Written by Nathan Berwick
It’s hard to write a legitimate review when the only reason you agreed to do it was for a free ticket to one of your favourite bands. It’s even harder when you’re told not to write good reviews because nobody hires “that guy”. Alas, here’s a review of one of my favourite bands and their incredible support. Introducing: Fairport Convention and Sally Barker (respectively).
Hastily penned notes hurriedly tapped into a cold, hard phone screen seems a harsh juxtaposition to Fairport’s classic sound. Pondering over the long-standing “Winter Tour” tradition I’d just witnessed while sat in the pub next door was a vain attempt to soften the “post-gig blues” amid the veritable no man’s land between venue curfew and the foreboding notion that was the last train back to Huddersfield.
I could sing Fairport’s praises indefinitely, whether we were to discuss their understated mastery of odd time signatures, Nicol’s hybrid-picked control over the guitar, Pegg’s weaving bass lines or Sanders’s astounding delay-laden fiddle. However, my distaste for stories that start with a teaser of the ending bleeds through and I must, ironically, begin at the beginning (of this night, at least).
Climbing the stairs into one of the most traditional “music hall” venues I’d ever set foot in, I was greeted by the steward with a crack of “Ah, the under 60s have arrived!”. Unfortunately, he was correct. The joys of Fairport Convention seem to have been lost on the younger generations (not for lack of trying on my part) but that didn’t matter. Taking seats, the mood washed the entire crowd without exception. There was excitement in the air. We were all there for the same reason.
Sally Barker’s opening E minor chord (also an open chord) begun her set as it meant to go on. A deep, dark, melancholy tonality almost wept from her guitar which, without encountering her previous material, left me unsure of the set’s direction. Her masterful vocal control and quality certainly reflected her successes with “The Voice”.
With the chord progression continuing to the C and D, as did her music cycle through tales of revenge, heartache, scorn and greed all succinctly packaged in the audience participation refrain of “talk, talk, talk about money” (with a descent to the major third in place of the minor, sure to warm even the heart of the coldest Prog Snob).
An unexpected guitar talent (the “unexpected” side of which being an unfortunate side effect of becoming a TV vocal presence), Sally’s songs were chordally intricate, displayed exciting use of fingerstyle, coupled with large dynamic range resultant of “Slap Bass” style attack in places.
Sally’s set ended with Fairport taking stage to join her for a rendition of her 21-year-old LCM student son’s piece I’m Not Whole. Not my favourite of her set however, but the agathokakological track was carried by Fairport Convention’s backing; giving the upbeat misery a life of its own driving well into Fairport’s staged coup.
Sally Barker was tremendous and, as she vacated the stage, I knew to eagerly expect her at later points in Fairport’s set; as is tradition on these cold nights of the winter tour.
Sally Barker is an act to see again, whether with Fotheringay or in her solo works.
Fairport Convention’s tour marks their 50th anniversary as a band, difficult to forget with their aptly titled 50:50 @ 50 album for sale during the show – containing an even split of live and studio material – marking the momentous occasion. Even more difficult to forget with their shameless, yet still tongue-in-cheek plugging of the release. A sad reflection of Fairport’s career under-the-radar. While mainstream success is not necessarily the goal, the band have amassed a faithful following throughout their tenure on the folk scene and the fan’s dedication is shown to be well placed by the quality of musicianship and songcraft on display. Though on their 50th birthday, these folk-rockers (or metalhead in the case of bassist Dave Pegg) are certainly not past their prime; merely different. This current lineup is Fairport Convention’s longest standing, and is a well-oiled machine as a result. It was wonderful to hear classics from throughout their career such as Genesis Hall, Matty Groves and Farewell, Farewell revisited standing side by side with their more recent material, the last of which had never been brought to stage during the era of the Liege and Leif album from which it hails. The spectacle was engaging for both the audience members in the “cheap seats” (such as myself) and the boxes above despite the shouts of “rattle your jewellery then” being made in jest by guitarist and singer Simon Nicol. The band’s light comedy between songs is something of a rarity in most contemporary pop or rock acts, and was a bonus of the evening. The band don’t take themselves too seriously and the interaction made the audience more comfortable and made the night akin to sharing a few beers and a song around the fire with some good friends rather than the potentially overbearing prospect of visiting a packed music hall to sit quietly and listen to a live act.
After taking a short interval, Fairport Convention returned for a second set (value for money) which led to the only downfall for the show. The first song of the band’s that I was ever introduced to (Lord Marlborough, the opening track of the 1971 album Angel Delight) was played over the PA during the interval, so I sat disappointed that I wouldn’t get to hear the track live, though a live version is included on the 50:50@50 album.
More of the same level of excellence was to come, along with a return of Sally Barker to accompany the band for a rendition of Rising For the Moon from the album of the same name; the last to feature vocalist Sandy Denny. The piece was excellent, remembering Denny’s vocal embellishments perfectly though the band’s updated sound made the song still relevant without being a rehash of old material. Portmeirion and The Girl From the Hiring Fair were other songs of note from the evening were Sander’s “Save our NHS” speech was met with a divided crowd from a self-proclaimed “hippie pacifist” and a pensive ballad of first loves that had the whole audience silent.
But the spell was soon broken. Ending with the aforementioned Matty Groves only to come on with an encore; though great, the set would have been finished perfectly there. The packed train home was awaiting me and the band were to move on to the next night: such is life on the road.
There we have it, Fairport Convention’s 50th anniversary show with Sally Barker. An amazing night, which can be continued for a full weekend at their Cropredy festival from between the 10th and 12th of August.