Fairport’s Cropredy Convention
16 December 2015 Features
8, 9 & 10 August 2013
Fairport’s Cropredy Convention is widely acclaimed as the ultimate celebration of folk-rock. Yet, increasingly, the tens of thousands of music-loving folkies who invade the normally tranquil village of Cropredy in North Oxfordshire for three days each August, are treated to a more eclectic range of quality music. Festival founders and folk-rock originators Fairport Convention are still the principal Cropredy headliners, but the bill this year includes several distinctly non-folk performers such as 10cc, Levellers and Nik Kershaw. Plus, amazingly, the original shock-rocker Alice Cooper will also be there this year to terrify regular Cropredy-goers with his stunning horror-fuelled stage-act on the opening night. At the other end of the spectrum are the classical chart-topping Mediaeval Baebes with their beautifully evocative musical adaptations of medieval writing sung in a variety of languages, all prettily accompanied by antique English instruments. Nick Dent-Robinson talked to members of Fairport Convention about this year’s festival.And he sought reactions from Mediaeval Baebes’ singer Katharine Blake plus the inimitable Alice Cooper about the prospect of them appearing on the same bill at Cropredy 2013.
“I’m just sitting here trying to figure out how we do our songs in a kind of folky way for the Cropredy festival,” Alice Cooper laughs, as he talks to me during a brief break in his current East Coast US tour. “But, hey, we just love to terrorise those groovy, green-worshipping, tofu-chomping folk-rock followers. We play some folk festivals in the US and it is always fun. Like going to summer camp-and then here comes Alice Cooper on at midnight…some terrible ghost, spooking all the kids and wreaking mayhem and horror at the end of camp-out. We’ve always enjoyed our scary reputation-and still do. We’ll give the Cropredy crowd something that’s totally the opposite of everything else they’ll be seeing and hearing!” “Our act is pure rock vaudeville, dark in places, funny in places but with huge pace and there’s no chance for anyone to catch their breath. The theatrical effects have improved down the years. Now we have this thing where Alice comes on stage in a huge shower of sparks, like a walking ball of fire-and you always hear this great gasp from the audience. I love that because it means, ‘We’ve got ’em, we’ve got ’em already!’ I never go out there thinking, ‘Boy, I hope you like us tonight.’ I’m like, grab ’em by the throat…make ’em like you! “Of course I’m one of those guys who knows people want to hear all the hits and we never shy away from that. There were 14 ‘Top 40’ hits and we do them all, as close to the original as possible. Underneath the theatrics which we hope everyone will enjoy, we are a guitar rock band and we have three brilliant guitar players-so I let them play…great live, raw music. Plus we always end with Elected and School’s Out otherwise our audience would wonder what we were doing. Though we have a lot of younger fans and, sadly, in this modern electronic, techno-age, a lot of these kids have never seen real, live rock music. They’ve never seen a drum solo or a good guitar solo. In fact the retro part of our show is new to them. Many of today’s major bands have everything taped, but we could never do that…my band has got to play every note for real. I’d be so embarrassed if we didn’t. Despite our reputation for theatrics, the music is important to me-and always has been.”
It is 41 years ago this Summer-back in 1972-that Alice Cooper’s video for School’s Out was banned from the BBC after complaints from pioneering broadcasting standards campaigner, Mary Whitehouse supported by the MP Leo Abse. This gave Alice massive publicity and School’s Out reached number one in the UK charts within days. Alice responded by sending Mary Whitehouse big bouquets of roses to thank her for the publicity. “I remember all of that well. It was the greatest single career boost I ever had. Fantastic! Being banned, creating controversy, was all part of the career passage for Alice Cooper. It wasn’t planned but we never shrank from exploiting it, either. I am eternally grateful to Mary Whitehouse.” These days Alice is almost an establishment figure, though. He and his original band members were inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011 and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He owns a restaurant, enjoys classical music, hosts a popular radio music show and his biggest passion is golf which he plays to professional standard. “Yes, golf is my new addiction,” agrees Alice. “I used to drink every day but now I play golf; it is therapy. Though it is frustrating on tour to get to places with fine golf courses and discover they are closed at the times I am free to play. Britain has some of the best golf courses anywhere and if there’s good golfing near Cropredy, I hope it will be open when I am there.”
