In 2004, Fairport Convention bass player Dave Pegg split with his wife Chris, who had been, since 1979, organising the holy folk communion in rural Oxfordshire almost single-handedly.
As she walked away, so did the festival’s future, it seemed. Hairy old folkies across the land collectively sobbed into their flagons. So it was announced with much celebration in early 2005 that a new organisational team headed by Pegg and fellow Fairport stalwart Simon Nicol was taking over and that this beloved festival would carry on.
And last year was as great as ever. No massive hikes in ticket prices, no unsightly corporate sponsorship and with the same family-and-friends atmosphere the festival prides itself on.
The tiny village of Cropredy is just outside Banbury. It is a picture-postcard example of a humble, quiet, Tory English hamlet all year except this one weekend, when folk devotees descend for three days of happy music and ale. The locals are notoriously tolerant about the proliferation of beards and the wafting smell of marijuana that hangs over their settlement. God bless them, and those hordes that come down to see Fairport Convention emotionally crank out Meet On The Ledge for the 450th time.
The Guardian last month picked up on the remarkably middle-class nature of most of Britain’s festivals nowadays. There are few that prove this state of affairs better than Cropredy. No moshing here, in fact beyond the twenty metre or so space in front of the only stage where the enthusiastic tap their feet and sing along, the audience sit in deck chairs on the hill, waiting to be entertained.
This is no bad thing, for Cropredy never pretended to be anything other than a peaceful weekend for lovely people. It remains this, but last year I was witness to a troupe of those ‘chav’ fellows attempting to storm their way into the festival past security, two fights, and the most irritatingly unhelpful stewards you can imagine (“you can’t cross this empty field with no one in it and where nothing happens mate, ‘ealth and safety”).
Confronted with these minor ills, there’s nothing for it but to head beerwards. Wadworth 6X isn’t the greatest ale in the world, but it is heady enough and it is local. Wadworth Wadworth everywhere at Cropredy, and plenty of drops to drink. There is only one bar on site, which is inconvenient but great if you want to mingle with the acts. A secret for any Cropredy virgin is that you must head to Cropredy Cricket Club for the cheapest pint. Not within the actual festival boundary, but they are a friendly bunch and last year it was the scene of mass celebration as England began to grasp the Ashes.
Cropredy’s food is varied and plentiful. And expensive. So most campers bring their trusty gas stoves and cook for themselves, which is another element to the smug ‘Caravan Club’ faction who frequent Cropredy. But God, the irresistible smell of bacon that sneaks into your tent in the morning as you wake up with a perverse hangover from too much Wadworth is a torture not even the prospect of a dozen mandolin solos later in the day can allay.
Cropredy has a history of hosting the biggest names in folk and rock. Robert Plant, Lonnie Donegan, and err, Procul Harum sit proudly in Cropredy folklore while just last year acts as big as Jethro Tull, Richard Thompson and Country Joe MacDonald and as diverse as Jah Wobble and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain kept the seated masses entertained.
Each last night sees Fairport Convention play for around three hours, ploughing through their enormous back catalogue. They may only have one original member nowadays (Simon Nicol) but they remain a class live act. Chris Leslie’s songwriting has ensured that unlike many other elder statesmen of rock, their most recent material has not slipped into nondescript mediocrity. They also remain supreme instrumentalists, with Ric Sanders in particular provoking hearty cheers after noodling his way through a fiddle solo.
This year, Friday night should see one of Cropredy’s most special nights in years. Big John Martyn, now with one leg and a bear-like visage, is one of the greatest songwriting talents to ever emerge from these isles. Buddy to Nick Drake and innovative fuser of free-jazz with traditional folk on albums such as Solid Air and Bless The Weather, Martyn will surely bring the Cropredy faithful to their knees, or at least out of their deck chairs. Martyn’s most seminal work in the 70s was accompanied by bass virtuoso Danny Thompson, who comperes this year, so we live in hope and expectancy that the two will team up once again for us.
Headlining on Friday are Steeleye Span, once dubbed ‘the UK’s answer to the Velvet Underground‘. They’re nothing like that cool, and never were, but should fulfil the Thursday-night slot – in essence a warm up for the bigger names later in the festival – with aplomb.
Other acts include 10cc, Deborah Bonham (sister of John), Squeeze‘s Glen Tilbrook and intriguingly, the winners of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards, Bodega. What with all the grey hair and sagging limbs (or missing, in Martyn’s case), it is to Pegg, Nicol and co’s credit that the bright young things of folk are given a chance. This is one of the most admirable Cropredy traditions.