I was sauntering round the medieval city of Canterbury on a warm February afternoon when I came across a poster depicting a group of frail old men. I laughed out loud when I recognized these smiling pensioners to be members of the folk-rock band, Fairport Convention, and that they’d be playing in town in a few days. I’d spent many years idolising them but my long love affair had finally waned about a decade ago around the time I’d last seen them in my adopted home town of Rochester, New York because I had started to feel they didn’t have anything new to say, and I’d grown bored of their mediocre albums and predictable gigs. But here after such a long and needed respite was one more (and probably final) chance to see these venerable folkies. I eventually persuaded my mate, who is even more sick of them than I am, to reluctantly postpone his prior engagement with tins of beer, his television and the supine position; he dutifully reserved two tickets, while muttering under his breath.
It hadn’t always been such a drag. From ’67 onwards, Fairport was the leading band of a movement that blended traditional British folk music with American rock ‘n’ roll, like centuries of rural England moulding with Californian scientific innovation. Amplified instruments gave electric thrust to old romantic tales of love, loss, and melancholy from across wind-swept England, Scotland and Ireland. Stories and characters spanning the centuries have peppered Fairport Convention albums for nearly half a century. Ancient themes traverse melancholic ballads, bawdy tavern songs, and jigs and reels in one mass of historical and cultural celebration, while violins battle with electric guitars beneath wistful voices as clear as glass.
Among the band’s many musicians from the early years, two stood out and they continue to be looked upon as giants of the English rock (and folk) scenes. The diminutive Sandy Denny sang on the second, third and fourth albums between ’68 and ’70 and the precocious Richard Thompson wrote many of the songs and played lead guitar on the band’s first five albums from ’68 until his departure in ’70 around the time he turned 22. Denny died in ’78 after a fatal fall down some stairs. Thompson continues to this day to tour the world and release thoughtful albums that comment on the human spirit, and is universally recognised as one of rock music’s best and most unique guitarists.
It wasn’t until around ’89 or ’90 that I first happened upon them at the age of 18 or 19 around the same time that not only was I exploring music but the world at large and my place in it. By that time there were zero geniuses left in the band but what remained was a happy collective of serious, talented musicians with a sense of humour and a strong commitment to entertaining their thousands of fans with a continued dedication to electric folk-rock. They would have been the perfect house band for Bilbo Baggins’s eleventy-first birthday celebration, playing their hand-crafted instruments on into the wee hours of the morning amongst the mead and pipe smoke; they actually do kind of replicate this at the annual Cropredy festival in Oxfordshire, a festival that even today looms large on England’s summer music agenda every August and one that I caroused at irresponsibly for days with my mates back in ’95, while across the Atlantic Ocean my pregnant then girl-friend (now wife) endured the infamous Chicago Heat Wave, a phenomenon so deadly and terrible that 739 people, overwhelmingly from the city’s poor neighbourhoods, lost their lives in heat-related deaths. I was exploring music’s romantic reverie. She was experiencing extreme discomfort. Is there any pent up resentment? I wouldn’t have thought so.
I could listen to Fairport Convention and conjure up images of gypsies, highwaymen, lords and ladies, the supernatural, murder, press-gangs, deserters, the King’s Schilling, romantic encounters in the hay-loft, Regency era weaponry, Harvest moons, country bumpkins and cow-shit, extinct colloquialisms, canny, elusive animal-spirits, poachers and game-keepers, market towns and crop exchanges, and war, conflict and high mortality rates. I know it’s easy to be romantic about the past, and there is room for that in their songs, but what Fairport mostly sang about and still sing about is a more honest and true interpretation of history. There was love and sunshine, but there was also struggle and injustice. The peasant boy didn’t always win his childhood sweetheart. Sometimes said sweetheart would be packaged up by her ignoramus of a father and sent off on the morning coach to some buck-toothed yokel a few hamlets down the coach-line with better “prospects”, aka more property and cash. But their music also allowed me to dream of community celebrations in the open air and under the stars that lasted for days, signaling the end of an event or season that was usually connected to a grueling agricultural project that everybody, old and young, rich and poor had rolled up their sleeves and mucked in together to achieve. I tried to ignore the reality that if I had have been around back then, I probably would have been found snoozing where the shade met the by-road.
Back in those days (the mid-1990s) I didn’t have a career or even think about embarking on one. I was merely someone who moved around and thought about whether I would up and move to the United States of all places to live with my pregnant girl-friend and my soon to be child. Most other people I knew had by this point found “responsible” jobs that paid enough to satisfy the average University graduate. Higher Education came and went and the deal was that now I should be focusing on the matter of money-making, at least to the extent where I would be moving in the direction of being able to afford to purchase some property and/ or some transportation, hopefully enjoying some intellectual stimulation on the job and as healthy a wage as I wanted or needed. What hadn’t really been foreseen was that I was actually spending my time trying to find out more about the spiritual beliefs of our ancient Island ancestors or trying to locate Anglo-Saxon burial grounds.
Back in the present, my mate and I walked through the narrow pathways of the University of Kent at Canterbury campus swigging from tinnies in the cold semi-darkness until we found the Gulbenkian Theatre, arriving soon before the beginning of the show. We circulated the bar, bought some more beers and were soon ushered to our seats at the very back row of the theater in a cozy corner. The ceiling and the surrounding walls were illuminated in purple. Roughly twenty rows of seats rose gently above the stage and each row of seats was separated into three sections by walkways like on a big jumbo jet. The band’s microphone stands, monitors and amps were already set up and crossed the stage in a straight line ahead of the drum kit. In front of this line of mikes and instruments, a small square part of the stage, presumably usually used by actors to stroll about and gesticulate upon closer to the audience, jutted out nakedly, creating a redundant and awkward buffer for a music gig.
