Fairport's Cropredy Convention (The Cropredy Folk Festival)
Thursday-Saturday, 9th-11th August 2007
Last year's Cropredy Folk Festival was a big celebration for Fairport, who were marking their fortieth anniversary. With one of the strongest line-ups for a long time, the weekend promised to be something spectacular, and for the first time during the festival's thirty-year history it sold out completely.
Thursday, as usual, eased us gently into the festival spirit, though the fantastic weather and crowds of arrivals made it the busiest Cropredy Thursday I've ever seen. The acoustic set from compere Anthony John Clarke was superb, and got the day off to a rousing start. Next up were Kerfuffle, a superbly talented four-piece playing traditional material in a mature and knowledgeable manner, with the stunning vocals and accordion playing of Hannah James (who also treated the crowd to some clog-dancing), plus the excellent musicianship of the Sweeney brothers, Sam (fiddle and percussion) and Tom (bass), and new member Jamie Roberts capably slotting in on guitar. They were followed by Wishbone Ash, led by Andy Powell with his durable blues interpretation of classic Ash material: a standard set which held very few surprises.
Mercury-nominated Seth Lakeman was the first big name at the festival, and he blew the crowd away with his collection of self-written interpretations of folk material. Performing in an electric singer-songwriter style not dissimilar to that of Show of Hands, he and his full electric band would have fitted in at any of the big summer rock festivals. Songs like Kitty Jay and The Colliers came out with the verve and confidence of a great live performer.
The only way to follow that was with a big show, which was exactly what we got when Jools Holland's Rhythm and Blues Orchestra made their Cropredy debut. With a brass section, a full electric band, some special guests, and the man himself on piano and guitar, the orchestra soon set the whole field rocking and dancing as they weaved their way through blues and swing classics, with some new material thrown in for good measure. There was a trio of superb vocalists: Louise Marshall, a new name to me, duetted with Jools before joining the backing singers, perennial Jools favourite Ruby Turner stunned the crowd, while guest Lulu performed some quality blues numbers and the inevitable Shout. Featuring a guest spot by legendary Jamaican trombonist Rico Rodriguez, the show was rounded off by the wonderful Enjoy Yourself (It's Later Than You Think), bringing to an end the liveliest Cropredy Thursday in years.
The inimitable Geoffrey Hughes compered Friday, and the opening act Hummingbird saw the welcome return to Cropredy of Edwina Hayes, who brought her friends Amy Wadge and Cathy Burton along. The girls' vocals were reminiscent of a female Crosby, Stills and Nash. Their self-penned songs were all excellent, their musicianship was terrific, and they exuded a sense of fun onstage.
The Demon Barber Roadshow were one of the bands I was particularly looking forward to, and I wasn't disappointed. A travelling folk roadshow led by Damien Barber, with wonderful vocals from Bryony Griffiths, the group take folk music and give it a visual and musical shake-up. Their set included live clog dancers (including Hannah from Kerfuffle), and an amazing section in which the dancers and the drummer had a drum-off, which had to be seen to be believed.
Part of the prize for winning the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award is a slot at Cropredy. Recent winners Last Orders filled that slot admirably, with a selection of tunes and songs that fit right in with the Radio 2 folk style. As a young band they can only develop further, and it will be interesting to watch them progress.
Making their return to Cropredy fresh from packing out the Albert Hall, Show of Hands (Steve Knightley and Phil Beer) brought their excellent set to the field, ably accompanied by Miranda Sykes on double bass. With material based on contemporary life in Devon, and political songs like Country Life and the incendiary Roots, Knightley is a consummate songwriter in the observational tradition of Ray Davies. Beer and Sykes provided superb musical accompaniment to both the original and the traditional material.
A major highlight of the festival was Fairport's performance of their legendary album Liege & Lief, which kick-started the whole folk-rock genre. For this, the classic line-up from the album's 1969 recording sessions was re-assembled: Simon Nicol, Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Dave Swarbrick, and Dave Mattacks, with Chris While in place of the late Sandy Denny. It was fabulous to witness Swarb striding on to the stage as if he owned it, Thompson's delicate guitar work on Farewell, Farewell (which brought tears to the eyes), the interplay between the three founder members Nicol, Thompson, and Hutchings, Swarb and Thompson duelling during the instrumental sections, Mattacks on drums driving the band along, and Chris While turning in beautiful renditions of Sandy tracks like Tam Lin, Crazy Man Michael, and The Deserter. Only one person could follow that, so back came Richard Thompson with his full electric band, treating us to a range of material from his recent album Sweet Warrior, and some older songs including Wall of Death and a fantastic rendition of I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.
Saturday started, as is now the tradition, with Richard Digance. He managed to wake up all those who had drunk too much 6X the night before with his observational comedy, a routine in which he got everyone Morris dancing (this year to Little White Bull and Two Little Boys— I kid you not!), and a rousing version of Nessun Dorma sung by tenor Lee Bradley.
