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Fairport Convention / The Incredible String Band July 18th / 19th 2009, Barbican, London
There are plenty of bands and artists I would like to have seen / like to have seen at their best. Very near the top of that list is the early Fairport Convention line-ups. That's an impossibility of course, but a band reunion offering 4 of the 6 players of the Liege & Lief era is not something to be sniffed at. The first night of the Witchseason weekender at The Barbican offers a set of songs taken in chronological order from the first five Fairport albums, taking them from being Byrds inspired interpretors of mostly other people's songs, to penning incredible songs of their own and blending both strands in with reinterpretations of traditional English folk music.
On top of the headline gigs The Barbican has arranged for a number of pre-concert sets on the foyer freestage, on Saturday night there are three such. First up is Blair Dunlop who plays guitar and sings a bit. He's introduced by Ashley Hutchings as being about the same age as Richard Thompson when he joined Fairport. And it would be a good idea for him to look around for a Fairport to join. Technically a fine guitar player, and he demonstrates a level of mastery of various techniques - finger picking, double tapping, and that rather irritating Newton Faulkneresque style of "using the guitar body as a drum but not in a flamenco way". However it's all a bit tutored and correct and oddly unengaging.
Next up was Iain Mathews, who the Fairports recruited prior to their first album, and who would later go onto chart topping success with Mathews Southern Comfort. With just acoustic guitar played either as a strummed or a finger picked accompaniment he sang some fine country/folk influenced numbers - even the song Joy Mining has the same sound despite being introduced as new material he'd developed as part of a jazz project. Last up was Linde Nijland who came to the stage with the albatross of "being a new Sandy Denny" hung around her neck. She has recorded and performs a lot of Sandy's songs, and she sings very well but she is no Sandy Denny. This is underlined by the PA playing Sandy singing Who Knows Where The Time Goes during the change over. Her voice is a little thin for A Sailor's Life, but she does a very nice Rising For The Moon and her version of Who Knows has an attractive wistful sweetness to it. When she performs one of her own songs it's much easier to appreciate what she's doing. Someone you could see in a club and not be at all disappointed.
So, then, the main attraction, Fairport Convention - whose ever changing longevity resembles a British Grateful Dead. Blessed with their own Jerry Garcia in the shape of Richard Thompson, and the unique voice of the long lamented Sandy Denny they achieved a greatness within the term Folk-Rock that countless later lumpen and leaden English bands would despoil and grind down to rightfully being a term of scorn or abuse. Their Liege & Lief album can be seen as the English equivalent of The Byrds' Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, a reclaiming of tradition by the longhaired kids from the clutches of the squares. And, also like The Byrds, this was a case of a "sudden change of direction" which had been heavily signposted on their previous albums.
They start the night with Richard Thompson, Simon Nicol, Ashley "Tyger" Hutchings, Dave Mattacks, and the original singers - Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble, and from the off it is clear that this line-up intends no resting on laurels and no prisoners as they set the scene of their beginnings and launch into Satisifed Mind (illustrating the influence of The Byrds) . Thompson is off to one side of the stagre and rather poorly lit, and this seems to have been a deliberate policy to keep this from being The Richard Thompson show - indeed it is Dryble and Hutchings who keep court in the centre stage and it is the latter’s bass lines which dominate the sound as much as Thompson's guitar wizardry. Dyble stays for Time Will Show The Wiser and One Sure Thing, then bows out as Thompson wrenches the lead vocal for Dylan's Jack o' Diamonds. She is replaced by Linde Nijland, who has been given Denny's Fotheringay to sing, and the evolution of the band has begun with this haunting evocation of Mary Queen of Scot's last days, and if this isn't influenced by English Folk Song then I've never heard English Folk Song.
The first half of the concert continues a rapid progress through the albums "What we did on out Holidays" and "Unhalfbricking", and there is an equally rapid succession of guests - two from the Thompson clan, Teddy and Kami, and Kellie While (who also sings with various versions of Hutching's Albion Band) - her mother Chris plays a prominent part in the second half of the gig. Band members also drop out at their historical moments keeping the core band as close as is possible to the actual Fariport line-up, although Dave Mattack remains on drums throughout. Autopsy, Sandy Denny's dissection of the end of a love affair, is introduced as Dave's audition piece - the band being impressed that he handled the changing time signatures with such ease. Dave adds it was somewhat helped because he'd spent time prior to the audition listening to Unhalfbricking. Kami Thompson really comes into her own on this, conveying alternatively insight, understanding, disdain and contempt.
