A brighter aspect of the turn of the year is realising that Fairport Convention's annual winter tour is nigh. And here they were, visiting St Albans early on in their 30-date UK tour. Not bad for a band in their 41st year with two members who have just hit 60.
Rustiness was limited to a few stumbles about who was introducing the next number. Musically, they were as fluent as ever. As they have no new album out this year, we'd been told to expect some rarities out of the band's extensive back catalogue. The chaps didn't disappoint.
Anthony John Clarke, introduced as "one of the UK's best-kept secrets", got us off to a good start with half an hour of song, Belfast humour and singalong choruses. As is traditional, Fairport joined him for his last number, and then we were off with the rarely heard "How Many Times". A mix of oldies and newer numbers followed until Ric Sanders's and Chris Leslie's fiddles brought the first half to a close with "Mock Morris 90" (written by Sanders as a tribute to Percy Grainger's "Mock Morris") and a set of tunes I'd never heard them play live.
The rhythm section of Dave Pegg and Gerry Conway fired off the second half in great style with "Instrumental Medley 85". That led to the highlight of the second half: a large section of the classic 1971 saga of Babbacombe Lee, with Leslie singing superbly.
One of the great things about Fairport is the way the audience gets the feeling that we are all, those on stage as much as those in front, here to have fun. The repartee and jokes are an important part of this. Sanders's sense of humour tonight ("An earl has just been awarded the OBE... and so becomes an earlobe") and Simon Nicol's crack about the MP Gerry Conway being excluded from the House of Commons were simply priceless.
But the music is what it's really all about, with Fairport showing that they still lead the pack when it comes to folk-rock. Nicol's guitar solo morphed into "Matty Groves", but even here novelty struck, as that song segued neatly into the classic "Bowman's Retreat", with Sanders and Leslie bringing the house down.
Many went off into the night singing. I and many others stayed in the foyer to chat to the band, continuing that feeling of being in an extended family. But it wasn't just a meeting of old friends: a number of Fairport virgins had been converted. They, like the older hands, will be putting the Cropredy festival in August into their diaries.
* Touring to 29 Feb (www.fairportconvention.com)
John Whiting, Tax adviser, Radlett, Hertfordshire
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