A BAND, A BEER & A BOWLER HAT
“The sound of people singing and the sound of all their cheers. The sound of each and everyone, you have come together here”
Well summer is finally in full swing here and of course that means lots of time spent hanging out with friends, going on vacation, or relaxing by the pool or at the beach. It is also a time where no matter where you are there is usually lots of music around, especially at festivals. No matter what your preference for music, there seems to be a festival geared for everything. For myself, for 24 years there was a festival that seemed tantalizingly close but yet remained elusive to me for all that time. Close because I read about it so much, heard a great deal of the music from it or even watched videos of it for years and felt like I understood what it must be like. But elusive because distance and one reason after another seemed to scuttle any possibility of really knowing what it was like. Year after year went by and I began wondering if I would ever get my chance. But in 2011 I finally made it. This is my story of how I came to be standing on a field in the small village of Cropredy in Oxfordshire England for that festival, put on and organized by my favorite band, Fairport Convention. Way back in the very first installment of this blog I alluded to this moment, but first a little tale as to how this all started for me is required.
The year was 1987; I was a sophomore at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. Worcester was then, and still is now a faded post war mill town. While I can’t say it was a bustling metropolis, it did have its fair share of things to do; a couple of great museums, several other colleges in the area, but the one thing we were blessed with in Worcester was the Centrum, a new arena that promoters seemed to be using to book concerts for at the time rather than the decaying Boston Garden. In my four years at Assumption I saw many top bands at the Centrum. At that time my musical pedigree was, shall we say, fairly typical of a 19 year old suburban New Jersey kid as I have alluded to in other installments. While in college I moved on to a prog-rock phase, with Deep Purple, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes and The Moody Blues becoming the new favorites. New music was barely on my radar. I thought prog-rock was superior to say, Elvis Costello, R.E.M or U2. It wasn’t that I had a problem with other people liking them, I just smugly thought what I was listening to was far superior. It was at that point in November of 1987 that my roommate Rich decided we should go to a Jethro Tull concert at the Centrum. Of course I knew Tull and they certainly fit right in among the other prog bands I was listening to so I thought sure, let’s go. As it happens I remember buying the tickets on the day of the concert, heading on the bus for downtown and going to the box office and completely lucking out because the seats wound up being more or less center stage, about 20 rows back. Later that evening we returned downtown for what I suppose one would call the typical arena rock gig. Merchandise was purchased and we patiently waited for the lights to dim with the various smells of an arena show wafting around us. When the lights went down it was meant for the opening act, a band I had never heard of before. A quick consultation to the program told me they were called Fairport Convention and it was the proverbial story of a singular moment which changed my life.
“Little did I think”
I wish I could remember what song they opened with, because right away I knew I was hearing something that resonated deeply with me, and reminded me of sounds from my childhood. I grew up in an Irish household. Dad had the Irish last name; Mom was born and raised there, in Donegal as I mentioned in Part 5. I have always been proud to be Irish, but despite having traveled there prior to 1987 I did not yet understand the culture, and what makes it so special. It would not be a stretch to say that Irish music, much like a lot of the other music outside my own very narrowly defined spectrum meant absolutely nothing to me.But on that November night when I heard the unmistakable sounds of folk music in this big arena, I was pleasantly surprised. Folk music can have a drummer and a bass guitar? You can use an electric guitar and sing a ballad? The violin can be electric? Such thoughts had never crossed my mind. I remember thinking on the spot; this is like Dad’s old Clancy Brothers records…but louder and faster.