Kellie While sings a nice Who Knows Where The Time Goes, but the first set closer of A Sailor's Life is an astonishing tour de force - a traditional song whose lyrics flit in and out of a droning pounding rock song. Thompson's elegant guitar figures intertwine with Hutching's bass lines - and it's the Governor who is directing the song's development with a stern and masterly hand. It's hypnotic and electrifying and reveals that this Fairport are purveyors of Stoner Rock as much as Folk Rock. As it should it goes on and on only growing in power until the last minute where it fades away and vanishes like a cloud of sea spray over a granite foreland. Astonishing.
After the interval came the Liege and Lief era, with Chris While (another ex-Albion Band singer) storming the Sandy Denny vocal parts for the big numbers from that album, and she fills the singer's shoes with aplomb - the first singer bold enough to have a "look at me" stage presence. And the selected songs go a long way to justifying the accolades that have been heaped on the album, I'm particularly happy to hear Crazy man Michael - a dark and disturbing tale that holds echoes of the young girl's madness that ends A Sailor's Life - alongside the more obvious choices of Tam Lin and Matty Groves.
There was a little ruffling of feathers as Joe Boyd introduced Chris Leslie as standing in for the absent "for personal reasons" Dave Swarbrick. Chris Leslie, he added, was a good stand-in as he is a student of Swarb's. Simon Nicol felt the need to clarify this a little later stating that Chris had in fact been with Fairport for 12 years and was very much part of the band that still tours.
The final few songs represented the Full House era - as Simon Nicol said "Fairport was now a boy band", as they have continued to be to this day (although Sandy Denny did rejoin for Rising for the Moon, maybe the best Fairport album post the "glory years"). So Ashley Hutchings departed the stage and Dave Pegg joined as bassist. Richard Thompson remained , he would leave the band after this album. Things were changing in the Fairport camp and not just the faces, for me the band changed direction and became more blokey and fun. Fun shouldn't be a criticism, but the something magical of those early Fairport albums was lost at this point. And it's well illustrated tonight as the band on stage is now mostly the modern Fairport and they easily fall into their normal ways - little shuffling dances across the stage, and Dave Pegg hopping about on one leg. He tries on a number of occasions to get Richard Thompson to do the same, but he's having none of it, and the more he sticks to his refusals the more Pegg looks a little disappointed.
The Full House selections include the jaunty Walk A While, which could be seen as the antithesis of the equally anthemic but far more sombre Meet On The Ledge of the Unhalfbricking era. There's a marvellous Sir Patrick Spens, but sadly not Full House's standout track, the hypnotic Sloth. The second set is closed out with a lively tune set.
The encore sees everyone back on stage for a rousing medley of their hit - Si Tu Dois Partir, and the final closer of Meet On The Ledge - which Ashley Hutching's has described as "the boy genius displaying his powers with an assurance well beyond his years. Meet On The Ledge has no right to come from such a green pen, and those soaring solos have no right to come from such young fingers". Who could argue with that, and it is the de facto Fairport anthem, and a fitting closer for the night, and with all the participants on the stage (plus Linda Thompson plucked from the audience) it's both uplifting and sombre and a unique moment.
This is a gig that it will be a hard act to follow.
1 : Satisfied Mind, Time will show the wiser, One sure thing, Jack o' Diamonds, Fotheringay, Some Sweet Day, I'll keep it with mine, genesis hall, autopsy, who knows where the time goes, A sailor's life.
2 : Come all ye, Tam Lin, The deserter, Tune Medley, Crazy Man Michael, Matty Groves, Walk a while, Doctor of Physik, Sir Patrick Spens, Tunes
Encore : Si tu dois partir, Meet on the ledge.
The Incredible String Band - a name to conjure with, being one of the first bands that could be labelled "psych-folk". Not many bands get to push the boundaries of music and help invent a new genre, and a genre that they were pretty much the only representative of for some time.
I missed the first pre-show freestage gig, but luckily arrived in time for the second which was Dr Strangely Strange - sometimes spoken of - when they are spoken of at all - as Incredible String Band copyists. Nonsense. Yes they have at least three times as many instruments as any sensible band requires, and their sound could lazily be described as psychedelic folk, but in many good ways they are closer to The Bonzo's, as the messages of their songs are often wrapped in overt humour. It would be at best foolish and at worst unwise to try and understand exactly what was going on in their heads when they got together, but the results are astonishing folk songs with trippy harmonies and a multitude of characters drawn from history, film and the Stranglies friends and acquaintances. It's often a bizzare experience seeing middle aged men perform the music tied so closely to their youth, but the songs stand up well, indeed there's nothing to identify the new(er) song included in the set from the older material - the Stranglies are still in touch with their youthly muse.
