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by Tom Nelligan
Some English institutions seem to endure forever. There’s the mysterious columns of Stonehenge, the funny hats on the guards at Buckingham Palace, the damp weather, and the hand-pumped ale. And then there’s Fairport Convention. The band that invented English folk-rock is still going strong after 43 years, and still making music that makes people smile.
Not that there haven’t been a few bumps along the way. Fairport’s long history has been well-documented in books, articles, and a film, and more recently in a pair of witty and insightful essays by its senior members, singer/guitarist Simon Nicol and bassist Dave Pegg, that can be found on the group’s web site. Founded in 1967 as a contemporary rock band that largely covered American music but soon delved deeply into England’s own musical traditions, Fairport had a revolving-door lineup throughout its first decade, with people like Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, Dave Swarbrick, and Iain Matthews making contributions and then moving on.
In its early years, Fairport recorded landmark albums like Liege and Lief and Full House that defined the English folk-rock genre. But a brush with commercial success came and went quickly, and chronically unable to make a decent living, the band made a farewell tour and album in 1979 and then broke up. However, a series of reunion concerts followed, sparked by the energy of a small but loyal following, and then a re-formation in 1985 that has lasted (with a couple more lineup changes) to the present. Nicol, part of the original 1967 lineup, and Pegg, who came aboard in 1970, are joined in the current quintet by fiddler Ric Sanders, singer/multi-instrumentalist Chris Leslie, and veteran folk-rock drummer Gerry Conway, who for the past 11 years has been the new lad in the group.
Fairport’s music has always been full of energy and fun. Originating from a blend of inspired creativity, youthful brashness, and more than a little alcohol, these days the band’s sound is colored more by the experience and skills of practiced entertainers who honor the past but continue to explore the contemporary. The group’s sound during its early period was defined by Denny’s wistful, emotion-filled voice, Thompson’s churning guitar leads, and Swarbrick’s sometimes frantic electric fiddling driving a mix of traditional material and original compositions. Fairport’s late-1960s/early 1970s period produced landmark electric arrangements of old ballads like “Tam Lyn” and “Matty Groves,” memorable originals like the seminal anti-war song “Sloth” and the romping “Walk Awhile,” and vibrant fiddle-driven instrumental medleys like the now-legendary “Dirty Linen.” That music remains essential listening decades later.
Today, Fairport still perform some of those classics in every concert. Over the years Nicol’s resonant voice and Leslie’s clear tenor (they share lead vocal roles) and Sanders’ jazz-influenced fiddle style have given the old songs a new sound, and the very middle-aged Fairport of 2010 makes no attempt to be the collection of brash young English folk-rockers who literally electrified their country’s traditional music scene long ago. “The history is always there if you want to revisit it,” Nicol explained recently, “but we don’t trade on it by attempting to impersonate our teenage selves, preferring instead to respect it by referencing it in the repertoire if the song works in its current incarnation. New songs are constantly being introduced, while back-catalog items left dormant for decades can be revisited if it feels right, both of which refresh the repertoire and prevent us from becoming our own tribute band.”
Pegg points out how this will work in Fairport’s upcoming winter tour of the U.K. “In the first half of the concert we will play Babbacombe Lee in its entirety—it’s the album’s 40th anniversary—and for the second half of the show we will showcase a lot of new material from the new album, which is to be called The Festival Bell.”
While traditional music formed the core of Fairport’s material circa 1970 and is still represented in its setlists, in its earliest incarnation the group covered contemporary writers like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and featured songs from within the band, notably compositions by Denny and Thompson. Fairport still seeks out new songs from a variety of writers. “That’s something that hasn’t changed,” Nicol explains. We all have our ears to the ground unconsciously, and, whenever a new song draws my attention for whatever reason, I make a point of imagining whether or not it could be at home in some future repertoire. The core will continue to come from Chris, at least as long as he is visited by the muse. For my money, his writing is becoming stronger all the time as he gains confidence in his craft.” Pegg also cites Leslie’s contributions and Sanders’ original fiddle tunes. He adds that “Ralph McTell has one song on the new album, and also possibly Anna Ryder and Red Shoes.”
