Apologies for the delay in posting this review; among other other things, I’ve been distracted by moderating one of the strangest and busiest threads we’ve ever had on www.uncut.co.uk.
But on Saturday night, I was lucky enough to see the All-Star Fairport Convention Concert part of Joe Boyd’s Witchseason Weekend at the Barbican. Essentially, Boyd convinced everyone who played on the first five Fairport albums – minus Martin Lamble and Sandy Denny, of course, and also Dave Swarbrick, absent due to “personal differences”, apparently – to take part in a kind of living museum exhibition of this astonishing band.
So the evening begins with Judy Dyble, Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson and Ashley Hutchings trying to recreate their first ever gig with a delicate version of “Satisfied Mind”, then slowly progresses through those five wonderful albums, picking up and losing bandmembers and guest singers as they go on.
Without Sandy Denny, of course, the focus inevitably shifts to Thompson’s playing, and those wiry, effortlessly precise leads he was essaying as early as “Time Will Show The Wiser” and “Jack O’Diamonds”. For his part, Thompson is a characteristically discreet presence at the side of the stage, leaving most of the intros to his old bandmates. Not for the first time, he looks a little like an army cadet leader, while Hutchings has the air of a CEO kicking back at the weekend. Simon Nicol, on the other hand, looks like a man who’d very happily been part of a folk-rock band for over 40 years.
When they reach “Unhalfbricking” and an incandescent “A Sailor’s Life”, Chris Leslie from the current Fairport lineup brilliantly steps in for Swarbrick. But Denny, inevitably, is harder to replace. In the first half of the show, a phalanx of guests do decently enough; the best being Kellie While, who sings “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and “A Sailor’s Life” with requisite ethereal gusto.
Kami Thompson does a nice enough job on “Autopsy” (incredible playing by the band here, not least from Dave Mattacks), but the lack of depth, of resonance, is telling. The weakest link, perhaps, is Linde Nijland, a Dutch protegée of Iain Matthews whose warbling take of “Fotheringay” is pretty, but lightweight.
When the second half of the show begins with three-quarters of “Liege And Lief”, it becomes obvious what would have been a better plan. Kellie While’s mother, Chris While, handles these songs (as she did at the album performance at Cropredy two years ago), and it’s clear that her voice – mixing, as she explains, both folk and soul influences like Denny – has the real purity and strength of tone to do these songs justice. Ideally, she’d have covered all the Denny songs herself.
She’s actually the only singer to make a mistake all night – charging into the chorus of “Come All Ye”, possibly due to over-enthusiasm and nerves. But While’s also the only singer with a confident enough presence to properly front this illustrious band, rather than bashfully guest with them.
She needs to be strong, too, because it’s an actual shock to hear quite how loud and fierce the likes of “Matty Groves” can sound. It’s hard to imagine how disturbing these full-blooded attacks on the folk tradition must have sounded in 1969, not least the utterly frenzied “Medley”, with Hutchings’ basslines particularly muscular and aggressive.
After all this, the “Full House” songs are a little of an anti-climax. Hutchings is replaced by Dave Pegg, blokey four-part harmonies and comedy dance shuffles are introduced, and the model for Fairport Convention’s long-term career, after that frantic early period, begins to reveal itself. A huge disappointment, too, that they don’t play “Sloth”; Thompson’s apparent shyness here means he doesn’t take any solo lead vocals until the last verse of the closing “Meet On The Ledge”.
By then, the whole cast of this bewitching and exhilarating review are onstage, along with one other reluctant vocalist – Linda Thompson, bundled on by her children. It’s a testimony to the odd and engaging history of Fairport that this band and its satellites has managed to change lineups so often without many of the dropped members becoming entirely disenfranchised. That, though you may no longer be in the band, you’re still part of the family. How many other bands, I wonder, could pull off a similar trick?