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Sunday 3 March 2024

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A Weekend In The Country.

Aug 21, 2022

In a quiet corner of north Oxfordshire each August there is a strange, unique ritual which occupies an entire village with curious practices, individual melodies and ancient songs, drawing devotees in massive numbers to witness and participate in annual rites. For several years it has been silenced and withdrawn. 2022 it was once more restored. Simon Jones ventured along to Cropredy for fun and games. 

 

” Just watch this,” says Simon Care as we perch on a table back stage.

It’s gate opening time at Cropredy, the first gate opening since the second weekend of August 2019 and the faithful are eager to get their spot. To a specially prepared tape of ironic and humorous songs people of all ages with bags, chairs, umbrellas, food and drink in various containers, all gallop across the Oxfordshire field which is the festival’s home in a hybrid of flat racing, the charge of the Light Brigade and over enthusiasm. Short minutes later a few thousand have staked claim to a patch, some with mats, chairs and flags ready prepared to receive those not part of the initial invasion but who’re coming once the music starts. It’s almost a ritual, it’s amusing to say the least and you have to admit the whole thing is terribly English. No other nation I can think of would have dreamed of queueing for so long outside those gates in sweltering temperatures that’d melt tarmac, reminds me of what Noel Coward said about mad dogs Englishmen and the mid day sun.

” It’s like this every year,” grins Care, ” you just have to see it to believe it.”

Well I saw it and I believe it.

There is a unique atmosphere at Cropredy which is the envy of other festivals, it not just that Fairport Convention began the event though you could argue it was the band’s chumminess with their audience which sowed the seeds. Delve further beneath the initial impressions and you’ll soon see that this is a community in all but name. It might only physically get together for a few days a year but it has a life of its own beyond the weekend chiefly through social media but also friendships and alliances born at earlier Cropredys. When one punter tells me he never misses and has been bringing his grandchildren for several years it shows how the ideals and behaviours of Cropredy pass down the generations. Then there is the village itself, Cropredy isn’t just a music event it exists as a dot on the map, has about 200 houses, two inns, a church, a village shop, a primary school, the canoe club, cricket club and marina… all of them get involved from serving breakfasts to organising a scarecrow festival, the locals happily mingle with the festival goers so much so a whole fringe has grown up with free gigs in the pubs, car boots sales, craft and music stalls occupying every square inch . You could pass the three days in this chummy melee quite happily if you wanted to. It all contributes to the Cropredy experience.

Jon Tams, puts his finger right on it when I speak to him about The Home Service’s performance and raison d’etre, ” the people here get it,” he attests ” this place is wonderful, they all look out for one another, there’s no one up man ship, everybody’s  the same. You could leave your belongings all day here and people will watch them for you. If only you could take this and apply it nationwide wouldn’t the country be a better place? It’s called community. Politicians just don’t want to understand it.”  Perhaps some philanthropist could hire The Home Service to spread the gospel, we sorely need their message to be heard everywhere in these polarising and tribal times.

Cropredy 2022 understandably then had more than a hint of celebrations and party than it usually does, it was a return that was charming and above all safe. The pandemic hit the event hard, it takes a lot of effort from a lot of people to put on this show and twice the wheels had begun to turn only to be stopped by lockdown and restrictions. To be right about it, Fairport themselves felt the absence, they rallied the 2020 bill of artists to cut a new version of ‘Meet on The Ledge,’ which kept the profile up, in 2021 there was a socially distanced concert played in the village then sent over the web and media streams, this year the whole shooting match is back yet the crowd are respectful of personal space, no shoving or pushing occurs, messages to think and be aware flash across the huge screens at the side of the stage with regularity. The crowd even waited patiently at the bar which was thronged six or seven deep.

” I was at Glastonbury this year,” the Event Steward on the gate informs, ” you get it all there, trouble, fights, drink, drugs, there’s always someone who wants to pick an argument. I won’t take it, that sort of behaviour spoils the festival for other people, I’ll throw them out if they misbehave and they won’t get back in either. ”

Any trouble here then?

A huge smile spreads over his face, ” not one bit, the only thing we’ve had all weekend was one bloke didn’t use the toilets, he nipped round the back of the facilities to have a leak. He was mortified when security turned up and questioned him.”

Preserving the same bill which should have taken to the stage in 2019 was another plus for the organisers, the line up proudly displayed eclectic taste and diversity whilst retaining the essential core appeal which keeps attendees returning. Thursday night was a microcosm of everything which makes Cropredy so right. Beginning with Fairport Covention unplugged, the customary welcoming set from our hosts set the right note before EII came on and played a belting set which stuck reggae and folk tunes together whether they liked it or not. Plugging their fab ‘Dancing Tunes,’ which repurposes Jamaican traditional material – ‘Banana Boat Song,’ Yellowbird,’ – for a 21st century audience. However they don’t forget their own history with material from ‘Zest’ and ‘ This Way Up,’ giving out an all encompassing vibe, Glen Latouche is still a charismatic front man and the band holds the quiet guitar genius of Jon Moore whose lead lines danced around the skank guitar, bubbling bass, solid drums and earthy brass as the band delivered great song after great song.

EII; reggae’n’folk equals charisma. 

