The structure looked something like this: Bert Jansch and his Pentangle as fore-fathers, the exotic, erratic, outrageously brilliant Incredible String Band occupying the lunatic fringe, resident larrikin John Martyn struggling to stand up, and then there is the epoch’s very own fallen prince, Nick Drake.
House band, you could say, were Fairport Convention. A true institution, with a myriad of line-up changes over time, the band are now in their 38th year and currently preparing for their annual Cropredy Convention, held near Banbury, Oxfordshire.
One could complete a PhD in the personnel of Fairport since their 1967 inception, but we will leave it at stating that one original member remains in their current incarnation, Simon Nicol, whilst bassist Dave Pegg has notched up 36 years in the band. Famous alumni include the breathtaking songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson and the tragic, wild, wood-nymph Sandy Denny, who died from a brain haemorrhage caused by falling down her household stairs in 1978.
Indeed, tragedy has blighted the band. In 1969 drummer Martin Lamble was killed in a van crash between gigs.
Fairport Convention enjoyed fabulous commercial and critical success from their beginnings up to around 1979, their most lauded albums being Unhalfbricking and Liege And Lief (both 1969). Their particular concoction of traditional folk arrangements and instrumentation combined with a heavy, guitar laden element endeared them to both the folk faithful and followers of galactically huge rock bands like Led Zeppelin.
Come the end of the ’70s, Fairport decided to call it a day. As closure, it was decided to put on a farewell gig in Cropredy, a local village convenient for all members. A re-union concert in the same location followed in 1980, and thus were sown the seeds of a festival that grew rapidly in size.
Up until 1985 (also the year when the band re-united in the studio, albeit with some new faces), the annual event was known mainly as a Fairport Convention reunion show, but from this year the official name became Cropredy Festival to reflect the fact that other artists, becoming increasingly diverse down the years, were beefing out the performance bill. Indeed to this day the festival prides itself on the variety of its line-up, with the likes of Robert Plant, Lonnie Donegan, Procul Harum and Steeleye Span making appearances in recent times.
Cropredy became an entrenched fixture on the festival calendar until 2004, when organisational team Dave Pegg and wife Christine, divorced. As Fairport performed Meet On The Ledge at midnight last year, there was barely a dry eye among us as the genuine feeling was we were attending for the last time.
Happily, a team led by Nicol and Pegg went out on a limb and engineered a festival for us this year, bringing unbridled joy to weirdy-beardies and real ale fans countrywide who can now dig out those faded Fairport t-shirts for the 11th, 12th and 13th of August. Pegg has emphasised that the festival will not be going corporate or jacking up ticket prices, and retaining its localised, humble humility. Hallelujah. It also has a new name – Fairport’s Cropredy Convention.
The event’s enduring appeal comes from its good-natured atmosphere and strong sense of community. Only here could the reveller put their head down in their tent at around 1am, and drift off to sleep slowly to no noise save the muffled talking of respectful campers around you and the peaceful tinkling of a distant tin-whistle. Whether this is a plus or not is open to debate, but the fact Cropredy goes out of its way to appeal to families has led to a safe and relaxed festival with a true spirit of camaraderie. As Chris Pegg once said during her time as organiser, “It’s geared to make everything as simple as possible. We’ve never had any incidents and everyone respects everyone else”.
Then there is, of course, the beer. A common boast in Cropredy circles is that Fairport Convention did for real ale what The Grateful Dead did for LSD. One can understand this when walking around the festival grounds, where it seems every other staggering individual it is carrying a hefty flagon of Wadworth, available on tap from the only bar on the entire site.
The fact there is only this one drinking hole means that the audience mingles with the musicians, a feature much loved by the faithful. Somehow, I cannot imagine the likes of Eminem or Marilyn Manson braving the mud and the masses to enjoy a swift half at Reading festival with the fans. Cropredy really is a unique communal experience in so many ways.
This year’s line-up is very impressive indeed. Thursday sees Country Joe Macdonald of Woodstock fame headline, no doubt bringing even more counter-culture ingredients to proceedings. The great Richard Thompson performs a headlining solo set on Friday, as well as no doubt joining Fairport on stage the following night where the residents themselves often play for up to four hours.
True to every year, we will also be treated to a diverse range of interesting curios lower down the bill. Legendary bass virtuoso Jah Wobble‘s slot on Thursday promises to be very special, The Muffin Men perform the work of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart on Friday, directly followed by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Nashville’s Beth Nielsen Chapman is given the slot immediately before Fairport on Saturday, which is sure to be as absorbing a performance as Nick Harper‘s set in the same position last year.
The Cropredy Convention, if nothing else, provides a welcome slice of amiable fun and splendid music in delightful surroundings. Those who we must thank for this pastoral commune, Fairport Convention, are a national treasure, motivated by what they might achieve in the now as well as acknowledging and paying respect to their tumultuous past. Long may those old warhorses run.