Photos: Paul Whimpenny & Catia Spalletta
The word ‘legendary’ gets thrown around casually in the music business these days but there’s absolutely no doubt that Fairport Convention are true legends of the British folk-rock scene. Its band members are almost a who’s who of British folk-rock music – Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Dave Swarbrick, Simon Nicol and Dave Pegg were all members within the fertile first four years of the group’s career from 1967 to 1971. Nicol and Pegg are still there today along with relatively new-comers Ric Sanders and Chris Leslie. Leslie was the last to join in 1996 so these guys have had a quarter of a century of playing together and that certainly showed in the superb musicianship on display at this concert.
Come out of Highbury & Islington tube and turn right and you can’t miss the imposing sight of the Union Chapel. At night it is illuminated in blue which makes it look faintly sinister as if it were part of the set of a Hammer horror movie. An hour before the concert started there were already lengthy queues of fans outside. As well as being enthusiastic to savour the atmosphere, these early birds were being smart since there were no numbered seats, just church pews. So, once inside, they were reserving the best spots with their jackets before heading off to the bar. Yes, a bar inside a church might sound odd but this was a very civilized audience that was happy to respect the polite notice asking people not to take drinks from the bar back out into the chapel. The hexagonal shape of the main hall and the additional pews on the upper balcony meant that none of the sizeable audience of 1000 or more (a near full house) were distant from the stage. The balcony was also used to host the stage lights. If you needed a reminder that this is an active church, then the unusual sight of a pulpit slap bang in the centre of the stage would do the trick! I did idly think that this would be a good place for a guitarist to climb up to for a solo but maybe that’s more for the Foo Fighters than Fairport Convention!
The support act was the duo of Hannah Sanders (no relation to Fairport’s fiddle player, Ric) & Ben Savage. Their acoustic set ranged from folk in the form of the beautiful traditional song Come All Ye Fair, through to the bluesy Americana feel of the self-penned Polly O Polly. Savage’s guitar picking was impressive, but Hannah’s powerful voice really stole the show. One would normally expect there to be a break between the support band and main act, but here that distinction blurred as Fairport Convention joined the duo on the stage for their last song, Reynardine. Since that traditional song had appeared on Fairport Convention’s 1971’s Liege And Lief album, it was a nice way to hand over the baton to the main act.
After that surprise transition, Fairport Convention launched into one of their classics, the stomping Walk Awhile. The acoustics of the church were excellent, and you could pick up every detail. Simon Nicol may be in his seventies now, but his voice has lost none of its magical timbre. Nicol did most of the guitar work, supported by Leslie, mostly on mandolin while Sanders provided much of the colour with his wonderful fiddle playing. Pegg was on bass and with the recent departure of drummer Gerry Conway, the rhythm section was completed by guest Dave Mattacks who himself has been a member of Fairport on and off since 1969. Following on from Walk Awhile, the band played half a dozen songs composed in the 21st century, with three from their most recent album, Shuffle & Go. While less familiar to me, and maybe some others in the audience, these newer songs stood up well by comparison with earlier material, with the upbeat tale of UFOs in The Year Of Fifty Nine (sung ably by Leslie) being a good choice for the live setting.
There was a massive battery of guitars on array – I counted a dozen – but excluding Pegg’s bass none of them were electric. That made the choice to close the first set with Sloth an interesting one. Sloth is one of the best compositions in their catalogue but one of its highlights is the lengthy languid electric guitar solo. Without that, it sounded a little odd even if amends were partially made by some excellent acoustic work by Nicol (including a tip of the hat to Stairway To Heaven) and some outstanding playing from Sanders.
The second part of the show followed a similar pattern of mixing older and newer songs, opening with The Journeyman’s Grace and Banks Of The Sweet Primroses. Leslie sung the latter, as he did Moondust & Solitude, perhaps the best of the pieces taken from Shuffle & Go. Portmeirion was also an excellent interlude that showcased the more melodic side of Sanders’ fiddle playing. Fairport sensibly saved a couple of strong songs for last. Firstly, there was the traditional song The Hiring Fair, during which you could have heard a pin drop as the audience were enthralled by Nicol’s voice and guitar and Leslie’s mandolin, and the long almost freeform part that closes the piece. After that, it was all handclapping and foot-tapping to Matty Groves. It was a very energetic version that accelerated almost out of control, but that vigorous conclusion was just what was needed. The encore was predictably Meet On The Ledge, written way back in 1967. Hannah Saunders and Ben Savage came back on stage for this one along with a lady playing the trumpet. The response from the audience to this closing piece was rapturous.
The show had been punctured with spoken interludes, and in the case of Sanders something close to hilarious comedy sketches. All of this helped to build a rapport with the audience, demonstrating that they are just four ordinary guys. What wasn’t ordinary was the level of musicianship which was quite breathtaking at times. There’s no doubt they know how to give a professional show, making the punters think, laugh and maybe even cry. It’s pure entertainment and if they play near you then don’t miss the chance to see them.