The Scottish quartet Giveway were up next, with a fine set of jigs, reels and songs. Then a bit of good-time blues and rock n' roll came from The Bucket Boys, making their return to Cropredy. Led by Tim Renwick on guitar and Willie Wilson on drums, with Steve Turner and Rick Worthy, they performed a fantastic rock set including some great covers, with brilliant blues-guitar work from Renwick. They were followed by former Fairport vocalist Iain Matthews, with a laid-back set of material covering his mammoth career Stateside. It's always surprised me that he never made it bigger over here, given the quality of his songs and vocals.
Next, in their classic Hero and Heroine line-up, were prog rock legends The Strawbs, with a set combining classic songs with new material from Déjà Fou. Dave Cousins was in fine voice, Dave Lambert was on fire on guitar (especially on a brilliant version of Autumn), and Chas Cronk and Rod Coombes provided the perfect backline, while John Hawken's sympathetic and intuitive keys knit the whole sound together. Lay Down, Hero and Heroine, and Round and Round were performed to a very enthusiastic crowd. It's been a while since I last saw a full electric Strawbs line-up, but this was a fantastic set. Then Bob Fox & Billy Mitchell entertained us with banter and crowd-pleasing material like Born at the Right Time and Big River.
Finally came the set we had all been waiting for. Fairport took to the stage with an opening salvo from their winter tour, including The Widow of Westmoreland's Daughter, John Gaudie, and Hawkwood's Army. Dave Mattacks and Gerry Conway were on drums all night, and the group were also joined by Swarb, Vikki Clayton (who provided vocals on the Sandy songs Down in the Flood, Rising for the Moon and One More Chance), and Jerry Donahue, dazzling on guitar. Richard Thompson joined Swarb for a mini Full House set of songs including Doctor of Physick, Sloth, Walk Awhile and Flatback Caper, while Tiny Tin Lady's Beth Reed-Gibbons came on for a beautiful version of Who Knows Where The Time Goes, and Maart Allcock collaborated on material from Jewel in the Crown, including his own Surfeit of Lampreys. Judy Dyble, Iain Matthews and Ashley Hutchings returned for Time Will Show the Wiser from the debut Fairport album, and pretty much everyone was there for the big hit Si Tu Dois Partir. The set began at 8:15, and by about half eleven the band were taking requests, so the 2007 line-up blasted their way through Adieu Adieu, John Barleycorn (in which Simon forgot some lyrics!) and Wood and the Wire. They closed their set as usual with Matty Groves, with the story amusingly told in Lego on the big screen behind them, before performing with Steve Ashley on Best Wishes. Then every ex-member of Fairport joined them for Meet on the Ledge to remember the ones who aren't here any more, like Martin Lamble, Sandy Denny, and Trevor Lucas. The 25,000-strong audience sang along in this finale to a festival that can never be topped.
Rotherham Open Arts festival: Martin Simpson & Friends
The Spiegeltent, All Saints Square Rotherham, Wednesday 18th September 2007
The Rotherham Open Arts Festival has started bringing cultural events to Rotherham town centre: a talk by philosopher Julian Baggini, whose book Welcome to Everytown is about Rotherham, and two concerts by legendary guitarist and singer Martin Simpson. Although I was unable to make the first concert, which featured John Tams and Coope, Boyes and Simpson, on a wet Wednesday night I found myself in a big tent in the centre of Rotherham with about thirty or so other souls, for the second Martin Simpson concert.
The first half was just Martin Simpson and his guitars, and it is no exaggeration to say that he is one of the finest guitarists in the country. He performed material from his new album Prodigal Son, while also cherry-picking some fantastic songs from the traditions of both England and the USA. With the folk ballad Little Musgrave (also known as Matty Groves), and a magnificent rendition of Here's Adieu Sweet Lovely Nancy which led into A Blacksmith Courted Me, his performance in the first half was stunning, especially when he finished with the beautiful Love Never Dies, leaving the audience spellbound.
Returning in the second half, Martin was joined by his new band, former Albion Band vocalist Kellie While, Andy Seward on double bass, and Andy Cutting on accordion. A superb, tight group, they started with the traditional Lakes of Champlain, before Martin's own bluesy Duncan & Brady gave them a chance to rock out. Another highlight was the amazing Never Any Good, written by Martin Simpson about his father: one of the most touching songs from son to father I've ever heard. Finishing with a marvellous closing set of the traditional Andrew Lammie, where Martin switched to a lap slide guitar, and a rousing cover version of Richard and Linda Thompson's Strange Affair in which Kellie's vocals really shone, the show was absolutely fantastic. It's just a shame that there weren't more people in the audience.
New Album Releases
Robb Johnson & The Irregulars All That Way For This Irregular
One of the best performers working on the folk/roots scene today, Robb Johnson's songs have been recorded by such legends as Roy Bailey and Barb Jungr. His latest album, a collaboration with old friends Paul Midgley, Roger Watson, Saskia Tomkins and John Forrester, sprang from his fiftieth birthday bash decision to make his next record with a full band. The songs are universally strong, especially the biting Moronland, the smart Pink Shoes, and the opening Carrying Your Smile. This album is brimming with style, great tracks, and the sound of a band working well together and enjoying it.