Reading the program again gave me more details. Interesting, they have been around for (at that point) 20 years, why have I never come across them before? Oh-this guy Dave Pegg plays with them and Jethro Tull (as he was doing at the time). What on earth is that long neck guitar/mandolin looking thing that one guy is playing? It was Maartin Allcock playing a bouzouki, an instrument unknown to me at the time. Simon Nicol’s deep resonating voice was singing old folk songs. I was at a rock arena hearing folk songs and liking it. Why didn’t Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners sing like this guy I wondered. Why didn’t Irish fiddle players jump around the stage like this guy Ric Sanders does with his? The drummer, Dave Mattacks was obviously a great player as well and expertly kept it all under control. I also remember thinking rather naively that I did not know the English even had their own folk music! So many more thoughts were in my head. What I remember clearly the most however is simply how much fun they were having as a band. There were lots of smiles and the enjoyment of playing with the spirit of having nothing to lose. Just play the music with no pretension. As Simon Nicol put it years later in describing how Fairport operates-take the music seriously, yes but don’t take yourself seriously for God’s sake. They went down very well I seem to recall as a result of that attitude, but even if they had been playing for only me one thing was clear. The night was a revelation and a way forward for me musically. Most everything else I was listening to no longer seemed as interesting to me anymore.
“We’d all be making songs”
Because they were touring a new album in celebration of their 20th Anniversary, Maartin Allcock helpfully pointed us towards the direction of the Worcester Galleria Mall from the stage (as if we didn’t know where it was already!) to purchase it. I am not sure if they finished with their usual closer, Meet On The Ledge, but like with all opening acts it soon was over, and we waited the short time before Jethro Tull came on stage along with an outfit change for Dave Pegg from modest sweater with Fairport to brightly colored ensemble with Jethro Tull. At least I got to see Fairport one more time when they came out to provide additional support for Tull’s song Budapest. Still, although the reason Rich and I were there was for Jethro Tull (and a good show they put on as well) I had to admit by the time the evening was all over that what I really liked best was Fairport Convention. He and I shared many musical moments over the 4 years of college and I am thankful to him for it. After the shows we would always deconstruct what we liked and what we didn’t like. That is something I still do to this day. I feel like what Rich did, if even inadvertently was to get my mind around the music and performance itself. It was attempting to understand the depth of it, the complexity of it, and the humor of the music. Music was just music to me before that. I did not think in depth thoughts of how something was done, why was it sung in that manner, of interpretations and meanings or instrumentation. So apart from finding a music I now knew was “my” music, I also started on a path of understanding music itself better through Fairport Convention.
I am pretty sure that within the next day or two I trudged back down on the bus to the Galleria to buy my cassette of the new album called In Real Time. It was my first Fairport Convention album, my first Folk album, my first Folk Rock album and it soon took pride of place in my cassette rack back in the dorm room. When I played it the first time I definitely remembered the band having played most of the songs at the concert. So now after seeing them perform live, and having some of their music to listen to, I wanted to know more and hear more by them. In those pre-internet days it was hard finding that out but luckily, being in college was a good place to be. Scouring the library and old newspapers I was able to amass a good understanding of what Fairport were about, its history, its ex-members, and what this thing folk-rock was all about, as well as a rudimentary lesson in traditional songs. Fairport Convention’s unique history could fill up several blogs worth of material, so I suggest you go here for a nice summary of their 47 years together as a band-http://www.fairportconvention.com/history_of_fairport.php
As the years went on, it became obvious that Fairport Convention and all its (many) former members had become my firm favorites. I normally hate being so definitive when it comes to answering the question, “Who’s your favorite?” For books and movies the best I can offer is a short list of 5, all on equal ground in terms of enjoyment. Not so with music. For 27 years the answer has always been Fairport Convention for me. It is hard at this point to say why this is the case but I think on reflection that Fairport have hit every element on the emotional scale in some ways for me. They have sung of loss, of reflection, of history, of happiness, of love. They can sing a centuries old traditional murder ballad full of lies and deceit, then follow with a drinking song. The songs can be sparsely arranged or rock as hard as anyone else. The skill of musicianship has always remained high despite personnel changes. There has never been a cause for them to stop being my favorites in all this time.
