What we did on our Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Expecting much from this year’s Cropredy capers,Simon Jones ventures forth to the Oxfordshire countryside.
You don’t really notice the River Cherwell when you’re caught up in the joyous, sheer hullabaloo of Fairport’s Cropredy Convention – here after referred to as just Cropredy. Yet there it is, a ribbon of serene water, taking its time and flowing at a relaxed, ambling pace which snakes around the festival site and through the village. It’s a good place to pause and reflect, which is what I’m doing for a brief time as the morning rush streams to the festival field, it’s all one direction traffic. So I lean on the bridge, gaze at the river and begin in my mind to put some sort of response to Cropredy 2023’s first two days whilst the good natured carnival around me sees people carrying in chairs, hampers, back packs, bottles, babies, dogs, folding tables. Mobility scooters with flashing lights pulling makeshift trollies rammed with supplies pass by, flags waving at the rear. Let no one ever say Cropredy punters aren’t prepared or resourceful! The river’s seen it all before of course, the annual invasion of 20,000 plus souls into this corner of Oxfordshire, here on a pilgrimage of a sort, to an event that’s become a quintessential part of the British summer. Why would you want to be anywhere else? I wouldn’t. I continue to watch the river slip away and consider.
The weather gods were kind most of the time, the odd shower skittered across the sky but come sun or rain the faithful were determined to make the most of a bill which was promisingly eclectic and which delivered in spades. 2023 was one of the choicest, you’d got variety galore and musicians who knew how to hold a crowd in the palm of their hand and have an audience on their feet baying for more. “Apologies in advance, we don’t do a lot of encores,” explained compere Anthony John Clarke who has been cheerfully MCing for years and knows the fans well. Clarke enjoys a jocular battle of wit and wisdom with the assembled at the front who call for further performance when in reality they know a tight running order and change round makes such requests unlikely.
The first to make an impression were Merry Hell – online fan’s choice for years – they knew their chance had come and by God they took it. They were tight, packed with melodic clout and an appeal that only the hardest heart could resist, vocalist Virginia Kettle stepped out and held the throng in the palm of her hand. Delivering folk rock “influenced by where we’re from, the north west and Wigan” according to Andrew Kettle, it wasn’t long before mass swaying ensued and a whole clutch of choruses were bellowed back at the band as their set whizzed by in a blur of bonhomie, tuneful stomps and inspiration. Good time music with positivity and hope is rare, that Merry Hell write and deliver it so well makes them so vital and effective. Similarly Peat & Diesel all the way from Stornoway in the Western Isles are going to be a phenomenon- if they’re not one already. Three guys wander on looking like they’ve just come out of a good evening in the local bar, electric guitar, drum kit and accordion await them, when they begin the music’s as rough and ready as you like, the songs delivered in a heavy accent deep with growls and fire, yet it instantly has character and there is no doubt about their origins, Peat & Diesel celebrate their roots. A trio of mates who formed a band almost by accident after jamming sessions, they produce a stream of punkish guitar thrash with granite heavy rhythm and the dancing vibes of the squeezebox. It’s gripping and thrilling at the same time. Writer and guitarist Boydie concurs that where they come from is shot through everything he writes when I interview them later, but he says writing material that shows character and home just comes to him naturally. He could just be the Highland answer to Shane MacGowan. A hope underlined by a spirited drive through ‘Dirty Old Town’ and reels so sharp they’d cut you as you jig. Cropredy loved them and rose as one to applaud.
Merry Hell’s Andrew Kettle, c’mon now sway with me.
Mind you it wasn’t just the debutants who got a great reception, the older guard had their share too – deservedly. Toyah and Robert Fripp, locals, provided a brilliant, canny selection not only of their somewhat tongue in cheek, ‘Sunday Lunch’ on line broadcasts but also of individual hits and tracks they’d previously been heavily involved with. Toyah pranced and danced around the stage whilst a stoic Fripp gave forth with some great guitar work. Highlight for me was their storming version of Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ which rightly sent the crowd into mild frenzy and Toyah claiming she could kiss all the men in the audience may have been more fantasy than fact but at that exact moment you weren’t too sure. Which paved the way for the party factor in Cropredy as Nile Rodgers and Chic made sure everybody left their seats and boogied, Rodger’s suit was bright enough, the light show was dazzling. Hits? They’d got them and the audience accepted them gladly. For a brief time, a rural Oxfordshire meadow became Studio 54. You name it Chic played it, not only disco groovers under their own name but a smattering of those who felt Rodgers’ golden touch more recently, Daft Punk and David Bowie f’r instance. The gathered wanted more but remember that rule?
