Pop: Nowt so quaint as folk

FAIRPORT CONVENTION PRINCESS ROYAL THEATRE PORT TALBOT

THIRTY YEARS into their career as the standard-bearers of folk- rock, Fairport Convention are once again on the road. The latest tour is less a city-by-city jaunt than a town-by-town amble, playing the kind of places - Tewkesbury, Worthing, Weston-super-Mare - that seem to epitomise comfortable middle England.

Tonight, though, we're in Port Talbot, a place that stands out as a bit of a sore thumb in the itinerary: a giant gas works by the sea where the air reeks of chemicals. There's something rather unlikely about seeing these genial, village cricket team types showing up to play here.

The Fairports line-up contains just one original member, guitarist Simon Nicol, plus long-time bass player Dave Pegg aided and abetted by similarly grizzled rock veterans, violinist Ric Sanders and drummer Gerry Conway. The relative new boy is singer-songwriter and fiddle/mandolin player, Chris Leslie. It's Nicol and Leslie who share the bulk of the vocal duties: the set consists mostly of Nicol singing oldies from the Fairports' catalogue, alternating with Leslie offering his own new material, with a few rocked- up jigs thrown in.

Frankly, it's an unsatisfying mix. Nicol is adequate on the old material but is hardly a Sandy Denny in the vocal stakes; nor does the likeable, Nigel Planer-ish figure of Leslie compare to Richard Thompson as a songwriter. The highlights are inevitably the oldies, "Crazy Man Michael" and the closing "Matty Groves", the centrepiece of the Fairports' finest album, Liege And Lief (1969). Ironically it's only the traditional "Matty Groves" that seems to be modern, either in conception or execution.

Yet though the evening is hardly a cutting-edge event, it is a remarkable affirmation of the band's abiding popularity and of their role as family entertainment for the hippy generation. Families sporting Fairport T- shirts are out in force, and at one point the band break into an impromptu happy birthday for a young member of the audience. The banter between the deadpan Dave Pegg and the bearded, Richard-Bransonesque Simon Nicol is effortlessly matey, and there's a sense of being in the company of the sort of pleasant, fortysomething blokes who'd be stalwarts in your local pub. But on a rainy night in Port Talbot, one can't help wishing for something a bit more gripping, and reflecting that it's a long time since the group had much to do with the evolution of British folk music.

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