Having pitched the tent unavoidably very close to another’s – which was in fact an imposing cavern masquerading as a tent – there was heavy suspicion that questions would be asked, brows would be furrowed, perhaps some tutting, and the dainty little dome I was calling home would be asked to relocate. But the owner of this nylon mansion, a lady in tie-dye trousers and beads in her hair spoke up: “You can come as close as you like love, we like having neighbours”.
In such moments as this lies the spirit of Cropredy Festival. We’re just one big community with a shared devotion to traditional and specialist music, particularly of the folk-rock variety. We convene once a year in a tiny village in north Oxfordshire to hear those acts whom Fairport Convention deem worthy of a place in their festival.
The neighbour on the other side was a nice man who was considerate enough to shorten his dog-lead attached to his campervan so the animal wouldn’t cock its leg on the tent. No such luck the following evening however, when during John Martyn‘s set a nearby rambunctious fellow’s bladder would not be repressed, and he promptly filled a pint-glass, before deftly pouring the mixture on the grass. No one knew. Such stealth and commitment to staying in front of John Martyn demands respect.
Normally the grizzled and addled folkies that descend upon Cropredy aren’t so tactful. It is quite a sight to behold the scores of portly, hairy men who look like they had Scrumpy Jack for breakfast. The larger-than-life attitude of these jolly loafers is reflected in festival t-shirt sales – extra-extra-large sold out by the end of the first day.
Topping the bill tonight were Steeleye Span. Last year, it was Country Joe Macdonald, who went down well but his brand of electric Americana and overly caustic politicising left the rustic audience a bit bemused. Steeleye, of course, got it just right everyone knew the songs and most males in the audience have always had a thing for Maddy Prior, who from a distance, (a considerable distance) is surprisingly sexy.
Fiddler Peter Knight remarked on stage: “It’s very nice to be here tonight, even if it is the court of the enemy”, emphasising that Fairport and Steeleye have always targeted the same audience. What the latter hold over the former today is that through Prior, they are able to produce the vocal harmonies and textures that Fairport have done without in the 38 years since Sandy Denny sung so wonderfully on Liege and Lief. Prior hits similar heights today aided by the baritone of guitarist Ken Nicol.
Steeleye’s performance serves as a reminder that they were part of the very fabric that led to English folk music’s fusion with rock sweeping the land in the early 70s, and this festival’s enduring popularity. A boisterous All Around My Hat became one of the most endearing moments of the weekend.
Steeleye Span were positively radical in the 60s, and still seem so when compared to acts such as Maire Ni Chathasaigh and Chris Newman. Her on Celtic harp an impossibly difficult instrument to master – and he on guitar, here was ancient music rooted in Irish traditions.
Across the bill at Cropredy, there are acts that write songs inspired by love, sex, relationships, drugs and death. Not this duo. The best of their own compositions, Stroll On, is about the origins of this eponymous piece of Watford slang. Maire decided to write the song whilst ironing and watching The Sweeney, where someone said ‘stroll on, guv’nor’. Along with the neighbourly camper incident, here too is the essence of this festival.
Another act of note on day one were Feast of Fiddles. They are a merry band of four fiddlers with two guitars and a rhythm section. To start with Led Zeppelin‘s Kashmir was to lull the many rock fans into a false sense of security. The slow-burning epic gave way to traditional fiddle tunes in Celtic and gypsy styles, all with a virtuosity Cropredy rarely sees and Cropredy has seen a lot of fiddlers.