“The early days in England for me were really great,” recalls Alice. “You see almost all of my biggest heroes in rock were British. Starting with The Beatles. Their lyrics and George Harrison’s brilliantly economical, innovative guitar work are still amazing to me. George Harrison never played a single note that didn’t belong. And as soon as he got done, he got out. Many guitar players, they noodle. It is nervous energy and they just noodle when they are playing, filling all the spaces that don’t need filling, spaces that ought to be left there. George never did that. He never played over anything. “That’s partly why The Beatles music is so great…nothing was ever allowed to get in the way of anything else. They had a brilliant producer in George Martin. But The Beatles had developed this economical style in their live performances. The vocal is always clear and then when the guitar comes in it is clear and clean and unfussy. If you listen to lots of bands it is a cacophony…the vocal’s going, the guitar’s going, the bass is thumping, the drums are crashing…and people wonder, ‘Why doesn’t that sound as good as The Beatles?’. Well, it’s because everything is working against everything else. And that’s one reason why we all remember Beatles’ lyrics, melodies…they are just easier for our brains to take in. Some people don’t rate George Harrison as highly as someone like Eric Clapton.But I do-and Eric Clapton does! No, George Harrison was certainly in the same class and amongst the very best of the top rock guitarists.
“I also enjoyed The Who – Pete Townshend had such great ‘take no prisoners’ attitude, still does!- s well as The Pretty Things, Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and, most of all, The Yardbirds. At high school in Arizona I was in a band called The Spiders that used to play Yardbirds material. We learned more from imitating Yardbirds albums than from anyone. We played our Yardbirds covers as the houseband in the VIP Club in Phoenix. Most of the best bands from England would come in there to perform and we would always open for them with our Yardbirds stuff. Well, one day we are doing this and the real Yardbirds turn up to play the second half. We knew we were pretty good musicians so we just carried on, playing their material to the thousand or so people there. And there they are, the actual Yardbirds, standing by the side of the stage, giving us the thumbs up and being very encouraging. “Well, after the break they come on stage and it was a whole different thing. We were good-but they were The Yardbirds. I will never forget it. That night Jimmy Page played bass guitar. And Jeff Beck-he was only 19 years old, remember-is holding up his guitar as they are playing a number and it’s feeding back while he’s having a conversation with someone. As he’s talking, he’s dropping his guitar and doing triplets, perfect triplets and he always catches it right on the last note as it is feeding back. We all looked at each other and went, ‘What?’-and this is back in 1966. Jeff Beck did 25 things I’d never seen anyone do with a guitar and he was just amazing, a true gun-slinger! So how good is Jeff Beck now…he’s only got better.
For me Jeff Beck remains the finest all-round guitarist anywhere. Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton are good, especially at blues-but Jeff is in a class of his own. He was a genius at 19 when I first saw him, so imagine how great he must be now after a lifetime perfecting his art. “But, you know, back then we had no idea British bands like The Rolling Stones were selling us back our own American music. I wasn’t noticing who wrote songs on the first Rolling Stones album I heard. Then one day I spotted that a lot of the numbers were by black American blues musicians who were not well known to most young white American kids like me. For me that started a lifelong interest in their kind of music…original blues fascinates me. “There were so many amazing British musicians, though-including, of course, Fairport Convention who I always admired. So it will be a real privilege for me to play at their big annual Cropredy festival this August and follow the long line of great performers who have appeared there. It is the culmination of our short tour in Europe and the only UK gig for us this Summer. I don’t do camping, though. We go for luxury. My idea of roughing it is when there’s no cable TV. But I like the thought of Alice Cooper being part of an outdoors music event with such wide-ranging performers. We’re going to get a kick out of that!” Chris Leslie, multi-instrumentalist and Fairport Convention’s newest recruit having joined the band a mere 17 years ago, shares Alice Cooper’s enthusiasm for the rich mix of music at Cropredy. “The thing I really love about Cropredy is the range of music,” Chris agrees. It is a music festival, not a folk festival. The one thing every performer there shares is quality…they are all really good, whatever their genre. And, with just the one stage, you can get there on Thursday and pick your spot and then see everything on the bill. You can’t do that at multi-stage events. “There have been some wonderful moments for me at Cropredy,” Chris recalls. “I actually first appeared there way back in 1977 when the venue was Prescott Manor. I was in a duo playing fiddle with my brother John…I still have a poster and there we are listed along with Fairport Convention, a band called Second Edition and a great singer, Bob Davenport. John and I were local lads-from Banbury originally. Later I moved to the nearby village of Adderbury where I still live. I am active in the traditional morris dancing there. Because we played music I knew Dave Pegg of Fairport who lived locally. He was very supportive in those early days as was Fairport’s Dave Swarbrick who also lived in Cropredy. Later I played with Dave Pegg and with Dave Swarbrick, too. By then I had trained as a violin maker but I abandoned the violin workshop I had set up to play music professionally.