Kiki Dee and Carmel Luggeri stripped back her best known numbers to reveal the class of Miss Dee’s vocals, which remain as warm and attractive as ever. Luggeri is the perfect partner for her acoustic soul, his ability on guitar is something else running from sensitive finger work to full throttle classical strumming, at times you really had to pinch yourself to realise that it was only him playing and no one else was behind a curtain or just off stage. Yes, we got the hits, much transformed and all the better for it, ‘Don’t go Breaking My Heart,’ an aching plea for understanding, ‘Amoureuse’ regret for what never could be and ‘I Got The Music In Me,’ with Fairport’s Dave Mattacks on percussion. They also turned Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up that Hill,’ inside out to tremendous appreciation. Memorable and charming. If you’d asked me if I’d ever enjoy a gig by Gilbert O’ Sullivan, I’d probably have laughed, well more fool me, I’m prepared to admit all these years I’ve been dead wrong. The man’s a great keyboard player and his compositions are stuffed with melodic hooks and singalong lyrics. Gilbert and his guitar playing chum were excellent. The cynic in me subsided after about the third number, it made no difference if he was playing a chart topper from the 70s or a song he’d released in the 2010s they were all first class. That percussive way he has with a piano came across along with a voice unchanged and tender support of the guitar strings this was a superb demonstration of the singer writer’s art. Damn me ‘Alone Again Naturally’ and ‘Nothing Rhymed’ shorn of all that easy listening production and strings, made me grin from ear to ear, the conversion complete. Top stuff Gilbert.
Amongst those keeping matters unplugged and simple Wilson & Wakeman best buddies in real life, they bring their easy going, banter ridden friendship to the stage. The music they deliver is some of the most eclectic you’ll ever hear, they too call on the past- Adam Wakeman is the son of keyboard wizard Rick – so ‘Life On Mars’ is a welcome inclusion and Damian Wilson spent a considerable time on stage in the West End so his vocals have much theatrical in his delivery. They rock as surely as if they were in a heavy metal band, music they’re used to playing in their other guises. Here though they’re affable and congenial, you warm to them instantly and you have to admire their cavalier approach.
10cc are by now regulars at Cropredy a fact Graham Gouldman reminded us of as they began the Friday night closing spot, “I think this is our third time here.” It won’t be the last either. “The songs we wrote were just perfect, the combination of personalities and abilities was ideal,” he told me when I questioned him about the durability of their hits, “I like to believe our music is timeless and everyone can relate to it no matter their age.” A fact only borne out by a stunning show which saw Gouldman alongside Rick Fenn on guitar and Paul Burgess on drums, the long-time survivors with multi instrumentalists Keith Hayman and Ian Hornal. Close your eyes and they really do recreate the records, even down to those little touches that made their songs so appealing and they can still reach up and down the vocal register. Good to hear some album tracks put in to show their deeper creativity as well. Nigh on two hours of exact, honed and crafted music, ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ ‘Things We Do For Love,’ ‘Arts For Arts Sake,’ ‘Life Is A Minestrone,’ the list goes on, they were all delivered sounding fresh and innovative.
The most poignant appearance was that by The Strawbs who were regrettably packing up due to leader Dave Cousins facing various problems which make performing difficult for him. Here though you’d never have known it, with an array of musicians from line ups down the years, John Ford, Blue Weaver, Adam Wakeman, Brain Willoughby and Cathryn Craig alongside South African musicians who contributed to the newly released ‘The Magic Of It All.’ Cousins played ring master to the hilt, ‘The Hangman & The Papist, ‘Stormy Down,’ ‘Lay Down’ and even ‘Part Of The Union,’ enlivened a show of prog folk peppered with memorable guitar solos. Even those who weren’t sure if they’d like the band when they began were won over and they were rightly given a standing ovation after the finale. Is it the end? Well not quite, DC is still going to carry on recording so The Strawbs as a studio entity could continue, there was hopeful talk amongst the cognoscenti of Dave taking a Brian Wilson type role and sending out a Strawbs line up on tour, there are after all enough ex members to do just that. A case methinks of maybe….
