combines English folk influences with splashes of Americana – hits every possible spot.

Hannah and Ben first teamed up in 2016 and released their debut album, Before The Sun, in October of that year. Second album, Awake, followed in 2018, before they went on to send shivers down our collective spine with Ink Of The Rosy Morning. The duo follow a simple philosophy of “Nothing pre-arranged, no grand scheme, no pre-production, no demos” when putting their music together and, for them at least, it’s an approach that certainly pays off.

Hannah and Ben were right on top of their game at The Core; relaxed and comfortable, and clearly relishing the opportunity to reach a new audience after the lingering ordeal of lockdown. Ben expressed his delight at standing in front of a live audience (rather than a Zoom screen), saying how “nice it is to look out over a mic and be sure that everyone has their trousers on” and Hannah admitted that opening for Fairport “genuinely is a dream come true.” And, if the fervent hope of Hannah and Ben was to gather a host of new converts, then, at Solihull at least, it was “mission accomplished” – the crowd at the merch stand after their spot was three-deep! Ben switched between his vintage Gibson acoustic guitar and his dobro as they surged through a set packed with highlights that included the traditional Polly O Polly – given a bluesy arrangement by Ben and Hannah, the jaunty I Gave My Love A Cherry and the soothing A Thousand New Moons (a standout track from the Awake album).

It’s an established Winter Tour tradition that Fairport’s opening act are joined by the chaps themselves for their closing number and so it is this year for Hannah and Ben. Introduced by Hannah as “A song about not going along with men who live in castles and have very shiny teeth” (“…like Rick Wakeman,” quipped Peggy), Reynardine will have been familiar to many in the audience as a track from Fairport’s seminal Liege and Lief album. Hannah and Ben’s Fairport-assisted version is slightly more upbeat than the familiar Liege And Lief recording but is otherwise not dissimilar and it was a marvelous way to end an excellent opening set. I thoroughly enjoyed Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage, and so did the Solihull audience. The pair are planning a UK tour for later in 2023 and this writer, for one, will definitely be attending. And so, I’m sure, will many of the new fans that they’ve picked up on this Winter Tour.

Watch the official video to Polly O Polly by Hannah and Ben here:

And so to Fairport. The structure of Fairport’s winter shows is well-established and will be familiar to all regular attendees. The opening slot is followed immediately by the first part of Fairport’s set, which continues and concludes after a short interval and so it was that, as Hannah and Ben left the stage, Fairport burst into regular set opener, Walk Awhile. DM’s presence was immediately noticeable as he injected his trademark rock-solid foundation. Solihull (or Solly-ull, as Peggy is proud to pronounce it…) is almost a home match for Fairport – at least as far as Peggy and Ric are concerned. Ric grew up in the town and Peggy was raised just up the road in Acock’s Green and both were keen to make sure those facts were known. Peggy emphasised his roots, letting us know that his daughter, Steph, was born in the local hospital, where, coincidentally, his dad had worked as a porter, whilst Ric reveled in the yarn of how his mother would answer the phone using her “posh” voice (Solihull has a local reputation for being a “posh” place) before lapsing into her more comfortable and natural Brummie, once she’d established who it was on the other end of the line. It happens everywhere!

Cider Rain, a favourite track from Fairport’s most recent studio album, the excellent Shuffle and Go was next, before Chis introduced the first of the evening’s “revived” songs. One of the great treats of the Winter Tour is to discover which of the song(s) from the band’s vast, vast back catalogue have been dusted down and revisited and, this year, the first such song was Chris’s My Love Is In America, from 2001’s XXXV album. It’s a song of loss with, as Chris explained, the fate of the estranged couple – the song’s joint subject – left up to the listener to decide. Simon played his parlour guitar (I don’t think I’ve seen that in quite a while…), Peggy laid down a rich, reassuring bassline to drive the song along and Chris’s vocal was typically comforting.

The revival of old favourites continued, and next came Polly On The Shore, a key track from 1973’s Nine, the album that saw the good ship Fairport seaborne once more after a couple of years during which the hull had started to develop a few nasty looking holes. Peggy explained the origins of the song and its somewhat convoluted credits in the album sleevenotes (Tune: Pegg; Lyrics Trad Arr Lucas & Swarbrick): apparently he’d originally come up with both the tune and some lyrics, but Trevor Lucas – the band’s then acoustic guitarist and vocalist – dismissed Peggy’s lyrics as “Shite,” and, instead proposed the traditional lyrics that eventually made the cut. Simon made a great job of the vocal delivery and Chris and Ric both contributed wonderful solos on, respectively, mandolin and violin. Now that DM has been persuaded to come out for the big occasions, Polly… is, perhaps, a song that should stay in the set – for a while, at least.

We all made the most of our opportunity to doo-wop along with Chris’s Year of ’59, another great tune from Shuffle And Go, before Ric stepped up to the mic for the first of his comedy interludes. DM popped over to the keyboard to add a “Michael Miles” flourish every time Ric reached a punchline, and I particularly enjoyed his observation that, of the band’s members, Chris is now the only one yet to reach the age of 70. It seems that he retains his young looks by hanging out with a bunch of old guys… All this was a prelude to Ric’s frantic instrumental tune, Steampunkery, which was dispensed with customary mastery and joie-de-vivre.