“In 1992 I performed at Cropredy with Fairport but in unhappy circumstances. Their regular fiddle player Ric Sanders had injured his hand very badly and I stood in for him. But I felt like an intruder and was desperately sorry for Ric as it seemed touch and go whether he would ever play again. I couldn’t enjoy the situation. Finally, in 1997 I was at Cropredy as a fully-fledged member of Fairport. Which felt wonderful. All those years I’d admired the band but finally here I was, a proper part of it. There was a question as to whether I should principally play violin, along with Ric who had made a full recovery-or mandolin. I opted for mandolin-though I do play a range of instruments on stage, including violin but also ukulele, bouzouki, banjo and flute. If you look back at the history of Fairport, the band’s sound evolves as members change. My input probably made the sound a little more acoustic again-though there’s always something essentially ‘Fairport’ about the band’s music, whatever changes happen. “If I had to pick a favourite moment from a past Cropredy it would be in 2008 when Robert Plant and Kristina Donahue joined us and sang The Battle of Evermore. There was the Sandy Denny connection because she’d sung on the original Led Zeppelin album track. I was playing the mandolin part I’d listened to so many times. Never had I dreamed I’d actually be doing that, on stage alongside Robert Plant. There have been many wonderful Cropredy moments, though. Seeing Steve Winwood was good and I always enjoy Bellowhead. The atmosphere is so friendly and, thanks to the skill of organiser Gareth Williams, things are very well run. “I like, too, that when Fairport open the event we always play The Festival Bell, a song I wrote about the bell that now hangs in the tower in Cropredy Church in celebration of the festival, a sort of tribute to every person who has ever played there. It’s great to know that bell will still be hanging there in the church long after we are all gone-A permanent legacy that’s a rare thing in the rather ephemeral world of music.” Ric Sanders has played fiddle with Fairport since 1985. He lives in the picturesque village of Bloxham, near Banbury-in the heart of what he calls ‘the folk-rock belt’. A self-taught violinist, Ric’s early influences were Lonnie Donegan and The Beatles plus some of the British trad jazz revivalists-like Chris Barber. Initially Ric was a jazz violinist playing with Stomu Yamasta, the Japanese classical percussionist whose avant garde work fuses with contemporary jazz and progressive rock music. Later Ric played with John Etheridge in Soft Machine. He admired American fiddler Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris as well as Dave Swarbrick of Fairport. Prior to joining Fairport Ric was playing jazz clubs as a solo violinist. “All of that background gave me broad tastes in music,” Ric reflects. “I love playing ukulele. I very much admire Joe Brown’s virtuosity on the uke. His version of I’ll See You In My Dreams at the end of the Albert Hall tribute concert to George Harrison back in 2002 was unforgettable. I actually freeze-framed the video of Joe playing that number so I could learn every finger movement, every note. I have recorded on uke with Joe Brown now…which was a great pleasure. He’s certainly a master of the instrument-and no mean guitarist, either! My hobby, though, is playing piano-the best instrument in the world to compose on.
