I went to see Fairport Convention at The Borderline in London last night. I don’t go to gigs as much as I used to. Actually, these days, I hardly go at all and I went largely because my friend Don was kindness itself and bought me a ticket. Fairport aren’t a band of my generation. I only discovered them in the early eighties, second hand LPs languishing in the racks at Talisman Records in Tunbridge Wells where the perennially stoned but always lovely Fiona presided from behind the counter.
Having bought a copy of the Island Records sampler ‘Nice Enough To Eat’ I decided there was so much great music on there that I’d try to collect everything I could on the pink Island label. Some things stuck; Jethro Tull, Free, King Crimson, John Martyn, Nick Drake, Wynder K. Frog, while others like Mott the Hoople and Spooky Tooth somehow passed me by.
But I loved Fairport.
Then at university, in the days when housing benefit and unemployment benefit allowed students to stay on over the summer, we decided to head up the Cherwell to Cropredy for Fairport’s annual get together. It was 1987.
Even when it rains at Cropredy the sun is shining above the clouds. I remember those brief days in a golden haze, the Wadworths bar stretching into the endless distance, tall grasses, long Indian skirts, jigging and reeling to The Lark in the Morning and Dirty Linen, falling in love with some folk-cuckoo damsel who would inevitably waft by with every turn of my head.
Then after university a new set of friends made Cropredy an almost annual pilgrimage and most summers during the 90s, me living on a boat further down the Oxford Canal, we made our way there. It was as much as part of my memory of that time as Sunday nights at the Falkland Arms and days spent playing guitar on the roof of the boat.
I missed the year when my mates Pyckwyll and Shw managed to have themselves photographed clanking tankards with Robert Plant. It’s a moment of folk-cuckoo legendariness.
But I do remember joining the BBC at Oxford in 1998 and either that year or 1999 heading up to Peggy’s place, in Barton St John if I remember right, and making a piece for the radio ahead of the festival. It was a crime report about the murder of Matty Groves and Lord Donald’s wife and the Fairports all participated as witnesses to the deed.
The band played it over the PA at the festival before they went on for their Saturday night set. Folk and roll.
I think last night was the first time I’d seen Fairport in thirteen or fourteen years. Five years and some reporting in Malaysia took me out of that whole scene.
The set was really well chosen – Sir Patrick Spens, Doctor of Physick, The Wood and the Wire, Fotheringay, Cell Song, Banks of the Sweet Primroses, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, Matty Groves, Meet on the Ledge and a few others.
Even the banter was funny – well most of it. Ric Sanders, enough with the gags already. I remember your jokes from the 80s. Please think of the additional burden they place on the NHS.
But it wasn’t so much that Simon, Peggy and co. looked those years older as knowing that I did too. But if they’ve continued to grow into their skins so has the music. Seeing a bunch of sixty-somethings playing pop or rock is one thing. It’s sometimes a little sad. But Fairport’s music is timeless and they bring not a vain attempt to recapture youth but a mastery of the art that comes with age. I found it quite emotional. I was both reconnecting with and mourning my youth. But it was a fine youth and Fairport helped make it that – long may they fiddle and strum.