You want weird? How’s this for weird? Rock weirdo Alice Cooper wows them at a folk festival!
But that’s not really weird. What’s weird is that just because Fairport Convention tangled briefly and tangentially with traditional music on their 1969 album, Liege and Lief, they – and their annual festival in Cropredy, Oxfordshire – tend to be categorised as folk.
They’re a rock band, people, and this was a rock festival.
In one sense – and in that sense alone – because the 20,000 fans who turn up regularly over each Bank Holiday weekend clearly do represent a sort of a community outside the economic structures of the music biz, they AREa sort of folk, sociologically speaking. And of course there are usually various kinds of (usually “Celtic”) diddley-diddley musics on the running order.
But with the notable exceptions of excellent bands like England’s Moulettes and Ireland’s Lunasa, who played beautiful folk fairly well down the bill on the Friday afternoon, it was the supposedly “non-folk” acts like Alice Cooper and those consummate popsters, 10cc, who fulfilled the basic folk function of using the medium to tell stories.
Graham Gouldman and drummer Paul Burgess being the sole remaining members of the original 10cc, Eric Stewart, Kevin Godley, and Lol Creme having been absent for well over a decade, and not having caught Gouldman’s touring version of the band, I was curious to discover how their studio-created, multi-layered music would transfer to live performance.
How for instance, would they reproduce the 256-voice choral intro to I’m Not in Love? The answer, of course, is that they didn’t, because far from being note-for-note renderings of their greatest hits, each of their tunes was recreated and re-imagined for their live show. Astonishing!
This was particularly gratifying for this old folkie because they followed after what was for me a transcendentally awful appearance by the Levellers, a band for whom I have the greatest respect. Theirs are songs with strong messages, but thanks to the awful sound balance, it was impossible to hear the words. Be fair, the raw energy of their music did get the audience up on their feet and jumping up and down, but I was astonished that they had not turned up for a sound check to ensure that we could know what they were on about.
Fire the sound engineer, I cried, until the perfect balance of the 10cc set immediately afterwards, with every nuance audible so that you could hear a musical pin drop, indicated that the problems with the Levellers’ set were musical – not technical.
One thing that bewilders me about so many supposedly folk bands is that they would be improved if they just got rid of their drummers. Dave Mattacks’ percussion innovations when he still played with Fairport, drumming across the barlines and the beat, setting a three-four snare drum against a four-four from the front line, for instance, seemed to have passed most of these percussionists by. I’m not suggesting they should imitate the old Meataxe style of playing – though that would not be too bad a thing – but that they should emulate his creativity.
Instead, they chain the rhythm down with a boom-boom-boom bass drum beat that seems to have been borrowed from sixties disco, killing the “lift” after the downbeat that is an essential dancing function of a jig or a reel.
This tendency was epitomized for me by the performance of the Peatbog Faeries, of whom I was expecting much. Though Skye does not have the sort of inbred musical traditions comparable with those of Shetland, for instance, there is good music to be heard there. One thinks of Ronan Martin, one of the best of the young Skye fiddle-players.
And, of course, there is so much variety in the music of the Highlands and Islands, that it ought to be possible to put together a varied set list with some light and shade in it. The Faeries seem not to have bothered with such musical dynamics. Every tune had the same up-tempo beat, with the inescapable disco underpinning, owing more to Georgio Moroder than James Laughlin’s pipeband innovations. I wonder how they manage to tell the tunes apart? Have they ever thought of varying the pace with a slow air? Clearly not.
If I seem to be picking on the Faeries in particular for these failings, well I am. But that’s because they seem to embody a sad and dispiriting trend among crowd-pleasing jig-players, and someone has to put their finger in the dyke before the leak becomes a floodtide.
For me, the discovery of the weekend was the Dunwells, a family band from down the road apiece from me, stemming from Pudsey. They delivered a shimmering set of straight-ahead rock that set my feet tapping as so many of the folkie bands failed to do. Singer Joe Dunwell delivered his vocals with magnetic passion, and there was pace and variety in their set. As compere Bobby Bragg resisted saying, Didn’t they done well!
