It was the proggiest Cropredy ever. As we stride onsite for the first afternoon’s entertainment we’re happy to report that the sun has got his hat on for Fairport’s usual acoustic opening welcome, and for the following 43-strong rabble that is Joe Broughton’s Conservatoire Folk Ensemble.
After our first visit to Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival in 2013, it was clear this was the place for Prog. So when the chance arose to team up we leapt at it.
A youthful explosion of folk, rock and latin led by the eponymous fiddler Broughton, their jubilant arrangement of Fairport jig Last Night’s Fun goes down like a free half of Old Rosie.
This year the festival sold out weeks before the gates opened, and gazing across the field under gorgeous sunshine before Steve Hackett’s slot, we can see why. Filled with beaming faces ready for his Genesis Extended set, the atmosphere buzzes as Dance On A Volcano _bursts into life. Nad Sylvan’s powerful vocal projection matches his painted-face-and-frilly-shirt peacocking, and he’s complemented by another glamorous blond, bassist Nick Beggs. It’s a solid gold setlist, all around us chaps of a certain age emoting loudly to _Dancing With The Moonlit Knight and the full 23 minutes of Supper’s Ready. At lunchtime we’d bumped into Steve and his wife Jo in the festival marketplace. He’d just bought a top hat fitted with steampunk goggles and threatened to wear it later. Right on cue, out it comes for Watcher Of The Skies and Los Endos, a cheeky smirk adorning his phizog as his Les Paul Gold Top glints away under sunset stage lights. What an opening day.
The first must-see band of Friday are Churchfitters, a Brittany-based, UK-birthed quartet featuring siblings Rosie and Chris Short. Highly recommended by Cropredy co-booker Dave Pegg, their Irish folk is modernised by the sounds of Boris Lebret’s (folk rock’s Devin Townsend?) metallic Mercedes hub-cap bass and his ‘bing-bong’ machine (have a look on t’Internet). Violinist Chris’ patter is very droll; after a turn on the musical saw, he asks, “Did that sound alright?
I thought it was a little sharp”– groanworthy stuff that wins us over even before they do the most fabulous folk-disco version of The O’Jays’ Love Train, and final reel, the charmingly titled He Cut Her Throat, shows off Rosie’s multi-instrumental and vocal expertise.
As the rain that threatened to descend all weekend finally arrives, so do The Australian Pink Floyd Show. A tribute act par excellence with a stage set based on Pulse, they add their own touches with Aussie-mocking back-projected vignettes, the gruff tones of We Will Rock You vocalist Alex McNamara and a giant, inflatable kangaroo that springs up for One Of These Days. Just like Pulse, it takes three backing singers to nail Clare Torry’s part on The Great Gig In The Sky, in a set of note-perfect usual suspects, plus the timely inclusion of Coming Back To Life. Wish You Were Here always brings a lump to the throat, and seeing TAPF’s green lasers stretch out over the sky and beyond the trees is quite a spectacle.
Saturday, and the field is completely dry again thanks to the return of Mr Blue Sky. Partied-out attendees are now settled in their camping chairs or lying on blankets enjoying the roughneck revelry of Blackbeard’s Tea Party. Chucking some dub and metal into the trad mix, the irrepressible York six-piece give us a well-needed poke with a rusty cutlass to rouse us for Marillion’s late-afternoon set.
Winning the rosette for The Most T-Shirts Seen On Site, the Marillion army are out in force. The band do what Steve Hogarth promised in Prog 47; a Cropredy-friendly set. Splintering Heart, Easter and No One Can are a great introduction for those who don’t know the post-Fish catalogue, but they have everyone’s attention for unexpected run-outs of Kayleigh and Lavender. Where does that leave the encore, then? It’s the full 18-minute, middle-eastern commentary Gaza, with Hogarth wearing his heart on the sleeve of his decorative smock, and performing with soul and intensity.
How can Al Stewart follow that? With aplomb, actually. Between him and seasoned sidemen Dave Nachmanoff and Tim Renwick, theirs is a crisp, upbeat performance concentrating on 1976’s global hit Year Of The Cat. Between songs, Stewart starts some anecdotes, but unfortunately we can’t hear them and it bumbles into Fast Show territory. But at 68, age hasn’t withered his distinctive intonation, and on 1973’s_ Roads To Moscow_, the story of a Russian soldier in the Second World War, his delivery is particularly poignant.
It’s now time to get down the front for Fairport Convention’s sign-off. Elder statesmen Simon Nicol looks pleased as punch when he tells us this is only the second time that the festival has sold out ahead of gates – and that’s in 35 years. We’d like to yell the words “prog effect!”, but maybe this year the planets happened to align for – ahem – a Full House.
So, with Walk Awhile we’re away. There’s a new Fairport album due next January – new songs Home and Bring Me Back My Feathers are played tonight – and mandolin man Chris Leslie introduces the title track, Myths And Heroes. It’s got a bit of rock’n’roll fire to it, as does later newie Love At First Sight. Shouldn’t these guys be taking it easy now? No chance of that with Lark In the Morning a prelude to the ever-beautiful Who Knows Where The Time Goes, roughed up by The Voice runner-up Sally Barker. It’s not the best version of the Sandy Denny standard, but at least Barker tried something different.
The set’s shorter this year because Dave Pegg’s recovering from a sliced tendon in his hand. He’s quieter than usual and spends some of the set perched on the drum riser. But when he’s up, he’s thanking the crowd and announcing the guests who’ll contribute to the mighty midnight climax of Meet On The Ledge. There’s The Travelling Band, Treetop Flyers, Edwina Hayes and Judy Dyble, plus the 20,000 fans ready to sing their hearts out. It never fails, and the band onstage can hardly be heard over the crowd.
The UK’s friendliest little festival?
Aye, and then some.