It will always be a highlight of any Cropredy when Thompson/Pegg/Nicol/ Mattacks take to the stage, these days of course the name missing is Swarbrick, the brief line up which lasted just over twelve months and operated through 1970, leaving behind that splendid item ‘Full House.’ They were as Fairport biographer Nigel Schofield related to me ” the Fairport that were charmingly rough round the edges and rather loud.” Put ‘Full House’ on and the evidence hits you like a rocket, the band are out of the traps at full pelt ‘Walk Awhile’ whirls and skirls and then they’re off and away. It’s a classic album no doubt and it’s impression lasts long. ‘Liege & Lief’ was the milestone and signpost but ‘Full House’ was stacked with potential, experimentation and merry intention.
As to why it works so well… with Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings departing this was the first all male Convention, they’d lost their vocal focus and their guiding counsellor. The gloves were off, they were young, fizzing with ideas and made the significant decision to base themselves in one location, The Angel Inn at Little Hadham. In effect it was a lads’ club. But what a club! They’d replaced Ashley with the bass of Dave Pegg whose playing was frisky yet assured adding elements of extemporisation and not a little funk. Dave Mattacks took to his new colleague in the rhythm section and began to invent even more ways for drummers to add grooves to traditional British music. The guitars of Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson became ever more spiked, pointed and yes, definitely louder. The songs moved the traditions of ‘Liege & Lief’ aside and was dominated by the dark minstrelsy created by Swarbrick and Thompson which utilised folk imagery/themes and arcane language to wonderful effect. Swarbrick in tandem was starting to use effects and techniques for his fiddle playing that’d match the changes the rock contingent were intent on making. Knowing what they could do they honed their craft; live this line up was so hot they regaulrly caught fire. The in concert albums and session bootlegs circulating prove that beyond a doubt – get your mitts on the stuff they cut for the BBC if you can, you’ll never regret it.
About time then I got round to this version of ‘Full House’, a live one recorded direct from the sound system at Cropredy in 2022, fortunately most of the band are still here and active, Chris Leslie – an exceptionally able and appropriate substitute for Dave Swarbrick. They’d all done this at a Cropredy pre pandemic but with two years silence it was fitting that Fairport chose to headline with this incarnation and album, it proved a popular move. Yes, they’re all fifty two years older and perhaps can’t summon up the energy that their younger selves did back in the day but hell, they gave it everything they had and still managed to sound majestic enough. The playing is excellent, these guys have history and friendship on their side. You could even argue they define the very nature of Fairport Convention. Four of them have membership of the latest very stable version of the band whilst Thompson has constantly played with or returned to Fairport on a regular basis ever since his departure. Voices have changed but the spirit and dexterous musical abilities remain, hearing the sheer power of soloing in ‘Sloth’ draws spontaneous applause from Cropredy, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ still crams a punchy storyline into three and a half fiddle driven minutes, whilst ‘Flowers Of The Forest,’ remains stark and wistful centred on harmonies and Simon Nicol’s frail sounding dulcimer. And yes they jig and reel at the speed of a whirling dervish, Thompson and Nicol’s fretwork paralleling the flying fiddle of Chris Leslie whilst Peggy and DM anchor them securely – three sets of tunes including the bonus track ‘Jenny’s Chickens/Mason’s Apron’ originally a concert staple yet never put on record at the time.
For the committed certainly, for the curious definitely and for everyone in between. Proof of creative longevity if any were needed.