When Fairport Convention formed in 1967, it’s almost certain they had no idea how influential they would become or how long they would run. The band is credited with starting the English folk rock movement with their 1969 album Liege & Lief, and in addition to its own considerable success also spawned the solo careers of several notable former members including Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, and Iain Matthews. The band’s membership has changed many times over the years (the only original member still remaining, Simon Nicol, even left the group for several years at one point), but after five decades the band continues to go strong, having just released their 28th studio album, 50:50@50. Since 1980, the band has held an annual festival in Cropredy, England, a small village in Oxfordshire. This year, for the band’s 50th anniversary, the sold-out festival drew in 20,000 fans from around the world for three days of nearly non-stop music.
Unlike some of the mega-festivals that have come to dominate the summer and seem to grow larger every year, Fairport’s Cropredy Convention continues occupies a single stage. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still cater to a diverse range of music. Far from simply being a folk festival as many might assume based on the name, the festival plays host to many different bands, with this year’s headliners including (in addition to, of course, Fairport) the orchestral indie rock of The Divine Comedy and the classic pop of singer Petula Clark (who, even at 84, put on a spirited and well-received performance). Trevor Horn and his band played both his own hits (as half of new wave duo The Buggles, Horn topped the charts with “Video Killed the Radio Star”) and covers of some of the many hits that he produced (including “Two Tribes” and “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “All the Things She Said” by t.A.T.u., and “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes). Prog-rockers Marillion returned for their second appearance at the festival, and legendary Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean played a solo acoustic set. And, of course, the English folk focus was present with sets from Feast of Fiddles and Gigspanner Big Band (featuring former Steeleye Span fiddler Peter Knight). Though the ages of the core audience may skew older than many festivals, there was truly something for everybody.
Due to the band’s anniversary, though, the real highlight for this year was the return of several former members. Although Petula Clark was the headliner for the evening, Richard Thompson ended Friday night with a long set that started out solo, but ended with a full band consisting of several of his former Fairport bandmates. Ashley Hutchings opened Saturday with his long-running Morris On project, complete with several dance performances by members of the Moulton Morris Men. Judy Dyble performed songs from her latest album Summer Dancing, and Iain Matthews brought his group Plainsong to perform songs by Richard Farina (as recorded on their most recent release, Reinventing Richard) as well as several songs from their 1972 album In Search of Amelia Earhart.
The real highlight of the festival, though, was the three-hour, 31-song Fairport Convention set which closed out the weekend. The set started with the band’s current line-up, but then took a trip back to the very first release with Thompson, Matthews, Dyble, and Hutchings joining to perform songs from the first, self-titled album. From there, the set was a virtual history of the band, with former members (also including drummer Dave Mattacks and guitarist Maartin Allcock) coming and going from the stage as they worked through the band’s catalog. Singer Chris While filled in on several songs for Sandy Denny (who died in 1978), and other Fairport associates including Ralph McTell and PJ Wright also made appearances. For the grand finale, numerous people including various performers from throughout the festival joined the band on the stage for a euphoric run through one of the band’s most famous songs “Meet On the Ledge.” By the end, the entire field was singing along.
Fifty years is a long run for a band, and 37 years is a very long run for a festival, but if there was one thing evident at Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, it was that Fairport Convention has no intention of slowing down. Rather than simply an exercise in nostalgia, the festival and the music felt as vital as ever. Fairport Convention is a band with a long and storied past, but they’re not ready to be relegated to the history books yet. We can’t wait to see what future years of the festival will bring.