Live review: Fairport Convention 50th Anniversary Tour
Date: Friday 10th February 2017
Venue: The Atkinson, Southport
Support: Sally Barker
Reviewer: Derek King, Liverpool Acoustic
Even though the worst of winter should be over, February evenings can still be bitterly cold. And in Southport’s Lord Street, where the beautifully renovated Atkinson Theatre is situated not very far at all from the Irish Sea coast, a biting wind was cutting through the coats and scarves of dedicated music lovers this Friday evening. But there was warmth and good cheer in the air, as droves of Fairport Convention fans queued patiently at the box office to pick up their tickets and made their way good-naturedly to seats in the main Atkinson auditorium.
Credited with originating British folk-rock, Fairport Convention came to prominence in 1967 and throughout the intervening five decades (and numerous changes of line-up) the band’s passion for live performance and recording new material has never wavered. They have a loyal fan base and therefore tonight, unsurprisingly, was sold out. There was an excited hubbub as the audience awaited the beginning of a special evening of music to celebrate Fairport’s fiftieth year. In addition, the band has released a new album entitled 50:50@50 to mark its golden anniversary.
It is perhaps a rare delight for a support artist to play to a capacity crowd, some music fans will linger in the bar during support acts or simply arrive later on to see the headline performer, but tonight’s audience seemed to be a very special one, and everyone was in their seat good and early.
The opening performance by Sally Barker fully deserved such an attentive audience. Barker is steadily making her name as a most talented singer-songwriter. She first came to prominence in the all-female folk group, The Poozies, but is best known for her appearances on the BBC TV talent show The Voice in 2014. Although she doesn’t appear to be the kind of person to brag, she could perhaps be forgiven for making the proud boast that she sang a duet in The Voice final with Sir Tom Jones…!
Barker is to be commended, however, that even though her television success brought forth several lucrative offers to record and perform covers, she eschewed such frivolity and elected to remain true to herself, continuing to play and record her own material.
Barker’s style, though certainly very effective and captivating, is actually fairly simple and straightforward. She managed to enthral the audience with just four main tools: her solid, no nonsense acoustic guitar accompaniment, her powerful, emotionally uplifting and soaring vocal, her delightful stage presence and repartee with the audience, and, most importantly, with her very tuneful and melodic, lyrically astute, and instantly catchy songs. Her performance was stupendously good and she will have gained a good many new devotees from Fairport Convention’s followers.
Commencing her set with a haunting love song “Ghost Girl”, Barker then moved onto “Two Hearts”, a song that she said she had written with Dolly Parton in mind and, though the song wasn’t in the classic C & W mould, there was certainly a whisper of Ms Parton in there. In “Talk About Money” Barker’s ability to work with an audience came to the fore as she taught the audience the song’s chorus, encouraged them to sing along, and on the final chorus left everyone singing the main melody while she sang a counterpoint herself. In “Emperor of Cool” Barker rather amusingly derided an ex-lover who thought he was cool but was really an arrogant fool (nice rhyme). According to the song’s lyric she peed in the man’s malt whisky – let’s hope he deserved such treatment!
Her last solo song was another quite breathtaking love song, “Sleepy Eyes”, which echoed the mood and feel of Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and it was a most entrancing performance. As a finale, all the members of Fairport Convention then joined her on stage for her final offering: “I’m Not Whole”, which she explained had been written her 21-year-old son.
It was a lovely touch by Fairport to play on Sally Barker’s song, they seem to truly be the gentlemen of folk, and we were also fortunate enough to see Sally Barker reciprocate by cameoing in a couple of Fairport’s songs later in the evening.
Fairport Convention’s line-up tonight was Simon Nicol on guitar and vocals, Dave “Peggy” Pegg on bass guitar, Chris Leslie on fiddle, mandolin and vocals, Ric Sanders on violin and Gerry Conway on drums and percussion.