Clannad  retiring very soon put on a greatest hits and then some show, you name it they played it, yes, ‘Harry’s Game,’ ‘ Robin The Hooded Man,’ ‘In a Lifetime,’ ” we had a young fella from Dublin on this one, he couldn’t make this show,” smiled Moya Brennan recalling Bono’s original involvement. Gaelic mists and Celtic atmospheres lay low across the field as she and her family ran through their back pages to the delight of the assembled. Headliner Trevor Horn capped off with a rousing set which displayed variety from the moment they stepped on stage, from Frankie Goes To Hollywood via Buggles to Grace Jones this was a real way to wind up your audience and leave them screaming for more, guests came thick and fast, first up Toyah and Robert Fripp, yes Toyah and Robert Fripp- they of The Sunday Lunch, who stayed for but one song a lively, bouncing thing which suited Toyah’s puckish attitude and showed off Fripp’s guitar playing.  Once they were gone Lol Creme- a Trevor Horn Band regular – got to deliver 10CC material as seductive as ever, but it was the arrival of Steve Hogarth (Marillion) who waved, sat down at the keyboard and stunned us all with a perfect rendition of David Bowie’s ‘Life On Mars,’ – I just hope someone had a recorder plugged in to the desk. Hogarth then stayed, Seals ‘Kiss From a Rose,’ was another standout. Inevitably they got two encores before they quit the stage allowing us to slope off to bed tired but smiling. Should you get the chance to catch The Trevor Horn Band, grab it with both hands, you’d be doing yourself an immense favour.

Trevor shows how to party hearty. 

Friday confirmed it, the heat was rising, at well over 30 degrees the day began to bake us, but even that couldn’t blunt the music of The Home Service. Too long absent from this festival Jon Tams restored as the front man now John  Kirkpatrick has stepped down, their set, based around the tremendous ‘Alright Jack’ album could have come from the late 80s, powerful, political and perfect. Home Service politics lie in every day where people support each other and help those less fortunate, because those with the power to actually make a difference betray with words and promises but little action. When Tams opines from the stage ” this country runs thanks to the volunteers,” he’s roundly cheered and applauded, the audience get his message and send back agreement in spades. ‘Sorrow/Babylon’ is pinnacle Home Service, a song about the bleakness of unemployment welded to a Civil War anthem of almighty tension, power and frightening grace. The brass section roar, Michael Gregory’s drums thunder while Graeme Taylor’s lead guitar cuts a swathe through it all sounding ancient and modern at the same time. To say it was mighty is no lie. They probably played the gig of the weekend. Angry, resilient, The Home Service are needed more than ever to remind us it’s not enough to have narrow vision, you need wider horizons. They are essential.

Turin Brakes were interesting, they mixed in alt rock and what appeared to be modern prog sentiment with effective results, must keep an eye on them, Cropredy loved the band anyway, roundly cheered and applauded I’d have given them four encores if I was the compere. The Slambovian Circus Of Dreams are where West Coast hippiedom meets melodic rock, curiously for a bunch from the other side of the world, well… near enough, they suited this Oxfordshire field with its everyone together mentality, their new album on Talking Elephant is impressively tuneful, live they didn’t disappoint either.

Saturday, still damned hot. Seth Lakeman and chums rocked us with West Country sounds and made me forget lunch entirely. Later  casually wandering around the site I happen across Maddie Morris, whose song writing reflects and uses the influence of the tradition with intelligence and wit, she’s underway with a session for Radio Oxford, just her and a guitar. With endorsement from no less than Jim Moray she’s impressive, her name swiftly added to the Spiral Earth list of ones to watch. Richard Thompson has alluded me since I began this writing lark back in the early 80s, somehow the stars never align and he remains the elusive Fairporter I want to interview, this year is no exception. Spiral Earth’s Irish correspondent John O’Regan nods sagely and tells me he hasn’t been successful either at cornering Mr. Thompson either, this is rather ironic because not too much later RT takes to the stage and duly launches into ‘I Misunderstood,’ which just happens to be one of his best bottom of the glass numbers and rolls on with one super song after another. His guitar though acoustic has more bite than a crocodile, the playing dazzling and rapid and his voice whilst never a classic haunts you long after he’s moved on. He writes a yearning love song with bittersweet overtones like few can. ‘ Beeswing’ is a beautiful piece of gossamer whilst ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning,’ manages to mix motorbikes and Celtic inspiration in a way which seems entirely natural. Obviously Cropredy loves him, with good reason, no one else does what he does and he does it so well. Now you know why I want to speak to him!

Richard T, the man in the spotlight.

Just a couple of hours later he’s back when Dave Pegg announces ” we’re going to play ‘Full House,’ ” and duly guests RT and Dave Mattacks join Dave P, Simon Nicol and Chris Leslie, ably stepping into Dave Swarbrick’s place on violin and vocals. Faiport are halfway through the marathon set which closes the festival and they’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of ‘Full House’ slightly out of sync, obviously it should have been in 2020, you know what got in the way. It’s a birthday worth celebrating though as they canter through a jovial ‘Walk Awhile’ one number which has never really left their set for any length of time, ‘Sloth,’ is a powerful blast of sentiment which rocks and morphs like the dickens before giving way to biting anti war lyrical invective. Equally compelling ‘Poor Will & The Jolly Hangman,’ is restored to its rightful place after being bizarrely axed from the original record, all the while the guitars reverb and shimmer, the engine room crash and echo, it remains a thoroughly satisfactory piece of British rock. The reels get all of us on our feet and moving in the dark, Chris and RT duelling leads, and everyone switching instruments with admirable vigour. All too soon however you know midnight will roll around, so I leave as the sounds of ‘Meet On The Ledge,’ echo in my ears, I quietly join in ” it all comes round again….”

Faiport sing awhile. 

Well, it has and it does, Cropredy is back, we’re back. Summer just wouldn’t be summer without it. Roll on 2023!

www.fairportconvention.com

 

 

 

 

 

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