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Fairport Convention

Saturday 9th March 2024

Union Chapel, Islington, London

Veteran Folk rockers Fairport Convention’s annual 'Wintour' is well under way, calling in at the prestigious Union Chapel, Islington, London on Saturday 9th March. The current band lineup includes Simon Nicol - guitar, lead vocals (1967-1971, 1976-1979, 1985-present), Dave Pegg - bass guitar, mandolin, vocals (1969-1979, 1985-present), Dave Mattacks - drums, percussion (1969-1972, 1973-1975, 1985-1997, 2023-present), Ric Sanders - fiddles, backing vocals (1985-present) and Chris Leslie - mandolin, fiddle, vocals, guitar, flute (1996-present).

Fairport Convention was formed in 1967 by guitarists Richard Thompson and Nicol, bassist Ashley Hutchings and drummer Shaun Frater (with Frater replaced by Martin Lamble after their first gig). Vocalists Judy Dyble and Iain Matthews joined them for the recording of their self-titled debut in 1968. The band took their name from Simon's father's medical practice in a house called "Fairport" on Fortis Green in Muswell Hill. Their sound at this time was very much US West Coast Jefferson Airplane/Byrd’s type of material. Dyble decided she didn’t want to continue and left soon after the album’s release, and she was replaced by Folk singer Sandy Denny who would appear on the next three albums 'What We Did on Our Holidays', 'Unhalfbricking' and 'Liege & Lief', all three being released in 1969. An interpretation of an old English traditional tune called 'A Sailor's Life' on 'Unhalfbricking' saw seasoned fiddler Dave "Swarb" Swarbrick joining them, and at this point British Folk Rock was born. During the recording of 'Unhalfbricking', Matthews, dissatisfied with this new musical direction left to form Matthews Southern Comfort.

Tragically, a crash on the M1 motorway killed drummer Lamble and Jeannie Franklyn, Richard Thompson's girlfriend. After a period of recuperation, the band reassembled for the recording of their most celebrated album 'Liege & Lief'. Drummer Dave Mattacks joined for the recording and would remain with them for many years to come. The album went on to define the band’s traditional Folk Rock leanings and would be the inspirational path and benchmark for the rest of their career. Surprisingly, following the album’s release, Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings both decided to leave. Hutchings would go on to further success with Steeleye Span and the Albion Band. He was replaced by Dave Pegg, who has remained the group's sole consistent member to this day.

The band decided to continue without replacing Denny on vocals, with the remaining members sharing the lead vocals on the rather excellent 1970 'Full House' album. After the tour to support the album, Richard Thompson left to pursue other musical avenues. The core of Swarbrick, Nicol, Pegg and Mattacks went on to release a string of quality albums such as 'Angel Delight' (1971), 'Babbacombe Lee' (1971), 'Rosie' (1973) and 'Nine' (1973). By 1973 Nicol was out and Trevor Lucas (vocals and guitar) and American Jerry Donahue (lead guitar) were in. Surprisingly, Sandy Denny returned for the 1975 'Rising for the Moon' album before departing for the last time. Sadly, Denny died aged 31, in 1978, of a cerebral hemorrhage after falling down a flight of stairs. After the release of the 1975 album, Mattacks jumped ship with former Grease Band drummer Bruce Rowland taking over the drum stool. With Swarbrick taking charge, the band battled on releasing 'Gottle O'Geer' (1976), 'The Bonny Bunch of Roses' (1977) and 'Tipplers Tales' (1978) before disbanding in 1979.

The band reformed for one off gigs in Oxfordshire every year since the split, playing Summer Fayres in Cropredy. With every passing year, crowd numbers increased and within a few years the Cropredy Festival was fully established. Initially, a one-day festival with a few local bands, today the festival has grown into a massive three-day event featuring many top names in the Folk and Rock world. A more permanent reunion of the Fairport band occurred in 1985 with Nicol, Pegg and Mattacks being joined by Maartin Allcock (guitar, mandolin, keys, vocals) and Ric Sanders (fiddle, keyboards). Unfortunately, Swarbrick declined to re-join, he sadly passed away in 2016.

The new lineup turned out to be quite prolific over the ensuing years, going on to release a consistent number of high-quality albums including 'Gladys' Leap' (1985), 'Expletive Delighted!' (1986), 'Red & Gold' (1988), 'The Five Seasons' (1990), 'Jewel in the Crown' (1995) and 'Old New Borrowed Blue' (1996). In 1996 Allcock decided to leave and was replaced by Chris Leslie (mandolin, violin, vocals). Sadly, Maartin died in 2018. Drummer Gerry Conway from Fotheringay replaced Mattacks in 1998. Further high calibre albums were released including 'Who Knows Where the Time Goes?' (1997), 'The Wood and the Wire' (1999), 'XXXV' (2002), 'Over the Next Hill' (2004), 'Sense of Occasion' (2007), 'Festival Bell' (2011), 'By Popular Request' (2012), 'Myths and Heroes' (2015), '50:50@50' (2017) and 'Shuffle and Go' (2020). In 2022, Conway made the decision to leave the band after twenty-four years. Mattacks would return for the fourth time in 2023.

