Fairport Convention still going strong after 45 years

Fairport Convention, The Borderline, London, May 16, 2012:

I went to this gig with a fellow 50-something who couldn’t believe I’d never seen Fairport Convention before.

He’s been to lots of their shows and he knows I love their classic albums, so he wondered why I’d waited so long.

I told him that when I discovered Fairport in the late 1970s, band visionaries Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson had already left and fiddle genius Dave Swarbrick was about to follow them.

Of the pioneers that invented English folk-rock, I thought rather dismissively that the wheat had been harvested and what remained was just the chaff.

Well I got that very wrong.

The band that played an intimate show at a tiny London venue on Wednesday night may be celebrating their 45th anniversary this year, but it turns out that they still have brilliant musical brains under their grey, white or entirely absent hair.

There were some concessions to age… in a reversal of the usual live music scenario, the Borderline audience stood up while all five musicians sat down. But their playing was so vigorous and confident that the music leapt round the room like Usain Bolt doing somersaults.

Walk A While, Crazy Man Michael, Sir Patrick Spens, Matty Groves… more than half of the tunes dated back to classic albums of the 60s and early 70s.

But all performed with a twist… different instruments, different arrangements, in many cases different voices. It helps that relative newcomer Chris Leslie (mandolins, banjo, fiddle, joined in 1996) sings a lot like Swarbrick.

His finest moment came on The Hexhamshire Lass, a tongue-twister from Northumberland performed in what bass player Dave Pegg claimed was a punk arrangement (“because that’s the only bandwagon we never jumped on”).

This was just an excuse for him to wear a comedy Mohican wig… how many punk songs do you know in 3/2 time?

The band played two hour-long sets with an interval and, for me, things sagged a little after the break when they returned with less familiar songs from more recent albums.

But that’s not to say they’re living entirely on old glories. During the first half I’d never heard Chris While’s tune John Gaudie before, nor a song Ralph McTell wrote for them called The Girl From The Hiring Fair. Both were superb.

Another highlight was Farewell Farewell. Written by Thompson, originally sung by Denny, this tour is the first time the band have played it live without a female guest singer. Singer-guitarist Simon Nicol wouldn’t claim to have made it his own, as they say on Simon Cowell’s shows. But he did it full justice.

Simon is the only original member still in the ranks… Fairport was the name of his parents’ home in North London where the first line-up used to meet and rehearse in the 60s.

Astonishingly, the early band turnover was so high that he became the only original member as early as 1970, the year Dave Pegg joined.

If their music bookings ever dry up then Simon and Dave could make a living on the comedy circuit with the dry, self-deprecating banter that kept the gig afloat on a sea of good humour.

For example, here’s Simon as they came back on for an encore: “It’s OK, we just had time to reschedule the helicopters…”

The evening’s final song was the band’s everlasting and mystical anthem Meet On The Ledge, written by Richard Thompson while still in his teens (“Before he’d even worn a beret!” said Simon).

As the final chorus faded away you could hear the faint sound of me kicking myself. What on earth was I thinking all those years?