“I really enjoy the range of music at Cropredy. We’ve had Status Quo there in the past and Alice Cooper this year should be amazing. There is simply nobody else like him and people seem delighted he’ll be appearing! What is great is the mix, though. We have the Mediaeval Baebes-past classical chart toppers-as well as Gregg Russell and Ciaran Algar, the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Musicians of the Year. And there’s Martin Barre from Jethro Tull plus 10cc and Levellers who are both festival gold. I’m very excited about Nik Kershaw, too ““ here for the second time. Probably my best moment at Cropredy was my first one, in 1986, when I was on stage playing with Robert Plant and Fairport. I had to pinch myself. What a moment! But Cropredy always has a lovely warm spirit-remarkable, given the huge numbers of people there. “I am not sure what else I would have done if I’d not been a musician-but maybe as a life-long vegetarian I’d have worked for PETA-People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Ever since the late 1960s I’ve believed that if we showed more compassion to the creatures we share our planet with, maybe we could learn to be kinder to each other, too. But the three days of Cropredy each August are one time when kindness and goodwill do seem to prevail. “ Katharine Blake, classically trained founder member, writer and singer of the Mediaeval Baebes has also heard many positive things about the unusually warm and welcoming atmosphere at Cropredy. “I am very much looking forward to it,” she says. “Right through my years of classical training at the Purcell School I doubt I’d have ever expected to share the bill with Alice Cooper-but we are all thrilled about it, actually! I have great admiration for Fairport Convention, too.” In fact the Baebes’ own musical story began with an impromptu (and illegal) concert late one night after they broke into Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, London to sing madrigals and read medieval verses whilst wearing flowing white gowns and crowns of ivy. Which sounds rather spookey! Even Alice Cooper might have been impressed by this? “He might!” Katharine laughs. “It was fun. Then, after that, we started pulling lyrics from medieval texts and setting them to the original music I wrote. We sing in lots of languages-Old English, Medieval versions of French, Italian, Spanish, Welsh, Irish, Cornish, Arabic as well as Classical Latin. The themes are timeless-love, longing, the inevitability of death, the pointlessness of material possessions, the dangers of drink. We use a range of wonderful antique instruments. Some of the six girls dance, too. It is quite a theatrical performance, very visual and musically beautiful. As a child I had always loved concerts of Early English music at London’s Wigmore Hall with my parents and then I started singing Elizabethan madrigals. Our first album featured madrigals and its big success in the classical chart was a huge surprise because we were only doing it for our own amusement, really. Things just snowballed from there. Now we tour Europe, Canada and the USA-we are back on the East Coast again in September-and we’ve also toured here with Jools Holland which was enjoyable. We have another album out at the end of the year. But Cropredy will be something different and it is eagerly anticipated by all of us.” Chipping Norton-based Fairport founder Simon Nicol looks forward to welcoming the Mediaeval Baebes to what promises to be a vintage Cropredy this August.
“Last year’s event was particularly successful and that always provides a challenge for the next year,” Simon tells me. “So we strive to constantly raise the bar-though the process has to be evolutionary as many regular Cropredy-goers are very proprietorial about the event. It is important they see it as their festival. The mix of performers this year is exciting. Clearly we are pushing the boundaries with Alice Cooper. We knew that would surprise everyone. People seem very excited about him coming-we are honoured he has agreed to be here. And we are welcoming back 10cc and Nik Kershaw. Plus the line-up includes the Peatbog Fairies and Lunasa, both very popular hard-core traditional bands as well as the Mediaeval Baebes who have an excellent reputation for their highly original, musically beautiful work. I look forward to seeing their performance. The male of the species is still far too dominant in the music business. So, in the interests of equality as well as variety, we like to get as many females as we can on to the Cropredy stage. “It is good to know the audience is revved up for bands they’ve seen before-but the most exciting thing for me is when there’s a new act that people haven’t seen previously who come on stage and, within five minutes, they’ve won 10,000 new friends. It happened not long ago with The Travelling Band and I think it will happen again this year with someone like The Moulettes or Danny and the Champions of the World- or the Mediaeval Baebes. It is this mix of the unknown and unexpected with the original and familiar which is intoxicating and always makes Cropredy so exciting for us. “The festival is a big enterprise, though and we have to ensure it pays its way. It has a very positive impact on the local economy here in rural Oxfordshire.We deal with five or six local farmers and use 175 acres of land with four miles of fencing and a mile and a half of trackway. Plus, over three days,we have to deal with more than 50,000 gallons of sewage! Which is extraordinary. The toilets are one of our biggest expenses but these days we aim to make them civilised out of respect for our audience. None of us is getting any younger and we all want our creature comforts! “Those practicalities aside, there is a lot to look forward to at Cropredy this year. I hope we have another big success because, with that success comes the possibility of another Fairport’s Cropredy Convention in 2014. And we all want that to happen.” For more about Fairport’s Cropedy Convention see www.fairportconvention.com or facebook/fairportofficial or twitter @faircropfest Nick Dent-Robinson