So from the humble start at the Worcester Galleria, I began collecting anything and everything I could by not just the band, but all the former members. So pretty quickly I had a sizable collection of Fairport, Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Dave Swarbrick, Ashley Hutchings, The Albion Band, Steeleye Span, Hellecasters, Iain Matthews and many more offshoots and side projects. Not to mention all the books, concert DVD’s and documentaries that were released. Fairport continued to release new albums and tour the US (usually in small, intimate folk clubs) so my interest and support never waned. But despite having a vast catalog of material by everyone who had ever been in the band, despite having encyclopedic knowledge of all the songs, all the lyrics, all the members of the band, despite all of that, I felt like only a partial fan for one reason. I had never been to Cropredy
“Through Cropredy in Oxfordshire, the Cherwell takes its course, and the willows weep into its waters clear”
Fairport had connections to the village of Cropredy in the 1970’s and what began as small concerts for the village became what was thought would be a farewell to the band in 1979. It went so well however, that the following year it became a reunion. That was the starting point and since then it has grown to become a 3 day festival with about 20,000 fans coming to be entertained by a diverse lineup, finishing off with a full concert by Fairport themselves. Ever since I learned about the festival I wanted desperately to go. I came close in 1990, but time and budget defeated me. Every year after that went by and as I read who would be playing each year and then read reviews and saw photographs I began to feel like a fan of a perennially losing sports team. The kind of team where every year starts off with that dream of this year being the year, only to have it snatched away once reality sets in. That is until 2011, when because of other circumstances, my wife and I realized we would not be able to take a vacation together. I was of course disappointed until she said-“I think you should go to Cropredy, we need to make this happen for you.” I remember thinking oh that’s too much, too far to go by myself for a few days but then it started sinking in. I could go actually. I could fly in, go to the festival and come home. Why not indeed?
The first people I related this news to was to an online forum called Talkawhile, centered around Fairport and similar music. As I excitedly told people of my plans and asked questions a request was made to help identify me in a crowd of 20,000 people. Back when I had joined the forum the profile photo I used for no particular reason was of me wearing a bowler style hat. Thus when I announced I was going I was essentially given no choice but to wear a bowler hat in the middle of summer on a plane and with a backpack full of camping gear so that I would be recognizable to other people from the forum.
Finally after sending for a ticket and making all sorts of preparations by August I was ready. I would miss the first day of the festival, but planned to be there the remaining days. After flying to London and spending the night with some family nearby it was really the day. I tried to keep emotions in check so I did not make a critical transportation mistake and lose hours of time. I made all my connections perfectly and anxiously waited for the train to make its stop at Banbury, the nearest train station to the village. I could not bear to read a book, or listen to my Ipod for fear of missing the stop so I just sat there counting out how many stops were left whilst admiring the countryside once we left the London area. Finally we pulled into Banbury and thankfully it was one of those situations where by the number of backpacks and Cropredy T-shirts that suddenly appeared, I knew I only had to follow the crowd to find the shuttle bus to the village. Though I was by now incredibly anxious to be there after a short ride down some narrow roads I suddenly found myself in front of the Brasenose Arms in Cropredy, a pub that had been on the back cover of a Fairport album in the 70’s.
I could not believe I was really there but yet I wanted to get on that field as soon as I could. Quickly I started getting my backpack and gear together, making one last check that the ticket was still safely in place and the hat was on my head when from across the road I heard, “You’re that bloke from New York.” Thirty seconds off the bus and already the choice to wear the bowler had clearly paid off! A quick chat and directions to the camping field from my new acquaintance and I was off. Ticket displayed, wrist band placed, I knew from the timetable that I was missing the opening band but I knew a quick set up could have me on the arena field shortly. I had that tent for 10 years before that trip, and I never set it up as fast as I did that day because by now I could take it no longer. After the last tent stake was placed, non-essential gear thrown in the tent and sealed up, I made my way towards the arena field. To get there I had to go through two of the other camping fields but when I saw the gate in front of me, and with the music from The Travelling Band becoming louder I could take it no longer and I ran. I ran the same way a child excitedly does at a playground. Over 40 years old and over 20 years of being a fan of Fairport Convention had finally brought me to this place. It was no longer a place in my mind but a reality. It was an amazing feeling to finally say, I’m here. I finally felt like a complete fan.