I was prepared to hate the ridiculously-named Mediaeval Baebes, but actually they were rather good, despite their glamour-puss personae. Their voices have the hard-edged, open-throated sound that Michael Morrow was trying with various levels of success to get from singers in his Musica Reservata back in the Seventies. Judging by their playing while the singers went off to change their costumes from white to black, the backup band could have handled a set on their own.
I approve of the Baebes’ upfront theatricality, though their choreography could have benefited from some study of the work of people like the Temptations’ Paul Williams. Medieval Motown? Why not? Their whole set was a syncretism of past and present.
Their costumes would have raised eyebrows in any medieval banqueting hall, and if they’re going to wave their hands in the air, surely for the correctly authentic look they shouldn’t be shaving their armpits.
Fairport began their final set of the weekend with Sir Patrick Spens (number 58 in Professor Frances James Child’s collection of the English and Scottish Popular Ballads) and their version of Matty Groves was given a new flavour by Chris Leslie’s tenor banjo opening and segue into the (for Fairport fans) now traditional concluding Prince Heathen guitar riff, and they did a not unacceptable version of the Copper Family’s Sweet Primeroses
The rest of the set was mainly a ramble through the past 45 years of the Fairport Convention contemporary songbook, and a wonderful exposition it was of why they are such good communicators of every aspect of the human condition.
I wonder why they feel they need two fiddle-players. Though no one can come up to the standards set by the great Swarb, Chris Leslie is a more than adequate successor, if only because he’s more laid back, musically. I’ve enjoyed Ric Sanders’ playing since when he was in the last manifestation of Soft Machine, but of late his interventions into Fairport tunes seem to be more and more out of keeping with everything happening around him. If Leslie is laid back then he’s a bit too up front, for my taste at least.
They brought on Kellie While to sing the inevitable Who Knows Where the Time Goes, a hard gig for any girl singer, and she achieves the almost impossible feat of staying true to the Sandy Denny lyric without sounding like a pale imitation of the girl from the great days of Unhalfbricking etc. What she did with the verses she sang on inevitable Meet on the Ledge closer – not a dry eye in the field! – makes me determined to see and hear more of her in the future.
On the whole, I didn’t feel this was a vintage Cropredy. It’s not the sheer size of the crowd, which if anything seemed to me slightly fewer than the last time I made it down the A361 into Oxfordshire. The organization left nothing to be desired, the toilets were clean and well serviced, but I could have done without the ubiquitous signs asking us guys not to piss on the grass. (I wonder if the cows who take back the fields after we’ve gone will observe this particular prohibition.)
Comedy was poorly represented, though Richard Digance’s Saturday afternoon opening set was everything that folk comedy could be. I can’t think of anyone else who could get away with asking the crowd to sing along with an opening song about death!
I appreciated what he was trying to say in his song about putting the “Great” back into Great Britain – I said much the same thing in a song I composed for the Young Communist League back in the Fifties – but I couldn’t help feeling that the idiots of the EDL might take it on board as their theme tune, despite his side swipes at bankers and politicians.
As a solo artist, able to invest the huge field with the intimacy of a good folk club session, I feel his sheer professionalism could well have been studied to advantage by some of the other solo acts on the bill, whom I found mainly very boring.
We had a wonderful surprise with an unheralded 20-minute spot from Jasper Carrot who actually made me la\ugh out loud (something I do but rarely) with his riffs on stuff he wouldn’t be allowed to do on TV. I do feel that attacks on political correctness are a bit old hat, though. They remind me of the well-known myth that Victorians used to put bloomers on table legs to protect the sensitivities of young ladies. They never did. It was a joke!
On the whole, Cropredy this time round ranged from the underwhelming to the astonishing, which is probably as much as one can expect from every bill as varied as this one always is.
I’ll be back next August, God willing, insh’Allah, and if they’ll have me, to hear what’s new, what’s old, what’s borrowed and what’s blue, in what is now our longest music festival, centred on our longest still surviving British rock band.
A shorter version of this review appeared in the Morning Star.
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- Fairport Cropredy Convention has got wide appeal (coventrytelegraph.net)