“We’re not a tribute band,” he adds. “We really *are* Fairport Convention.”
It’s a bit like the Philosopher’s Axe, that one. You can go through several different axe heads, and replace the handle many times, but is it still the same axe? Nicol is the only original member left from what many consider the classic late 1960s’ line-up, but even he took a few years out in the early ’70s. And any band that’s been going for more than 45 years is bound to have had a few personnel changes along the way.
“They do call us a folk-rock band,” continues Nicol. “But we only play about four or five folk songs. Here’s one from Scotland.”
And it’s a cracker. Sir Patrick Spens was first recorded back in the early stages of the band’s career, was several centuries old even by that point, and the modern-day Fairport line-up more than do it justice.
Genial bassist Dave Pegg has been an ever-present in the band since the early ’70s, violinist Ric Sanders joined in 1985, professorial mandolin player Chris Leslie and drummer Gerry Conway came on board in the 1990s, and it’s a pleasure to hear a well-established collective of musicians who clearly know exactly what they’re doing.
As you’d expect from such a seminal band (they do say that they more or less invented ‘electric folk’, after all) there are plenty of appreciative nods along the way to members who have moved on to pastures new or, in the case of former singer Sandy Denny, are no longer with us. “This one gets re-worked every 43 years,” muses Simon Nicol, introducing Denny’s song Fotheringay, written in 1968 about Mary Queen of Scots.
Fiddler Dave Swarbrick and legendary guitarist Richard Thompson are also paid homage – Doctor of Physick from 1970s’ Full House album is a particular treat, as is Chris Leslie’s 2001 contribution The Wood and the Wire.
A lot of the set comes from 2012’s By Popular Request collection, a re-working of Fairport classics chosen by the band and their devoted masses of fans. “We had to do something to mark our 45th birthday…” says Nicol. “Not sure of making 50, but if the Stones can bloody do it…”
Many of the evening’s songs are tales of peril on the high seas – there’s Ralph McTell’s Around the Wild Cape Horn, and Mercy Bay, which tells the story of HMS Investigator’s 1850 mission to find out what had happened to Lord Franklin’s Expedition to discover the North West passage – but the sell-out crowd know they are in safe hands. The musicianship is everything you’d expect, and the voices of the 2013 model Fairport blend beautifully.
And there’s the comfortable banter you’d expect from an outfit that have been touring for so long. “I see the Everly Brothers are on the guest list tonight,” quips Nicol, spying a couple of mysteriously empty chairs in the front row. “One of them smokes ‘eavily and the other drinks ‘eavily…”
Meanwhile, Dave Pegg proposes the musical concept of a ‘Birmingham Scale’ as he introduces a stupendously complex version of the traditional Wassail Song (or… The Walsall Song) for the benefit of any Jethro Tull fans in the audience.
Ric Sanders introduces the sprightly instrumental Danny Jack’s Reward which was “…composed using a revolutionary technique. Comprising of a ukulele… and a bottle of Jack Daniels.” Ahem.
It’s an all-seated gig – your reviewer, kindly squeezed in at the last minute and allowed to stand in the side aisle is the only exception – but there’s plenty of movement in the audience. They and the band alike seem to be enjoying themselves enormously.
The proceedings are brought to an end by a rousing Matty Groves, from 1969’s classic Liege and Lief album, and an ovation as the audience rise from their seats.
“Go on, then,” says Simon Nicol, leading the band back on stage for an encore. “Got just about one shot left in the locker.”
More than that, I’d say. And they know it.
Review by Drew Savage
What: Fairport Convention
Where: The Met, Bury