Simon noted that neither Dave Swarbrick nor Richard Thompson – joint composers of the show’s first-half closing number, Sloth – could be present this evening – “for wildly different reasons.” But, nevertheless, Fairport delivered a version of their enduring epic that was simply stunning. Simon, once again playing the small parlour guitar, took the first solo, Peggy visited every part of his fretboard during his bass solo and Ric stepped capably into the shoes of the mighty Swarbrick for a violin solo to which he added his own special spin. And the whole caboodle was held tightly together by some awesome drum and cymbal work from Mr Mattacks. Truly fantastic.

The first half of the show was concluded by the final track on Side One of a legendary Fairport album, so it was logical that the second half would start with the first track on Side Two – of a different album… Journeyman’s Grace is another song that has endured an over-long sabbatical from Fairport’s live repertoire but now it’s back and the band did it proud. In our recent interview with the Full House for Sale lineup, we asked whether a track-by-track live performance of the song’s parent album, Angel Delight, was on the cards for a future Cropredy show. The suggestion wasn’t dismissed out of hand, so here’s hoping…!

And we stayed with Angel Delight for the next number, too. Banks Of The Sweet Primroses is a long-term fave of mine and I was delighted to see it back in the set. Chris delivered and excellent lead vocal, with Peggy and Simon providing some nice harmonies. For the introduction to Peggy’s instrumental, Bankruptured, from the 1978 Tipplers’ Tales album, Peggy recounted his story of Dave Swarbrick’s accident at a Wembley Rolling Stones concert that led to a period of enforced inactivity for the violinist, leaving the other Fairport members free to experiment with new material, an example of which emerged as Bankruptured. Simon’s ragtime guitar was as wonderful as always and Peggy made sure that we all remembered that it’s HIS tune by adding a floor-shaking bassline.

I consider Moondust and Solitude to be THE outstanding track on the Shuffle and Go album and, as usual, Fairport did the song full justice. Chris sings the song with such passion and commitment that, when he gets to the line: “They’re falling away and descending below to the moondust,” you can almost see that descent happening. A particular surprise was the inclusion of John Gaudie in the Solihull set. I’d taken the liberty of peeking at Chris’s setlist before the show and it appeared that Jewel In The Crown, the title track of Fairport’s brilliant 1995 album was down to be performed instead. I’m not complaining – I love both songs and, had time permitted, I’d have loved to have heard them both – that would have been something REALLY special. But, John Gaudie it was, and it rocked The Core Theatre to its foundations, conjuring up visions of high jinks in a certain Oxfordshire field, in the process.

This year, we’ve had the pleasure of, not one, but two comedy spots from Ric. His second, this time punctuated by electronic cymbal crashes from DM’s keyboard, came as a build-up to Ric’s Portmerion, his musical tribute to the Welsh village that provided the setting for the 1960s lysergic thriller, The Prisoner. In keeping with the mood of that show, Ric’s jokes had an hallucinogenic flavour – “Too much LDS makes you dyslexic…(!)” but, really, nothing can detract from the sheer beauty of the tune.

“Don’t have nightmares,” warned Simon, as the band launched into Doctor Of Physick, one of the many standout tracks from Full House and from that album’s recent live anniversary celebration, Full House for Sale, before we were taken back, once again, to that Oxfordshire field for a terrific Hiring Fair, a highlight of everyone’s August on Planet Fairport. Peggy’s submission to the dreaded COVID at this time, and in this place, last year were recalled before Simon informed us that, sadly, we’d all have to go home soon – but not before the nineteen verses of Matty’s downfall had been retold. It was great to hear Matty Groves restored to its rightful place at the climax of Fairport’s set, after it had, by necessity, been unceremoniously cut from last summer’s Cropredy running order, owing to the looming approach of midnight. Nowadays, Fairport deliver a pretty rocked-up version of the song, as DM creates fireworks behind the kit. This is certainly one to look forward to at this year’s festival! And Peggy acted out the lyrics in his own inimitable way, too.

Did I say climax? Well, we weren’t quite there yet. Fairport regulars will be all too aware that we never go home from a Fairport concert without our singalong to the anthemic Meet On The Ledge. Hannah and Ben rejoined the onstage throng, various Fairport wives and partners waved their phone torches, and the audience sang along; Ben played a wonderful solo on his dobro and the band lined up to receive their sincere and hugely deserved plaudits. A Fairport Winter show is always a huge pleasure – it reminds us that Spring, then summer, are just around the corner and gives us all something to tide us over to Cropredy. And don’t despair – the Spring tour is just around the corner, and after that, we can all start planning our journeys down to Oxforshire. See you all there!

And, whilst we’re on the subject of Cropredy… The Solihull show took place only one day after the full bill for this year’s festival had been announced. As if the acts that we already knew about weren’t enough to whet even the most jaded of appetites – The Young ‘Uns, Strawbs, 10cc, Beans on Toast, Merry Hell, Toyah and Robert Fripp – and Gilbert O’Sullivan! – were all helping to shift tickets in a satisfying way – we’ve now had it confirmed that Richie Owens, the one and only Easy Star All Stars and – wait for it – Nile Rodgers and Chic are also booked. Nile has been known to express his admiration for Fairport and it was apparent that that’s a sentiment which Fairport return by the bucketful. As Peggy said as he announced the line-up from the Solihull stage – “Get yer dancing shoes on!”

So that was the Fairport Winter Tour Solihull show – and At The Barrier and Fairport haven’t finished yet. We’ll be popping along to a couple of the shows “Oop north” during the next week or so and we’ll bringing our further match reports to these pages. Stay tuned, and watch this space.

Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage: Website/ Facebook/ Twitter/ Instagram/ YouTube

Fairport Convention: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / YouTube

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