Fairport’s set took the audience through an incredibly diverse and extensive back catalogue as well as introducing a couple of gems from their brand-new album. Undoubtedly an awful lot of water has flowed under the bridge since Richard Thompson and the late Sandy Denny passed through Fairport Convention’s ranks, and Simon Nicol is the only remaining member of the original 1967 line up.
But the sound of Fairport remains steadfast. Credited as being the founders of English folk-rock, their influence is still there to be heard in countless corners of British music. Hearing them live was uncanny – there was a feel of déjà vu, as though they are now starting to sound like those artists (like for instance Mumford & Sons) who originally could have been accused of mimicking Fairport!
Fairport’s longevity must surely be a lot to do with the amount of fun they’re having. It might seem obvious, but an enjoyable performance is best given by artists who love what they are doing, enjoy working together and (as a bonus) genuinely like each other. Fairport seem to be masters of the intimate mood: they could have been a bunch of workmates sharing a few jokes and a song or two in the pub, such was the level of intimacy they conjured. Every band member had his own anecdote to tell, filled with quips, gags and laughter.
Starting their set on a serious note though, the band began with Genesis Hall which was originally written to highlight the problems of homelessness in the late 1960s. “Sadly, the song is just as relevant today as it was then,” observed guitarist Simon Nicol. There was indeed a thread of social comment running through the whole set, just before their performance of Portmeirion violinist Ric Sanders called avidly for our government not to renew that “bloody useless Trident missile thing that no nutcase on earth would ever use” and spend the cash on our NHS.
Notwithstanding the band’s wish to stand up and be counted on some important issues, there was rather more light-heartedness than social comment. A particular highlight was bassist Peggy waxing lyrical on the evils of DIY, describing how it had taken him three days to build an Ikea desk with his “Birmingham screwdriver” (he mimed bashing things with a hammer) after which inevitably the drawers wouldn’t open. In sympathy, the band launched into Devil’s Work. Another highlight was the so-called “cheap version” of Danny Jack’s Reward, apparently the “expensive version” requires 43 extra musicians. The cheap version was performed exquisitely, however, and most certainly did not sound like it had come out of any bargain basement!
The band were earnest throughout in their respect for the contribution of former Fairport members, particularly songwriter Sandy Denny, who tragically died back in 1978. The band performed very poignant versions of Denny’s songs Rising for the Moon and Who Knows Where the Time Goes with Sally Barker cameoing to sing Denny’s parts.
As we headed into the home stretch of Fairport’s set, the audience were invited to marvel at the sheer lyrical inventiveness and complexity in their 1995 offering The Naked Highwayman, which was penned by songwriter Steve Tilston, who is now enjoying a decent solo career. Nicol also wondered aloud, to much laughter, how a highwayman could have any sort of success if he was naked…. and what would he brandish when he shouted “Stand and Deliver!”?
But by now we were into more traditional Fairport territory as the set closed with an impassioned and moving rendition of Farewell, Farewell, which would have been an excellent enough song and performance to close any show.
But Fairport were not getting away that easily. The audience expected – and noisily demanded – an encore. Of course they did. And as encores go, this one was both majestic and uplifting. The band performed their 1968 hit Meet On the Ledge, again featuring the wonderful Sally Barker, and it struck home yet again how excellent were this band, how tight and confident were their vocal harmonies, how effortlessly and seamlessly each musician worked with his comrades, and how much they enjoyed making music together.
Human frailties mean that we will not see another fifty years of Fairport Convention, but let’s hope we see plenty more years yet before these guys pack their instruments away.
Review © 2017 Derek King, Liverpool Acoustic
Live review: Fairport Convention @ The Atkinson 10/02/17
Originally from the London area, Derek has lived in Liverpool now for over 25 years. Over the years Derek has played in various bands before more recently finding his niche as a solo singer-songwriter and he has released two solo albums. A regular performer around Liverpool's acoustic music scene, Derek is also an enthusiastic promoter of local music and co-hosts regular events with Liverpool Acoustic.
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