This is the story of the twenty five August weekends which led me there –the story of a band falling apart and coming together, of miracles and mishaps, of weather from the sublime to the ridiculous, of a village whose name became a byword for a spirit of community –of friends and fans, of fields and folkies, of Festivals and Fairport. — Nigel Schofield
My luck in actually seeing Fairport Convention live has been mixed. On one hand, as far as I can recall I never got to catch them in my native England (I say ‘as far as I can recall’ because one or three of the festivals I attended have, alas, blurred into a collage of images, sounds and smells, thanks to a few liberal applications of real ale, and I have trouble remembering anything ). And on the other, I was lucky enough to see them many times over the five-day Woodford Folk Festival here in Queensland a few years back (without Dave Swarbrick, unfortunately).
Cropredy is an unusual beast. Started (officially) in 1979 as a farewell gig for Fairport Convention, it became an annual event, a midsummer dustup for British folk music. It’s a small affair, set in a tiny village in Oxfordshire that now attracts around 20,000, far smaller than the chaos of somewhere like Glastonbury. And unlike that festival, the people at Cropredy are really here just to see one band. I could ramble on for a while about the origins of Fairport Convention, the line-up changes, the break-up and reunions — hell, Dave Swarbrick and the late Sandy Denny warrant books by themselves — but I won’t. This set isn’t really intended as an introduction.
First off, I have to point out that this is a collection that charts a festival, not a band. For that you’d probably be better off with the Fairport unConventional set. And it’s a hefty set. Four themed CDs (Farewell ‘Farewell”, capturing the spirit of the festival; Blow Again, featuring the band and guests performing unConventional covers (including a Zeppelin song sung by Plant himself); ‘The Winding Road’, highlighting their solo careers; and ‘Bruised and Beaten Songs, the most played songs of the festival), a massive 136-page Cropredy Festival History, a guide to the village itself, even a self-assemble model of the festival (I kid not).
The next thing I have to remark upon is the utterly staggering amount of detail that has gone into this. From notes and set lists for every single Fairport Cropredy performance, to fan photos, letters and recollections (some of which are very moving), right down to a chart that plots the theory that it only rains at Cropredy when Richard Thompson plays on the Friday (seems to be true), who sang the Sandy Denny songs when, and which member (or ex-member) attended which year and for what songs. You get the idea of the detail. One thing I was particularly thankful for was the ability to see just which album any of the some 65 tracks originated from. This is truly put together by people who love what they are doing.
And then there is the music.
With live recordings, it comes down to personal preference. I have musician friends who hate the very thought of them, as if somehow the music just shrivels up when taken away from the context of the performance. But I, well, I’ve always loved them. Because this set straddles shows from 1979 through 2003, the quality changes: From old ceramic microphones to DAT machines, the differences are clear, but not dramatic. And that’s all part of the journey. Some of the earlier stuff seems to blow at the speakers a little, but judging by the attention to detail elsewhere, this was no doubt unavoidable. But altogether, the sound quality is wonderful.
Okay, musically, it’s all here. From stalwarts like ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ and ‘Matty Groves’ to an epic version of ‘Sloth’ running at an astounding 19 minutes, and of course the tune sets where Swarbs or Ric Sanders (or both, oh and let’s not forget Chris Leslie) run riot. But it’s the odds and sods that make this album. Guest appearances from people like Robert Plant, Maddy Prior, Ian Anderson, Louden Wainwright III are dropped in among beautiful one-off gems that until now existed only in the memories of the people there on the night. I sat here and listened to all four CDs back to back, something I don’t think I’ve ever done before with a collection, and by the end my face was aching from smiling so much.
One thing’s for sure, if you’re any sort of admirer of Fairport Convention, then you really ought to have this. It submerges you in something truly special, and makes you look at your savings, wondering if you can somehow afford to spend an August weekend in Oxfordshire.
Oh, and as a parting note, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so homesick for village greens and Wadworth’s 6X ale in 10 years of living in Australia.
(Free Reed Music, 2004)