From Dirty Linen #119, Aug/Sep 2005
The Birchmere, Alexandria, VA
May 26, 2005
The demeanor of the four-piece acoustic Fairport Convention that took the stage at the Birchmere in late May was easygoing and low-key. Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, Ric Sanders, and Chris Leslie greeted the crowd like old friends — which many of them believed themselves to be — and swung into that elderly composition “Walk Awhile” with aplomb.
True, Nicol was suffering from a case of “microphone droop,” which was quickly corrected with a minimum of Viagra quips. All the usual age-related jokes were in evidence; before “Over the Next Hill,” the nostalgia-laden Steve Tilston composition that gave its title to the group’s most recent studio album, the ever-droll Nicol warned the crowd not to omit that “next.” The group’s only original member introduced Richard Thompson’s “Crazy Man Michael” by saying that its composer “used to be in a band with my father, whose name was also Simon.”
Nicol was in especially fine voice that night — even if he did flub the “Michael” lyrics. (He didn’t do as badly as guest artist Vikki Clayton did at the Cropredy festival a few years ago, when she got so lost in “Matty Groves” that a couple of characters remained alive at the end of the song.) The group’s newest member, Leslie once again proved himself its magic ingredient. Playing fiddle, mandolin, and mandola and singing ably, Leslie also wrote many of the songs featured that night, including “I’m Already There,” inspired by a stained-glass window in Banbury that commemorates an Arctic explorer. A broad, Patrick O’Brien-esque number, it featured skirling fiddlework from Sanders. “Over the Falls” was penned by Leslie after the group detoured to let him see Niagara for the first time; it’s the story of a tightrope walker: “The tale of his fantastic feat,” said Leslie, before adding, “They were fantastic feet.” (To which Pegg appended, “Apart from the big grooves down the middle.”)
There were instrumentals — “Woodworm Swing,” in which drummer Gerry Conway’s absence was noted only when the foursome paused for his solo, and “Canny Capers,” and eventually “Dirty Linen” as the “Matty Groves” coda (during which Sanders yodeled into his electrified violin to produce some truly eerie effects). There were unexpected old-timers, such as a lively “Si Tu Dois Partir.” And there were the inevitables: “Groves” and “Meet on the Ledge.” The former, opening with a lovely acoustic-guitar solo by Nicol and then going into a fierce sort of reggae arrangement, seemed especially vitriolic, perhaps as violent as it’s ever been. The latter featured the Young Tradition’s Heather Wood, brought up from the audience, and Dave Lambert of the Strawbs — who, also in an acoustic configuration, provided a powerful set before Fairport’s.
Pegg, looking natty in a new goatee, provided a touch of his usual whimsy during “Ledge” when, on the line “The air is growing thin,” he brushed a hand against his bald pate. Longtime fans crave this anthem, whatever emotions it may bring; some of us are moved to tears when Nicol sings, “And now I see I’m all alone.” This is a group that has been touched by drama and dark comedy, tragedy and mere hardship. (In the latest turn, Pegg left the tour the day after this show, pleading exhaustion.) Wherever it may go next, however many more Cropredys, tours, personnel changes, and recordings there may be, those who have experienced a Fairport show have experienced a group that is British folk-rock’s beating, sometimes broken, always loving heart.
— Pamela Murray Winters