Fairport Convention filmed live on February 23, 2002 at the Anvil in Basingstoke, England. Part of the band’s 35th anniversary celebration.
Great folk songs travel through time. They’re designed to be handed down, decade by decade and generation to generation, until they seep into the collective DNA. In the process, they transcend whoever wrote, or first performed, them to become musical heirlooms owned by all.
That core tenant of folk faced a significant test at the 35th anniversary concert by Fairport Convention, one of Britain’s seminal bands. The show, which took place in 2002, didn’t feature any of the most celebrated stars of the group’s storied history. It took place 32 years after the departure of its greatest writer and guitar hero, Richard Thompson; 23 turns of the calendar after its split with the athletic fiddle player Dave Swarbrick; and nearly a quarter-century beyond the death of its greatest singer, Sandy Denny, who also happened to be one of the greatest vocalists of all time.
At the same time, the performance did include a key musician who’d been with the group since its genesis in 1967 (singer-guitarist Simon Nicol) as well as a skilled member of the tribe since 1970 (bassist Dave Pegg). It also featured the nuanced drummer Gerry Conway, who has spun in the Fairport orbit since performing in Denny’s other folk-rock group, Fotheringay, at the dawn of the ‘70s. (Conway officially joined the Fairport fold in 1988.) Even so, the lineup at this show couldn’t help but raise the question of whether a starless Fairport had the goods to earn its heady name. To raise the stakes even higher, the repertoire for this anniversary concert boasted as many new pieces as vintage ones, each plucked from the band’s corresponding 35th anniversary album, “XXXV.”
Part of the “new” repertoire went out of its way to blur past and present. It featured fresh takes on three songs Fairport had recorded between 1969 and 1971, two of which, “The Deserter” and “The Banks of the Sweet Primroses,” turned up at the show. In a sense, then, they function like relay-race batons, fleet objects passed from one Fairport iteration to another. That evolutionary approach mirrored the strategy that made Fairport so crucial to begin with.
In that instant, a new genre was born: Celtic traditional folk-rock, a style that went on to influence hundreds of bands, from the Pogues to Flogging Molly.
Happily, the results turn out to be rousing, offering fresh proof of the durability of the band’s essential mission. It began back in 1969 when Fairport became the first band to electrify traditional British folk songs, or — as Nicol wryly describes it in the show — to “electrocute” them. On its “Unhalfbricking” album, the group offered a track that transformed a ye-olde sea shanty, “A Sailor’s Life,” into a rollicking, 11-minute psychedelic jam. In that instant, a new genre was born: Celtic traditional folk-rock, a style that went on to influence hundreds of bands, from the Pogues to Flogging Molly.
Though Pentangle introduced traditional reels and ballads to a pop context a bit earlier, they performed them acoustically at that point in its career. By the end of 1969, Fairport gave trad pieces the full electric treatment for an entire album, “Liege & Lief,” making that set as important as the seminal, American folk-rock albums by the Byrds.
The millennial version of Fairport made clear both its value and its fealty to the band’s original mission right from the opening number, “Walk Awhile.” The song, written in 1970 by Thompson and Swarbrick, echoes the melodic patterns and rhythmic tics of traditional British pieces. Another song from that year, “Dirty Linen,” demonstrates this incarnation of Fairport’s flair for spirited instrumentals.
Without a guitarist of Thompson’s rank, the solos mainly fall to Chris Leslie (on mandolin and fiddle) and Ric Sanders (who assumes the primary fiddle position). Each demonstrates his own sound, both prettier and more fluid than Swarbrick’s aggressive bow-work. A peak instrumental arrives with the then-new “Everything But the Skirl,” a reference to the wheeze of an absent bagpipe. Another contemporary piece, “The Crowd,” penned by guest member Anna Ryder, features lyrics that salute the role of the audience in folk — those who help spread traditional tales and sounds through their families and into the future.
In that spirit, the legacy of Fairport continues to this day with its annual Cropredy Convention, which sometimes draws members from the past, including Thompson. Naturally, this anniversary show culminates in Fairport’s classic closer, “Meet on the Ledge,” a ravishing ode to immortality that Thompson wrote as a teen. Here, the vocals focus on Nicol, who dominated the singing in this era of the band. The sweet-voiced Nicol may lack the singularity of the original star singers but his everyman quality highlights the democratic role of folk songs, pieces meant to be performed by everyone.
The other tenant of folk emphasized by the show — continuance — inspires Nicol’s witty intro to “The Banks of the Sweet Primroses.” “We liked this song so much, we recorded it twice,” he says, before going on to note the 30-year spread between the two versions. “If this trend continues,” he observes, “you’ll hear a third version in 2023.”
Given Fairport’s endurance, I wouldn’t bet against it.
“35th Anniversary Concert” Setlist
The Banks of the Sweet Primroses
My Love Is in America
Everything But the Skirl—>Let There Be Drums
Talking About My Love
Light of Day
Crazy Man Michael
The Wood and the Wire
Meet on the Ledge
Jim Farber has been writing about music since the Ramones were new. After serving as chief music critic for the New York Daily News for 25 years, he began to contribute to The New York Times, Guardian, Mojo and many other publications. A three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for music journalism, Farber is also an adjunct professor at the Clive Davis Institute of New York University.