LIVE: Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, Oxfordshire 11.8.16 – 13.8.16

Gigslutz were lucky enough to spend the second week of August taking in the sun, sights and sounds of Fairport’s Cropredy Convention. Before we knew it we were part of the crew, one of the many in a wave of camping chairs, with festival T’s thrust upon us, Fairport books gifted to us and a glass always full. (Or a 2L milk bottle filled with beer. It’s quite a sight to behold)

Fairport Convention themselves are a British institution. The true inventors of folk-rock, they have had a dynamic, ever-changing line up featuring leading British, American (and the odd French) folk virtuosos since 1967. Leige & Lief introduced many to both Fairport and the unique talents of Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny. Since the first show attended by 750 fans in 1976, the festival has grown rapidly over the years and we were very keen to see how it compared against it’s heavyweight industry contemporaries.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Though Cropredy’s roots are somewhat grounded in tradition, it seems to have always prided itself on it’s diversity in selecting acts. In recent years it’s branched out and mushroomed at such a steady rate, it’s not unusual for example, to witness the bohemian blur of Lyon’s swinging Ska band, Babylon Circus before Ralph McTell graces the stage. In fact, as pointed out to me, bona fide original acts (see Status Quo) are now replacing past cover bands on the bill.

So in its 49th year, if any festival can rightfully don the something for everyone” tag, it’s Cropredy. There’s the Sci-fi folk of Maia, which blissfully floats somewhere in-between the punctuated electro-funk of the Scissor Sisters and eschewed Doctor Who cosmic barnstormers. Think The Radiophonic Workshop with banjos and Mongolian throat singing synth patches.

Over the weekend we catch Canterbury’s Coco & The Butterfields using beatboxing to fuse folk with hip-hop (Fip-Fok they call it) and witness The Demon Barbers incorporate Clog, Morris, Rapper Swords and even, street dance into a fast-paced, innovative set.

If we’d lost track of the time and hold of our programs – which can happen as the evening unwinds and the drink toll tots up – come Friday, we may have thought Steeleye Span had shifted gear from almost four decades of trad balladry and jigs and had instead decided to delve into the unexpected arena of PROG METAL. Luckily however, listening closely and rechecking our schedule we realised it was in fact the hard-hitting rock of Headspace.

Led by keyboardist Alan Wakeman (son of Yes’ Rick Wakeman) there was no doubting the band’s technical proficiency and stage presence. Also it should be noted, as enigmatic frontman Damien Wilson professed; as a child he’d written to all his musical heroes (Hendrix, Wakeman et al) and only one had replied. Fairport Convention’s trusty Dave Pegg. So, quite a bold booking that seemed to work for some of the audience but didn’t gel particularly well with this reviewer.

That said, the set certainly wasn’t without its highlights. The Richard Thompson/Mosh pit referencing Wall of Death anecdote might have been the comedic highlight of the weekend, had a different breed of rag-tag virtuosic misfits not swooped in to claim the jester’s crown themselves.

Tennessee’s ADHD-meets-AC/DC, Rockgrass pioneers Hayseed Dixie had the Cropredy crowd in the palm of their hands on Thursday night with their rollicking renditions of rocks most famous KILLING SONGS.

How Do You Get To Cropredy Stage?

“Practice, practice, practice” goes that old Carnegie Hall joke and here are three inspiring triumphs that caught our attention this year.

Each year Cropredy offers BBC 2 Young Folk Award Winners the opportunity to perform in front of possibly the largest collected audience of their lives. This year seventeen-year-old, Scottish/Gàidhlig piper Brìghde Chaimbeul backed by a harpist and guitarist enchanted onlookers with a set that ranged from the jovial trills and harp dueling quips of Hacky Honey to the evocative call of Galician small pipes tunes.

The quaint idyll of Cropredy village is transformed over the second week of August with the fringe festival taking place at both The Red Lion and The Brasenose Arms. We caught some rays and a handful of passable blues bands outside the packed outskirts of The Red Lion. We were pleased to find one of the standout acts of this year’s festival, Wille & the Bandits, had worked their way up from the fringe to a rallying reception on Cropredy’s Main Stage. With their whisky-tempered drawl, sprawling Blues slide work and their Roots rock, wig out jams echoing ‘April Uprising’ era John Butler Trio, we thought we’d seen the encore of the weekend.

Enter Melbourne’s Pierce Brothers. Reaching the last leg of a grueling European tour and now yearning for home, twin brothers, Jack & Pat probably hadn’t been betting on the reception they were very soon to receive. The rhythmical gymnastics and melodic Nu-folk-leaning tendencies of the duo worked wonders to win over the crowd; for their swan song the entire audience were on their feet, which is something of an early afternoon phenomenon. Cropredy had spoken. Or should I say continued to spam-tweet the stage screens for the rest of weekend.

Meet On The Ledge

As previously touched upon, Cropredy is centered on tradition. Even as a Cropredy virgin (*blushes*) fumbling my way through my first time, it’s still glaringly obvious. Folk music is the truthful tether that can pull families together and ties us to the earth. It’s a tad difficult to not get overwhelmed and sentimental about the whole affair. Richard Digance, legend in his own right and punch-line provocateur, casually talks about his time spent living with John Martyn in Glasgow and admits we’re losing legends, but not just our heroes. Friends. Family. He gives a nod to Jonah’s Tree and then dedicates a song to those feeling the weight of loss. It’s touching to see young children comfort tearful parents.

Equally tender moments occur in Ralph McTell’s set, as the winds calm and he recalls childhood summers in Barges. He relays the stunning through-line of ‘From Clare To Here’ (“I sometimes hear a fiddle play or maybe it’s a notion, I dream I see white horses dance upon that other ocean”) and finishes with the song, ‘West 4th Street & Jones’, inspired by The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan LP cover, which pictures Dylan & Rotolo love-locked, arm-in-arm. “Dylan & Rotolo in a free frame photograph, eternally tomorrow” he intones, capturing that seemingly evasive feeling of both warmth and hopelessness that only the greats can muster.

As expected Fairport Convention’s set paid homage to the loss of founding member and leading light of the British folk scene, Dave ‘Swarb’ Swarbrick, with rousing interpretations of Swarb fan favourites, ‘Walk Awhile’ and ‘Rosie’. As well as a video tribute set to a particularly heartrending version of Fairport’s ‘Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’.

The mood never stoops too low however, as FC’s humble, humorous stage presence (see: Simon Nichol slurring his words, as an autocue appears on screen just in the nick of time or ‘The Fairport Olympics’) and an ability to still delight onlookers with more recent material offer up plenty of reasons to be merry. They’re all deeply proud of Cropredy’s success and so they should be. One of the t-shirts I am handed reads Britain’s Friendliest Music Festival. Just taking a look at the hosts alone, this statement seems indisputable. As Steve Duggan nails in his book, Across The Great Divide, FC are not just a band for fans but also a spirit, a way of life, a kind of family… who regard having a drink with members of the audience as an integral part of their concert routine!”

As the arena field joins hand-in-hand for ‘Meet On The Ledge’, no one shies away from the honest, all-embracing sing-along. It’s a fine end to the festival, with artists and audience alike calling it the best Cropredy yet. Cropredy newbie’s no more, don’t be surprised if you see us prepping for the 50th anniversary already!

(Big love to the Winch & Duggan family for everything. And apologies for the lack of coverage of The Bootleg Beatles. Beatlemania took over and note taking fell by the wayside.)

David Weir