They picked mostly from the Kip Of The Serenes album, Strangely Strange puts in an an anticipated appearance, with the elongated vocal of the "strangely strange...but oddly normal" being achieved with flair if not ease. Donnybrook Fair, which surely Neil Young must have heard somewhere before he wrote Like A Hurricane, is a lengthy potted history of Ireland mixed with quite surreal images; "Muircheartach the leather cloaked king - plugged in his amplifier and began to sing" is how a Dark Age conquering prince's courtly campaign through Ireland is commemorated. For the last three songs of the set bass and drums were added to the mix, and with the keyboards now giving out down and dirty riffs these last songs had quite a funky, even danceable feel to them, not something one immediately associates with Dr Strangely Strange, but then that's the danger of lazy thinking and too easy categorizing. An excellent taster to get the night going with.
Set List : The Invisible Kid, Horse of a different Hue, Strangely Strange, Donneybrook Fair, The piece of cod, Sign On My Mind, (we were young ?)
For the Incredible String Band main event I'd somehow managed not to notice that Robin Williamson was not taking part, which was a bit of a shock as I admire his song writing and performing immensely. Mike Heron and Clive Palmer were two thirds of the original album line up, but Robin was a major player then and of course was really half the band from that point onwards (Heron being the other half). There are a vast number of others standing in and supporting the overall sound, some more obvious than others including - Robyn Hitchcock, Richard Thompson with Teddy and Kami in tow, Dr Strangely Strange, Trembling Bells, Scritti Polliti, Abigail Washburn. I was very curious to see how it would all come off. Clive Palmer seems to be both old and somewhat frail, Mike Heron is more agile and also more obviously enjoying the event.
It seems that Robyn had been cast as Robin for the night, and he does do a passable imitation, or perhaps evocation, of Williamson's style of singing. Things start rolling appropriately enough with the ensemble on stage for When The Music Starts. And we're clearly in for an evening of great versions of the Incredible String Band's songs. There are a few jolts along the way - I can't fully shake the feeling that many of Robin's songs are so very personal and imbued with his spirit that maybe they will survive as poetry rather than as sung works. Richard Thompson performs an acoustic October Song, and does claim that for his own making it sound like a sibling for his own Poor Ditching Boy of the same era.
Amongst many fine performances it seems unfair but also necessary to highlight a couple, so the first will be Dr Strangely Strange whose performance of Air really evoked the Incredible String Band in the medley of instruments and voices. Trembling Bells, a band I was previously unaware of and seem to be cast in the Fairport Convention/Pentangle mould, did several songs. On Greatest Friend the lead singer/recorder player gave me some hope for the future as she stuck with the recorder part when she could so easily have looped it. Their performance of Cousin Caterpillar with the Stranglies is a great moment, as is their solo performance of Cold Days of February, featuring some really nice flute and slide guitar, the guitarist’s intense concentration and masses of curly hair hanging over his hidden face briefly brought a young Richard Thompson to mind, and left me with the intention to explore this band's work further. And it would be a hard heart that didn't thrill to Richard Thompson and Robyn Hitchcock’s version of Firt Girl I Loved, with Robyn almost conjuring that other Robin into the room.
A fine moment in the second set is the pairing of Clive Palmer playing a banjo dance tune followed up by Abigail Washburn - "this is the banjo section" she states before playing and singing Good As Gone, another of Robin's songs, this time about his desire to wander and explore the world, a desire which of course he fulfilled. These are mystical moments which both see a single performer on the stage and a silent attentive house.
In the whole evening though it is A Very Cellular Song which is truly a thing of beauty, the stage crowded again with all the performers, which means there are enough band members for all the required shakers, duck calls and swaney whistles to be present. There's still space for a board on which Abigail Washburn can perform a clog and high step dance - and at last, good as many of the foregoing songs have been, the fragile idea of the Incredible String Band takes a concrete form. This dizzying melange of too many instruments, too many voices and a wildly exuberant step dancer at once embody the song's giddily colourful celebration of life from the smallest single celled creature upwards. It took a while, we'd glimpsed it on occasion before, but here it was at last the spirit of the Incredible String Band not polite, not frozen in the headlights, and thank all mercies not respectful, but a vibrant creature alive with joy and sensuality.
Some of the energy carries forward for Nightfall, and it's there again in full for the final closer, the final exuberant outpouring of positiveness, Everything's Fine Right Now and of course it is and was and will be again.
It's been quite a weekend, with the first night slightly outperforming the second for me. Both had had to struggle with how to replace a band member - Sandy Denny for the Fairports and Robin Williamson for the Incredible String Band night, and I guess on Saturday the impossible had more nearly been achieved. Which is not to belittle the Very Cellular Songs night - these days the Incredible String Band are once more a niche interest, known to a minority and their whole opus known well by even fewer and this night surely has redressed this balance even if by a little.