“There’s beer all in the barrel”
With Fairport being an English Folk-Rock band there has always been a connection to beer, and I knew that after finally setting put on that field that I had to get a beer from the fabulous and massive bar on the other side of the field. After getting my first one and coming across a few other folks from the forum that recognized the bowler hat I finally settled down and breathed it all in. Now I could enjoy 2 days at this place and experience all the things I had heard about for years. First up since I was hungry was the excellent meal from Leon’s Vegetarian stall, a staple at Cropredy almost since the beginning, then back to the bar for more beer and conversation (a pattern repeated throughout much of my time there). Then more bands and a quick walk around the field, soaking it all in.
Cropredy prides itself on being a friendly festival and one of the best things is that there is no backstage catering. So for all the bands that play, if they want a drink or some food they have to come out on the field along with all the crowd. So it was that I bumped into ex-Fairport member Maartin Allcock with whom I had a quick chat with at the bar. Later on it was founder member Simon Nicol with whom I had some correspondence with earlier in the year over a mishap with a cd purchase. He knew who I was as soon as I mentioned my name and greeted me warmly and welcomed me to the festival and gave me a food recommendation (Goan’s Fish Curry, quite delicious). He even commented on the bowler hat himself, and pointed to the odd coincidence of him wearing a Bottom Line New York City T-shirt, a place I had seen Fairport many times over the years before moving on (but not before I managed to get a photo with him)
While watching The Dylan Project on stage, I turned to one side of me and saw Ralph McTell (from Part 1 of this blog), standing there with the rest of the crowd and singing along to a Bob Dylan song. Another walk up the field found me almost (literally) bumping into the singer of the band The Coral, due to take the stage in a few hours. After apologizing for almost knocking into the food he was carrying he said something in his thick accent along the lines of “S’alright, it’s nice here innit.” Then a nice chat and a signed CD from legendary British rocker Steve Gibbons, who had just done a set as part of The Dylan Project. A quick trip to the merchandise tent to get the official t-shirt and who should compliment my hat from behind the fence but Ric Sanders, the violin player for Fairport. Finally if I had not believed this was all really happening, once I got inside the merchandise tent I struck up a conversation with one of the women that was running it and I mentioned it was my first Cropredy. To which she excitedly said to someone behind me, “Hey Chris, it’s his first Cropredy” only to turn around to find Chris Leslie, multi-instrumentalist for Fairport there with his wife saying welcome, and asking where I was from.
By the time I settled in and finally sat down on the grass for a breather as the evening grew darker I could not believe my luck thus far. Was this really happening? Did every newbie to this festival have the same sort of experiences? Throughout the rest of the day I bumped into many more people who also made me feel welcome and went out of their way to make me feel at home. More than once strangers bought me a beer, which I tried to reciprocate as best as I could. There had also been a terrific variety of music. Suffice it to say, after just one day at Cropredy I felt at home.
By the time the second day came around I was in heaven. Decent weather, good food and drink, and enough stories to recount for years to come after just one day. I could not wait for the music to start up again, but decided it would be nice to get up early, have some coffee and use the time to explore the village itself. Other than the festival, the other thing Cropredy is known for is a Civil War battle that happened at the bridge over the River Cherwell in 1644. Ralph McTell wrote a song about that battle that Fairport later covered as well and being on that bridge finally was also something special for me. Years of hearing the song suddenly meant something now that I was standing on the same spot. Then there was the beautiful Church of St. Mary’s right in the center of the village with its surrounding cemetery.
The village itself was now bustling with activity. A ‘boot’ sale at the cricket pitch, breakfast put on by various groups in the town for fundraising purposes. Then a walk alongside the canal, where the marvelous canal boats were docked by people who had come to the festival that way instead of by car or train.