Various Artists The Imagined Village Real World
This is probably the most important folk album of 2007. The brainchild of Simon Emmerson (of Afro Celt Sound System), this record marries ancient English folk music to twenty-first century technology, and has an artist list that looks like a Who's Who of folk/folk-rock and roots music. It isn't, however, a compilation album but a unified whole, from John Copper's opening narration with Sheila Chandra ('Ouses 'Ouses 'Ouses), via Billy Bragg's radical and contemporary reworking of Hard Times of Old England (with exuberant backing from the Young Coppers), to Eliza Carthy and Benjamin Zephaniah's even more radical reworking of Tam Lyn, in which folk epic meets dub reggae. Martin Carthy and Paul Weller's John Barleycorn blends folk and rock to a sublime level, while the traditional Cold Hailey Rainy Night performed by Eliza Carthy and Chris Wood, again backed by the Young Coppers, really brings the roof down. The closing jigs by the Gloworms and the reconfigured Tiger Moth close proceedings perfectly. Truly breathtaking in its sound and scope, this is a brave and visionary project. It could so easily have fallen down in many places, but the durability and relevance of the folk songs (some of which are over three or four hundred years old), matched with the pedigree and style of the performers, means that finally our generation has its own Liege & Lief. This is indispensable.
New Model Army High Akoustik
Rock survivors and perennial outsiders, the NMA have been ploughing their unique furrow for over twenty-six years. This, their tenth studio album, is a return to a more guitar-based sound. Produced by their long-term friend Chris Kinsey, with founder Justin Sullivan still at the helm and with the addition of blues guitarist Marshall Gill on lead guitar, this is a driving rock record. Its stunning tracks include Wired, River, and Bloodsports. Proof that they've lost none of their edge or their power, this great album will more than satisfy their legions of fans, though it also deserves to reach a wider audience.
The Resonance Association Failure of the Grand Design Burning Shed
The debut album by the South London-based duo of Daniel Vincent and Dominic Hemy, who are signed to Tim Bowman's Burning Shed label, this record features nine tracks of atmospheric ambient rock, covering the bases from rock to dub to krautrock and all points in between. As one track blends seamlessly into the next, the music takes you through many different moods. A sonically brilliant album, Failure of the Grand Design is meant to be listened to in one sitting, preferably on headphones.
Babyshambles Shotter's Nation Parlophone
Most people know Pete Doherty as the bad boy of the music industry and the tabloids' current hate figure. Before this he started out promisingly in the Libertines, and when they threw him out, he formed the aptly-named Babyshambles. Although Doherty has been heralded by some as a genius, it's clear that when the Libertines split, he didn't get custody of the musical talent. This album is nothing more than a collection of bar-room songs that could be churned out by any North London band on Myspace. There is a glimmer of talent buried somewhere in this shambles of a record, but not enough to justify buying it. Get the Arctic Monkeys' new album instead.
Geoffrey Downes The Light Program The Store For Music
This is a reissue of Geoff Downes's 1986 ambient electronic album. Mixing sounds, styles and genres, the album's tracks can be programmed to create a range of different moods, as the sleeve notes helpfully point out. The performances here are wonderful, from tracks which sound almost like traditional English music, to contemporary electronica and electronic symphonic music.
Esoteric Recordings Reissues
A new name in the world of reissues, Esoteric Recordings have gathered together an impressive collection of records by bands that, for one reason or another, have slipped off the radar. The debut and second albums by Paladin, a group founded by ex-members of Terry Reid's band, are released here on CD for the first time. Mining a rich musical seam from jazz to hard rock, their first album was all about experimentation and pushing the boundaries. By Charge, from 1972, their music had tightened up, creating a fantastic soundscape from their mix of hard rock, prog and jazz. With a Roger Dean sleeve (almost obligatory for any prog album of note), the record was as exciting and fresh as any other music of the time. These reissues are a superb pair of albums for any lover of quality early seventies prog.
Marsupilami were a folk group to begin with, but by Arena, their second and last album (produced by Peter Bardens and originally released on the Transatlantic label), they had turned to prog. For this record, the band collaborated with lyricist Bob West to create a musical masterpiece themed around the lives of gladiators in Ancient Rome. Remastered with new sleeve notes, this reissue allows us to appreciate the beauty of this stunningly powerful five-track opus, one of the best concept albums of the seventies.
The Marquee Club: 25th Anniversary Angel Air Records
Originally filmed back in 1983, this documentary celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Marquee Club, containing performances by some of the legendary bands who made their names playing there. With an exciting playlist of acts including Status Quo, Iain Matthews, Dave Dee, and Wishbone Ash, the film shows how groups painstakingly honed their skills at the club to become great live acts—refreshingly different from today's Myspace way of getting noticed.--James R. Turner.