When Fairport Convention tentatively formed in the house of guitarist and vocalist Simon Nicol in 1967, it may have seemed inconceivable to them that in 2005 the band would still be going strong after 38 years of success, tragedy and wonderful music. They are an institution, holding a special place in the annals of popular music with their innovative fusing of traditional folk music and instruments with a hard-edged rock streak.
Today’s incarnation contains Nicol as its sole original member, who apart from a four-year sabbatical in the ’70s has been an ever-present. He has contributed immensely to Fairport’s finest hours down the years, not least their two seminal albums of 1969, Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief.
The band are currently bracing themselves for another Cropredy Festival, their much-loved gathering in the Oxfordshire village which began in 1979 and has continued ever since. However, last year it seemed that the party had come to an end when the organisational partnership of Dave Pegg (current Fairport bassist) and his wife Christine was severed by the pair’s divorce.
The festival soldiers on next weekend thanks to Nicol and Pegg teaming up with Rob Braviner, Fairport’s longstanding tour manager, and businessman Gareth Williams to sort it all out. And there is a new name: Fairport’s Cropredy Convention.
When I catch up with Nicol, he is audibly out of breath after climbing a flight of stairs to reach the phone. After giving him the chance to recover, I ask him the story of the festival’s rebirth. He sighed, as he did before every response, and smoothly launched into his educated drawl.
“We didn’t have the confidence that we could do it, but there is such an abiding amount of goodwill around the festival, that we thought we’d have a go. It was too big a ball to drop. We put a small crew together, and here we are today”.
The most important thing it seems to the survival of the festival is its financial performance this year. It is a rather deflating aspect of such a remarkable event, but to make a loss may yet signal the festival’s end. “It looks as if we’re going to be in the clear. That’s all it has to do this year, break even, prove it can survive the loss of the captain of the ship (Chris Pegg). This is where we start building.” Whilst the joy at the festival’s revival is palpable, there will be some nervous men waiting for the figures in the aftermath.
“I’m 54 now, and I like to think I’m better at my job now than I was at 16.” – Simon Nicol on the benefits of ageing.
Soon we had both had enough of the fiscal guts of the operation, and started talking about the marvellous festival itself. For Nicol, there is no one stand-out moment of glory from throughout the 25 years, but a certain track in their set list that annually reminds him what immense power music, and their own in particular, can have.
“There’s one moment every year when the crowd sings when we finish with Meet On The Ledge, and we light the field up, the band stops playing, the audience does it a cappella and it’s five minutes to midnight, that’s a wonderful moment every year. It doesn’t get any better than that, really.”
This is indeed quite something, and – speaking as someone who’s witnessed it – it is as moving for the audience as it is for the band. Nicol also raves about Beth Nielson Chapman, scheduled for the slot before Fairport on Saturday night who “will take the audience with her”.
But there is something more than just great music that gives Cropredy its special atmosphere – the Fairport Convention fan base. “It’s a complete mixture of people,” says Simon. “Some have been into the band as contemporaries of ours – people who were at college when we were the college band. There are generations below them and generations above them, all with their own angle on the band.”
This is reflected at the festival, with all age ranges represented and geared towards the family. Thus there is a great sense of community and safety. As Nicol goes on to say, Fairport are timeless, with a universal appeal because they are not tied into any space in time.
An interesting aspect of the band. But there are many more. They may be, and justifiably so, constantly looking forward, but Fairport are a band with a very hefty history behind them, including the tragic deaths of drummer Martin Lamble in 1969 and Sandy Denny in 1979. In such transcendental moments as Nicol described when performing Meet On The Ledge, surely these people play on his mind.
“They’re part of our history in the same way that in your own family there are people born into it over a 38 year period, and there are people who pass away. You think of these people at Christmas but you don’t fill up with sadness about the fact they’re not there. They’ve changed the way things are and it’s nice to remember them, but the band is about today and tomorrow, and not about yesterday. Though yesterday is great to have. I’m glad I had the chance to work with and know people as brilliant as Martin and Sandy.”
“The band is about today and tomorrow, and not about yesterday. Though yesterday is great to have.” – Simon Nicol on pleasures past and present.
Nicol indulges me a little more by naming their second LP, What We Did On Our Holidays, as his favourite.
But Fairport are a working band, and, as Nicol emphasises more than once, not their own tribute band. Despite the huge legacy behind them, including launching the careers of such talents as Denny and Richard Thompson (playing Cropredy this year), Nicol and co feel the there is still more of the Fairport odyssey to come. I wondered if there was ever a particular line-up that Nicol regarded as the best. In no uncertain terms I am told the current personnel are as strong as ever, and is always thinking about tomorrow. He goes on to reveal a take on the career of the rock musician that goes against the popular grain.
“I’m 54 now, and I like to think I’m better at my job now than I was at 16. If I was a carpenter or a brain surgeon I’d have the same expectations of myself.” Not a young man’s excitement and art, but a trade to learn and develop. As fine as Fairport’s last album, Over The Next Hill is, I find this unconvincing. Neil Young‘s old adage, “the more you think the more you stink” surely rings more true. Rock ‘n’ roll is not carpentry or brain surgery, it is an explosive, Dionysian statement, and not something to learn and foster skills for over the period of a working life.
This in-the-moment spirit is something Cropredy has, and the house band themselves create. Simon Nicol has continually practised the art of letting instinct and nature, rather than any learning and experience, guide his band’s output. And God bless him for it.