Fairport Acoustic Convention, Bloomsbury Theatre, London

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The Independent Culture

"It's good we're all on first name terms," Simon Nicol drily remarks, as an audience member greets him familiarly. Such a statement aptly sums up the point and feel of this low-key spring tour.

It is not much more acoustic than the electric-folk veterans' full rig, just a stripped-down aesthetic for intimate venues – and "Fairport Seated Convention" would give the game away too early. This regular outing is comfortable both for a band now in its 44th year, notwithstanding all the line-up changes, and their fans. Though the current tour is different in one respect: today's amenable, middle-of-the-road five-piece have released their first album in four years and most rewarding for a while. Festival Bell mainly features new material and commemorates a bell for the church in Cropredy, Oxfordshire, funded by attendees of the band's annual festival there.

Almost half of tonight's two sets is devoted to its contents, giving them to some extent a sense of novelty. True, there is the usual cast of seadogs and doomed lovers, but also a single-minded cop who is unlucky in love, thanks to the fecund, wide-ranging pen of multi-instrumentalist Chris Leslie. The quality dips when they choose unwisely from contemporary artists, as on the cliché-ridden "Celtic Moon". The highlight of the new album is the title track, with soulful vocals from Leslie, whose West-Coast lilt provides a fine contrast to Nicol's more rolling, authoritative tone.

Dave Pegg chips in with the odd querulous cameo and enough cutting asides to make up for Nicol's stilted drive-time banter. Asking "Is that a bit loud?" after hammering a rare power chord does not help. The trio could make more of their decent harmonies, while Gerry Conway's drumming remains staid. An exception comes with his crashes on "Mercy Bay" that mirror Ric Sanders's echo-effect violin – the latter musician a constant source of invention and hoary folk-night humour.

So there are moments when the band stretch themselves, though this convivial evening really gives them a chance to air friendly tunes that suit such a relaxed setting. Apart, that is, from Leslie's heart-stopping rendition of "Cell Song" from Fairport's difficult concept album Babbacombe Lee and Nicol's wracked take on Sandy Denny's "Who Knows Where The Time Goes?" Search me, those two hours barely dragged at all.

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