It was all so exciting for me to see, and even the village was mostly as I had imagined it would be. Rather than go back to the festival when the music started at noon, I decided to hang around for a bit and experience the two pubs in town, The Red Lion and The Brasenose Arms, both of which put on a fringe festival, bringing in yet more bands to play in their back gardens. This is where I saw Ahab perform (see Part 8). Finally I decided to head back to the main concert field where I spent another glorious afternoon listening again to a diverse selection of music , buying little trinkets to bring home from the craft stalls, and enjoying the food and drink. At some point I chatted with Dave Pegg at the bar who seemed thrilled that I was here for the first time after being a fan for so long, and again, just like everyone else, greeted me very warmly. Gradually it started becoming evening again and almost time for Fairport’s own 3 hour set which closes out the festival. Fairport had stopped touring in the U.S. several years before and therefore I was really excited to be seeing them not only again, but also in front of such a large crowd. The only time I had seen them in front of anything close to this size of a crowd was at that concert 24 years before. I was thrilled to hear songs I had never heard performed live by them , which included the Babbacombe Lee concept album played in its entirety.
“And though I will be gone from here-we will never be apart”
A handful of guests came out, including Ralph McTell, and I was really enjoying myself. As Fairport’s set went on into the night I started feeling many emotions. Mostly I was just overjoyed at finally being on that field after all that time. I think I had an ear to ear grin on for the entire time I was there. Of course I also wished it could go on forever and as the clock drew closer to midnight and the close of the festival I began to feel a little regret that it would all be over soon. I also wished my wife could be there, if only for that exact moment so she could share the emotion of finally being there with me. If she had not pushed me, 2011 would have been yet another year that had gone by without a visit to Cropredy. After the sing along finale of Meet On The Ledge was finished and the crowd began making their way out the exits to the various camping fields, I stood there for just a few moments longer. I had finally seen Fairport on their home turf, playing to the biggest crowd they play to all year, playing songs I knew and loved. I had heard lots of other artists that weekend, and was going home with some new additions to the CD shelves as a result. I had eaten some great food and drank some excellent English beer. I had made some new friends. Faces from a forum page became real people on that field and I enjoyed meeting all of them with help from a bowler hat. I had enjoyed the charms of a beautiful corner of England with every cliche fulfilled and it seemed more like the set of a film than an actual place.
But then, just when I was starting to get a little sad at the thought that it was finished and I would soon be headed back to work and reality, the opening bars of a Fairport song came in my head. For myself and for a lot of Fairport fans it has been a long time favorite. I can vividly recall the day I bought the album this song was on back in those early days of excitedly seeking whatever I could find by the band in record stores. It has remained both my favorite song by them, and what I think of as a defining statement of what the band is about. It has always been one of my ‘go to’ songs when I am feeling overwhelmed or unhappy about something or other. The opening bars never fail to lift my spirits. So perhaps that is why, even though Fairport had opened their show with this same song just 3 hours before, at a moment when I was feeling a little sad that my first Cropredy Festival was really over, the song worked its magic again. For this installment of The Soundtrack Of A Photograph the song to accompany these photos of that incredible weekend is Walk Awhile by Fairport Convention. And as I turned to head back towards my tent on a beautiful August evening that flickering moment of sadness vanished and a smile came back to my face as I hummed. “Walk Awhile, walk awhile, walk awhile with me…..
It probably goes without saying that once I returned home from the festival I was still amazed that I had actually been there. Now, almost 3 years later if someone asks me if I would go again my reply is always oh yes. I very much want to go back (Fairport’s 50th Anniversary as a band is looming for 2017). This time maybe without the bowler hat however! But if for whatever reason that never happens again, at least I can say I have been at least once. As the last three years have gone by I no longer think about what it would be like. I remember what it was like, and that is all that is matters now.
By the way, the songs I have quoted from in this installment are not from Walk Awhile, but rather the songs listed below, but they are all songs Fairport have performed over the years and all are recommended to seek out as well.
The Crowd-written by Anna Ryder
Little Did I Think-written by Dave Swarbrick
Meet On The Ledge-written by Richard Thompson
Red And Gold-written by Ralph McTell
John Barleycorn-Traditional, arranged by Fairport Convention
The Crowd-written by Anna Ryder
Walk Awhile-words and music by Richard Thompson & Dave Swarbrick
All photographs by Robert P Doyle All images in this blog are available in limited supply for purchase as unframed prints. Sizes may vary. Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org for details.