As is traditional with Folk music, Fairport Convention’s set on a rainy Friday night is filled to the brim with anecdotes and tales. Barely a single song goes unintroduced throughout the band’s two sets, and during one such preamble guitarist and bandleader Simon Nicol says “this folk rock thing… It’s nice to be pigeonholed but really it would be unfair of us to claim to be a proper folk band. We’ve never had a massive amount of genuine traditional songs in our repertoire.”
In a way, it’s a surprise to hear this. Fairport Convention are so synonymous with the Folk Rock movement that they are essentially the genre’s poster boys, and have been for half a century. When you stop and think about it, though, it’s a fair statement to make. While some of their best loved songs are revved up versions of centuries old folk songs, the vast majority of their discography is comprised of original material.
Tonight’s roughly 100 minute set both confirms and denies the idea that Fairport Convention aren’t quite as folk-centric as often perceived. There are a good number of traditional folk songs performed but also plenty of original songs make the cut tonight. That material is, as often as not, presented in such an electric, rock-centric form that it pushes the band away from anything resembling folk in the traditional sense.
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Set closer ‘Matty Groves’ is perhaps Fairport’s signature song – a 17th century ballad that was given an energetic, rollicking make-over on the band’s genre-defining 1970 album ‘Leige & Lief’. The original version gallops along at a fair pace, with some pretty frantic freaking out towards the end. Fairport’s version tonight has a surprising amount of energy to it. Hearing the classic song live is a joy even now and proves that the band can still rock out with shocking energy for a group of men approaching their seventh decades.
The setlist is a well balanced mixture of classic material from the band’s Sandy Denny fronted days, material from their new album, and the odd piece from the forty years or so in between. Their new material shines surprisingly brightly – it’s buoyant, upbeat stuff that’s never anything less than enjoyable. The show is opened with ‘Our Bus Rolls On’, a new track from the upcoming ’50:50@50′. The song acts as an update of sorts on the band-introduction format that ‘Come All Ye’ from ‘Leige & Lief’ took.
The show’s best moments come in the form of the group’s classic era material, however. A stunning version of ‘Farewell, Farewell’ acts as great showcase for the group’s still impeccable harmonies, whilst ‘Who Knows Where The Times Goes’ receives an equally well crafted rendition with Simon Nicol taking lead vocals on the Sandy Denny penned classic. He does a great job and the band’s rearrangement is sensitive to the enduring quality of the original, whilst still having its own identity. One surprising but very welcome inclusion is that of ‘Genesis Hall’, the opening track to the group’s 1969 album ‘Unhalfbricking’. Originally penned by Richard Thompson, the track stands out amongst the group’s early work but isn’t one of their best known songs – so hearing it live was as unexpected as it was pleasing.
The encore of ‘Meet On The Ledge’ was perhaps to be expected – the song, afterall, is the closest thing to a ‘Hey Jude’ they’ve got – but despite the band’s best efforts, audience participation was not forthcoming. A few people at the back do a half-hearted Mexican wave, prompted by guest vocalist Sally Barker, but overall reception is rather stilted given the quality of the band’s performance tonight. It’s a shame, they deserved better; few bands make it to the fifty year mark, even fewer can still put on as good a show as Fairport Convention.