Fairport Convention, Union Chapel, London
Monday 11 March 2013
"You look far too young for a Fairport Convention gig," bassist Dave Pegg informs us before admitting "We need an interval now as some of us require the restroom."
The engaging folk quintet, who have been going (apart from a six-year hiatus) for 46 years now, joke about their varicose veins and arthritis. However, in truth, they appear nimble and vigorous in this lengthy (over two-and-half hour) set that attempts to embrace the entirety of their diverse career, from 1969 masterpiece Liege & Lief to 2011's evocative Festival Bell.
This idiosyncratically English band, who started as out as an electric folk band to rival The Byrds and The Band, have had a bewildering number of line-ups, which once included maestros such as Richard Thompson, Dave Swarbrick and the late Sandy Denny. However, original member Simon Nicol, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Toy Story's Stinky Pete, is still there, as is Peggy, who joined in 1969, two years after Fairport Convention's formation.
Both musicians, along with multi-instrumentalist Chris Leslie, take on singing duties in a "Winter" set that features a fair few tracks about nautical matters ("Mercy Bay"), historical numbers (Mary, Queen of Scots in "Fotheringay") and a smattering of love songs ("Rosie"). Helpfully every song, in the best folk tradition, is blessed with a droll, eloquent preamble. Occasionally the three singers/storytellers come across like history academics, and Nicol is canny enough to acknowledge that, with "End of lecture, let the feasting again" before Ralph McTell's "Around the Wild Cape Horn".
The singing, particularly Nicol's rich baritone, is robust but the lack of a female voice to replace (the irreplaceable) Denny is a pity, particularly on the exquisite "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" ("On a good night the song brings Sandy back into the room," maintains Nicol), and their tale of upstairs/downstairs misadventure "Matty Groves". Fairport Convention have always specialised in slightly murky tales of olde England, and "Matty Groves" contains the suitably grisly line "He struck his wife right through the heart/ And pinned her against the wall."
Occasionally, as MC5 once maintained, they need to kick out the [folk] jams and some of their bucolic, Hobbit-like songs are a bit creepy, as on the ripe "The Hexamshire Lass" where they claim "Her breasts are deep and cool/ they'll warm when I get near her".
Nevertheless, their performance never flags, Ric Sanders's violin-playing is spine-tingling, and it ends on their enduring anthem "Meet on the Ledge". A rousing finale from a cockle-warming institution.
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