This, quipped Simon Nicol as Fairport Convention took the stage, was the band’s “Recession? What Recession?” tour. In fact, as quickly became clear, this was their “Monetise The Fanbase” tour, the equivalent of watching a cable shopping channel for 2½ hours and being asked to pay for the privilege.
Not a song went by without a plug for the “merchandise” available in the foyer. Nicol slipped in a mention of the souvenir CD of the 2008 Cropredy festival even before Fairport’s first song. This year offers not one, but two new CDs, he proclaimed, one of them collecting the band’s contributions to a multi-volume Breton concept album about King Arthur.
“The Festival Bell” hymned a new bell cast in the band’s honour at the village church in Cropredy, and even that turned into an advertisement for the band. “Every year in August there’s a celebration…” sang Chris Leslie, unashamed. Footage of the actual bell, added Ric Sanders, could be seen on the Fairport @ Forty DVD.
The nadir came when Sanders, the hyperactively ingratiating violinist, used a fan’s request to play a song for his father as an excuse to announce the availability of his own compilation of instrumental hits. (And no, he didn’t play the song requested – not in the setlist – though he played something superficially similar.)
And so the evening proceeded, somehow simultaneously cynical and abject.
The advertorial was punctuated with music: a thrash-folk “Matty Groves”; “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” with a limber bass line from Dave Pegg. But this incarnation of Fairport has little in common with the band that once contained the talents of Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Ashley Hutchings and Dave Swarbrick. The broadside ballads, shanties and acoustic landscapes are the same, but all sense of dispatches from the old, weird England has vanished.
The most valuable player was Chris Leslie, a relative new boy. He contributed “The Fossil Hunter”, a new song about the Victorian palaeontologist Mary Anning, and swapped gamely from mandolin to guitar to pipe to playing second fiddle to Saunders. The song he led revelling delightfully in the social history of the ukulele went some way towards redeeming the evening.
Loyal fans lapped it up, but they were high on little more than old memories. Being treated as cash cows was the price for being part of Fairport’s extended family.
The tour continues until early March.
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