Solstice last played Cropredy when mobile phones were the size of bricks and downloads weren’t even a thing. In the intervening years they’ve hiccupped along with varying degrees of success, though recently a new line up with determination and a grab bag full of crowd pleasing material has given them a resolve that’s palpable when interviewed before their set. It’s clear they’re itching to get on stage and waiting to show just what they can do. Not without reason does guitarist Andy Glass say he now feels the band is complete. Everyone loves a trier and here was your proof. Yonks ago they released an album called ‘The Cropredy Set,’ which had to be rejigged, if someone didn’t have the recording machine plugged in today, they’ve really missed out, Solstice were magnificent. I therefore venture that ‘The Cropredy Set Vol 2” should be a no brainer.
Away from the hurly burly of the main site there’s always something of interest and relevance amongst the activity of the Fringe, this year Sandy Denny loomed large, a whole evening spotlighting her legend through Carla Fuchs and Georgia Lucas– Sandy’s daughter- collaborating on an album of previously undiscovered lyrics from her notebooks, ‘Songbird’ to which Carla has added new melodies. From the moment her fingers touched the keyboards you could tell she’d captured the spirit of Sandy with those descending chords and autumnal atmospheres, after a while I found myself drifting to songs like ‘Bushes & Briars’ ‘The North Star Grassman’ ‘Listen, Listen.’ Equally adept on the guitar she must have been nervous after all this is Cropredy, the spiritual home of all things Fairport, memories are held sacred, but to her credit Carla pulled off a set which paid tribute without being copyist. Denny fans should investigate. The Sandy Denny Project ensued, a gathering of folk rockers with experience including ex members of Jerry Donahue’s all too brief Fotheringay line up, who handle Sandy’s repertoire with skill and individuality, again no straight reproductions but relevant, modernist interpretation. Sally Barker and Marion Fleetwood are excellent vocalists who do full justice to Denny’s memory, nor do I think for one minute that Sandy would mind at all that her songs are altered as long as their spirit and intent isn’t lost. Led by excellent guitarist PJ Wright and with a superb back line of drums, bass and keyboards this was a lovingly assembled collection of material played with care and affection. Mainstage next year please. Meanwhile for a glimpse of their potential chasing down their online version of ‘Matty Groves’ is heartily recommended.
Mr. Nicol & Mr. Sanders – Fiddlestix!
And then of course there are the guys who roll up their sleeves and put on these yearly revels, Fairport Convention, they whose Saturday night efforts have become the stuff of legend, when reunions took in entire line ups, when albums have been revisited and the roll call of famous guests read like who’s who of rock. 2023 was more Fairportcentric – is that even a word? Who knows where the time goes? But as it goes so do those who’ve comprised the Convention. Inevitably there will be more guests though this year we got founder Ashley Hutchings whose song ‘Wings’ detailed in a few short verses the history of the band even predicting their influence on future generations. It was good to hear him and his tales of early Fairport, reflected in a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird On A Wire,’ sharing the stage with Becky Mills. A very warm welcome awaited the too long away Vicky Clayton who nailed the gothic spookiness of ‘Crazy Man Michael,’ with ease, Winter tour support Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage took on a repurposed ‘Reynardine,’ resplendent in swathes of psych/Americana. Yet Fairport themselves always seem to raise the game to another level each time they close the festival and here with a roster of Nicol, Mattacks, Pegg, Sanders and Leslie, besides what you might expect of them they threw in some curve balls ‘Doctor Of Physick,’ ‘Banks Of The Sweet Primroses,’ ‘Journey Man’s Grace’ – isn’t it about time we got the whole of ‘Angel Delight’ as a concert set? A wonderful extemporised version of ‘Sloth’ must surely be retained for later tours and ‘Fotheringay’ with Dave Mattacks at the piano was a feathery joy. And yes they concluded in honoured fashion with a mass sing/sway along ‘Meet On The Ledge’ the emotion of which will probably never dim just continue to grow in stature.
Of course there was the proverbial much more, The Young’uns and Fishermen’s Friends turned the site into a folk club and Beans On Toast with rap and protest completed by chummy lyrics seemed as if he was holding an intimate concert in his front room but with 20,000 guests.
2023 was one of the Cropredys you’ll remember for all the right reasons, a perfect artistic blend on the line up not only in terms of performance but also crucially appeal and an audience determined to enjoy themselves yet with an appreciation of what it takes to put on an event like this. Never take such things for granted. Same time, same place next year then? You bet. Mark your calendar now. Oh and make sure you sit awhile and get to know the River Cherwell too.