Live Reviews

Fairport Convention @ Astoria, London

23 February 2003


If the word “survivors” could ever be applied to a band, surely Fairport Convention qualify. Sandy Denny left the folk-rock outfit decades ago, yet her legend as one of the most recognisable voices of folk music lives on long after her death. Founder member Richard Thompson continues to produce albums and tour with his own band. But the rest of the morphic outfit are obviously in no mood yet to draw on their retirement pensions as they descend with all manner of folksy instruments on one of London’s big barns – the Astoria. And on the evidence of their virtuoso playing and the endeared reception they received, nor should they.

But for those unsure what to expect, the Convention in London in its 35th (?) year must have seemed a strange beast. Take vocalist and guitarist Simon Nicol. Here is a man with the sort of dress sense that says everything he thinks of London’s fashionistas, even if his tucked-in shirt and smart trousers can’t quite hide the sneaking suspicion, fuelled by his luxuriantly grey hair and matching beard, that he’s actually Kenny Rogers but just doesn’t want us to know.

Or how about bassist Dave Pegg, the spitting image of Victor Meldrew if only he’d stop smiling at his own jokes – not one of which were smutty, vindictive or political. Or Chris Leslie, the mandolin player who sings too, who seems for all the world like the village vicar? With drummer Gerry Conway successfully mixing up the persona of a muppet and a retired trekkie, the only relatively normal (for London in the 21st century) person on stage was Ric Sanders, the fiddle player – and he was wearing the band’s tour t-shirt.

The small but obviously devout audience showed that where the Convention are concerned, vintage age is of no consequence. Fresh from their lifetime achievement award at the Radio 2 Folk Awards, the current line-up are well past caring what fashion trend is all the rage this decade. As a result, this show was a refreshing example of what music can be without marketing pizzazz wrecking it. Essentially, nice folk music.

Two sets with an interval between featured a talk from Gerry on Lakota music and the appearance of some curious ethnic percussion instruments, and elsewhere Simon showed that he’s a natural at intricate guitar phrases. Dave alternated between electric and acoustic bass, and mandolin and fiddle topped off the Fairport sound beautifully.

The band would have left their fans unhappy if they hadn’t performed their two most famous standards, the Richard Thompson-penned Meet On The Ledge and the Sandy Denny classic Matty Groves. Both tracks show no signs of sounding tired, a new arrangement for each offering a different interpretation and getting the whole place singing along to the timeless lyrics.

As with all folk music, the mark of a great song is that it can be played by different musicians down the years while allowing them the freedom to make it their own. These are such songs. It frankly doesn’t matter how old someone is when they produce work as outstanding as this. So raise a glass of ale to Fairport Convention – a band to be treasured.


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