Like all bands that have been around since the age of vinyl, Fairport has had to adapt to a changing music business in which major record labels have little relevance and the Internet has become the primary means of distribution. Fairport maintains a comprehensive web site and is well-represented on YouTube, but neither medium directly pays the bills. Pegg admits that the process has been challenging. “It gets harder and harder to sell CDs and merch, although we do our best to come up with new ideas. Certainly in England the idea of T-shirt sales helping a tour get into the black are over. Merchandise is now really a service to the fans who wish to take home a souvenir.”
Nicol also sounds a bit pessimistic. “We are guilty of being behind the curve. Our brief sally into making tracks downloadable online left us with burnt fingers. We had been badly advised and the music business is full of lowlife, amoral sharks—there’s a bad side to it, too! So that is a channel that needs readdressing, although our core supporters tend to be completists in the old-fashioned sense who prefer the tangibility of hard copy, even if that now means a jewel case or digipak rather than the real artwork of an LP sleeve.”
At the same time, both men value the loyalty of Fairport’s fan base as a reason for the band’s longevity and recognize a corresponding obligation to the fans. Fairport shows often feel more like a reunion of friends on both sides of the stage than a band performing for an audience. “We have always had to tread the boards to pay the rent,” Pegg says, “and that has meant that we have never lost touch with our audience. It is what we enjoy doing the most.” Nicol concurs: “False modesty aside, it’s because, for a high percentage of our gigs and albums down the years, the punters have come away happier than not that they put their dollar down. I can’t pretend we have a career of unbroken excellence on a plateau of perfection such as the Amadeus Quartet achieved, but on balance the evidence shows that it’s a win-win situation for both band and audience.”
Fairport has also become known for its annual Cropredy music festival, held every August on a farm field in a small Oxforshire village. Formally known as Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, the event brings together up to 20,000 listeners and a couple dozen folk, rock, and roots acts for three days of music, food and beverages, communal camping, and good vibes. Performers range from young traditional acts like BBC folk award winners to major pop stars like Robert Plant and Rick Wakeman, always closing with a three-hour set by Fairport that features band alumni and guests along with the current lineup. “The music is something we agonize over and care about deeply,” Nicol explains, “getting the balance of sound and style and performance impact, of variety of old and new. But the event itself is the heart of things, the gathering together for an extended party of people from dozens of countries, hundreds of lifestyles, thousands of life stories, and of all ages, whose only commonality is that at some time in the last 43 years, Fairport Convention has somehow impinged on their consciousness and touched them.”
Pegg also cites the festival’s ambiance as its hallmark. “Cropredy has never been a folk event. We have always had a broad and selfish approach to the acts we have presented. The criterion has always been that we have to like them, not how successful or big a draw they might be. We try to have something for everyone, and, as there is only one stage, if there is an act on that isn’t your cup of tea you can always go for a pint or a bite. The atmosphere at Cropredy is terrific, and there are people who attend year after year because they know it is probably the friendliest and safest festival in Europe.”
Although Fairport has performed frequently in the U.S. over the decades, it seems that the group won’t be back anytime soon: A proposed fall 2010 tour fell through due to economics. “We would love to return,” Pegg explains, “but it is a different ballgame for us now. Thirty years ago we could have undertaken a schedule where you drive yourself around and play small venues for the craic, but nowadays some of us need more creature comforts. We love American audience and miss playing across the pond. If someone in the U.S. can come up with a viable tour and maybe a record label to help promote the tour, then we would be up for it.”
But Fairport intends to remain active as far into the future as Nicol and Pegg can foresee, with U.K. tours, recordings, and the annual festival. “I was still at school when I began working with Ashley [Hutchings] and Richard in bands that were the direct predecessor to Fairport,” Nicol wistfully observes, “and by the time this article appears I will be the owner of an old-age pensioner’s bus pass.” Yet he hopes that the band will continue even when the current members retire, citing the example of sports teams and symphony orchestras that maintain an identity across generations in spite of changing personnel.
“Personally I am very happy to still be out playing music,” Pegg concludes. “This keeps the brain and the fingers active and helps delay arthritis moving in and taking over! I hope to be playing for a good few more years. My son Matt is a better bassist than me, but whether he is up for keeping a Pegg in the band when I hang up my rock ’n’ roll shoes is up to him.”
“We will keep going till the diesel runs out, I hope.”
—Tom Nelligan (Waltham, MA)
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