The London venue of choice for Fairport these days is the Union Chapel in Islington, which is a stunning venue, but the seating pews are very uncomfortable! The nine-hundred-seater chapel was sold out with a first come first served seating arrangement. Consequently, the queue to get into the venue snaked along Upper Street for a considerable distance even before the doors opened at 6.30pm.

Support for the evening was acoustic/electric Folk duo Plumhall (Michelle Plum and Nick B Hall). With the crowd suitably warmed up, Fairport kicked off their performance with the jauntily upbeat 'Walk Awhile' from the 1970 'Full House' album. Radiant harmonies abound. The majestic 'Genesis Hall' from the 1969 'Unhalfbricking' album beguiled. Nicol's velvety rich vocal tones added much atmospheric gravitas to the bewitching performance. Then time for a short instrumental piece in the form of the feisty 'Bankruptured' from the 1978 'Tipplers Tales' album, which saw Sanders let loose for some deliciously rip-roaring fiddle action before the band slickly moved on to the excellent 'Hawkwood's Army' from the 2007 'Sense of Occasion' album. Nicol takes the lead vocal and does a fine job indeed. Cue a jump back to the fabulous 70s with the slow slug of 'Sir William Gower' from the 1971 'Angel Delight' album, that saw delectably nimble mandolin and charmingly agile guitar soloing from Leslie and Nicol.

A leap forward in time to 2011 came next with a revisit to the sprightly jolly 'The Festival Bell' from the 'Festival Bell' album. This was the first track of the set to feature lead vocals by Chris Leslie. His softer, higher register voice is quite a contrast to the deep bellow of Nicol. Closing the first set was stirring nine minute 'Sloth' from the 1970 'Full House' album, with a slow meandering start that builds in intensity to a rabid crescendo before a gradual return to the main theme towards the end. Indeed, a great vehicle for the band to stretch out and impress us with their virtuoso playing.

The second set sees Mattacks give a speech about his time in the band plus a few well received jokes before the band cranked up the music again, starting with 'Polly on the Shore' from the 1973 'Nine' album. Another spritely cheerful number called 'The Happy Man' from the 2002 'XXXV' album greeted us next before a newer song written by Leslie called 'Don't Reveal My Name' from the 2020 'Shuffle and Go' album. This moody little song featured Leslie on lead vocals. Keeping with the sombre vibe it was back to the 60s for the enchantingly entrancing Fairport classic 'Crazy Man Michael' from the 1969 'Liege & Lief' album. Written by Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick, and originally sung by Sandy Denny, tonight it was sung eloquently by Nicol. His rich baritone voice added much solemnity to the ominously haunting song. Another Leslie penned number, the lustrously lucent Soft Rock of 'The Year of Fifty-Nine' from the 2020 'Shuffle and Go' album brightened the mood. Keeping with this lambent feeling was yet another irradiant melodic Leslie penned number called 'I'm Already There' from the 2004 'Over the Next Hill' album.

It was then Sanders turn at Standup comedy, of which he is naturally gifted at, before going on to impress us once again with his esoterically dexterous fiddle playing on his own instrumental composition 'Steampunkery' from the 2020 'Shuffle and Go' album. Sander’s fiddle playing incorporates not only Folk influences, but also elements of Prog and Jazz. He was once in Soft Machine after all! Another set highlight for me was the Ralph McTell penned 'The Hiring Fair' from the 1985 'Gladys' Leap' album. Nicol once again takes the lead and does this track much justice with his deep resonating vocal tones, on a wonderfully written and notably performed song.

No Fairport gig would be complete without the mighty Folk tale 'Matty Groves' from their classic 'Liege & Lief' album. The tale describes an adulterous tryst between a young man and a noblewoman that is ended when the woman's husband discovers and kills them! A hauntingly chilling and growlingly dark masterpiece! A well-deserved standing ovation followed the performance with deafening applause resonating around the packed out chapel. To see us on our merry way we were treated to a good ol' sing along to Richard Thompson's 'Meet on the Ledge' from the 1969 'What We Did on Our Holidays' album. I don't know how the band maintains the stamina for constant touring, but they seem to pull it off with ease every time. It is fair to say that this performance was another triumphant gig from one of Britain's finest national treasures.

Steven C. Gilbert

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