A singer-song-writer from Huddersfield called Roger Davies walked out to applause and charmed us for half an hour or so with his tender singing and soft guitar. Later at the break, I spoke with his father who proudly told me that the song his son had sung about their home town is played over the loud speaker at all Huddersfield Town F.C home games. (Coincidentally, I’d seen Huddersfield demolish Nottingham Forest the week before but he was old and weak so I let it pass. Plus his son is about 6 feet 6). For his last number, Fairport accompanied him on stage. It had been at least a decade since I’d seen them live (or any good folk band as far as I can remember), but as soon as Rick Sanders played the first slow notes on his fiddle, emotional adrenaline shot throughout my nervous system and beyond. From stage left to right was Sanders, Simon Nicol on guitar and lead vocals, Dave Pegg on bass guitar and finally multi-instrumentalist and singer, Chris Leslie who has clearly stepped up to share lead vocals with Nicol. Behind them sat one of my drumming heroes, Gerry Conway grinning at the drum kit on a red wine buzz.
When Davies disappeared, they began their set disappointingly with a quite boring jig. They followed it with the title track of their latest studio album, “Myths and Heroes”, an up-tempo shuffle with a lead violin riff. On the album it’s a pre-cursor to much of what will follow, songs that celebrate people who fought for something they believed in, something that was bigger than themselves, something that they might pay the ultimate sacrifice for. There are songs of war and conflict and so it seems pretty obvious to me that this album is the band’s nod to the pan-European ceremonies and celebrations for the centenary of the Great War.
One of the band’s old favourites came next, the classic “Walk Awhile”. The chorus repeats “Walk awhile with me, the more we walk together, love, the better we’ll agree”. In my experience this seemingly pat belief is generally pretty true. Unfortunately no amount of communal perambulating can prepare you for the next song, “The Man in the Water”, a real disappointment from the new album. Why on earth they would want to include it in their live set I can only speculate is because their capacity for clear judgement depreciates daily with age. My mate leaned over and said “this is like watching Brian Pern” (a UK television programme that parodies an ageing rock star) and after-wards the band took a little rest on-stage while Sanders cracked a few jokes such as calling Conway and Pegg “the finest rhythm section…..in their price range”. Next up was “The Gallivant” a jazzy instrumental tune with a prominent mandolin that sounds like it might have been played at the Ritz in the 1920’s (early in the evening while the riff-raff is still hanging about and before the expensive champagne is uncorked), and a song with verses that seem to be on endless repeat. Now was the time to gallivant off to the bar.
On my re-arrival it was time to sit back, relax and listen to a tear-jerking ballad about an Irish boy called “John Conlon”, who stole away without permission (children weren’t properly supervised in those days) to fight and die needlessly for his British overlords against the Bosch. “Heroes who won’t come home, here they lie in Belgium’s fields”; John and countless others like him are mourned by their descendants a century later and I’m grateful to Fairport for giving us a musical and cultural space to do so together. However, just as we were wiping our tears about the futility of war, Nicol introduced a song about the Hundred Years War where we English joyfully slaughtered the French beneath regimental banners and blood-red skies, generation after generation, and where nobles used peasants to enlarge the boundaries of their lands and increase the worth of their possessions and resources. This song called “Hawkwood’s Army” actually had quite a groovy chorus (not much groovy about verses that discuss “the reign of Good King Edward”) and sounded very much like one of their other songs of the fourteenth century, “Wat Tyler” (which they surely got bored of playing), one of the ring-leaders of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, which had started here in Canterbury by the way. (What other band has a collection of songs filed under “Fourteenth Century social, economic and political conflicts”?)
Reaching back into the Richard Thompson years they played one of his true master-pieces, “Crazy Man Michael”, a perennial favourite and crowd-pleaser, a haunting song about an impetuous young man who is tricked by a phantom raven into killing the love of his life. Michael’s world is destroyed and his fate is to wander the earth alone.
Generally, the vibe was very laid-back. In fact it was rather subdued but that perhaps is quite understandable considering the age of the band’s spine. I think they’re clearly heading towards more of an acoustic folk feel, tapering down their electric rock sound, and they’re probably content to let younger folk-rock bands thrill audiences with break-neck speeds and virtuoso musical feats. On drums, Conway keeps a soft, steady beat with not much noise and thunder. Really, you might not miss him that much if he disappeared and was replaced with a trained monkey. Leslie’s voice is soft and beautiful like a woman’s so it probably shouldn’t compete with noisy drums, a booming bass or any guitar distortion. And, probably Fairport’s audience doesn’t have the temperament for high volume any more. I think the band is going for a gentle, more informal sound and they clearly deliver on it. It probably is the way forward and will get them over the half-century line and walking confidently into their sixth decade and beyond. I’d certainly go and see them again and I don’t think I thought that after the last time I saw them. One thing that never changes is their finale. They played more songs than I mentioned here of course but after their usual encore, they came out for their mainstay last song, “Meet on the Ledge” another Richard Thompson tune and one that they could do in their sleep.
After the show, I found the courage to chat in earnest with Nicol and Conway, freaking the latter out a little bit because I’d had a good number of pints and I was desperate to share with him how much I respected his drumming technique and style (I hadn’t thought up the trained monkey comparison at that point), but try as I might I was unable to articulate specifically why, and then he shared that who he referred to as his “life partner” is none other than Jackie McShea, (or it might have been none other than Maddy Prior, I always get those two mixed up). Whichever one it is, she’s the singer of Pentangle, another British fold-rock band from the 70s, and he continues to drum for them on tour when he’s not on Fairport duty. Like Nicol he is quite posh; he also seems to be quite shy, reserved, sweet and rosy-cheeked, and after I got his lady’s name mixed up one too many times he smiled sweetly and shuffled off.
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