In numerology, 50 represents personal freedom and also indicates success by being a member of a large organisation or society. The number looms large over Fairport Convention in this, their 50th anniversary year. They have a designated birthday show at the Union Chapel in a few months, but tonight there’s a practice run for that to promote their latest release, the 50:50@50 album, a record of half studio, half live performances. At this stage of the game the band are certainly free to do exactly what they want, and the pews are packed with their ‘people’, fans who founding member Simon Nichol (guitar, vocals) says he recognises many of from over the years at the Cropredy Festival. It’s a very sizable ‘family’ gathering.
The band join Sally Barker for the last number of her support slot and, before anyone quite realises what’s happening, embark on their own set with opener Our Bus Rolls On, an explicitly autobiographical band anthem. Although eager to look forward, nobody in the band is going to deny their heritage, and the heavy hitters begin almost immediately as Genesis Hall follows, impeccable harmonies from Simon and Chris Leslie (mandolin, fiddle, vocals), as Ric Sanders (violin) swoops around the song. On the new album we get the ‘expensive version’ of instrumental Danny Jack’s Reward, but the ‘cheapo version’ is a showcase for Fairport’s rhythm section, as Dave Pegg (bass) and Gerry Conway (drums) drive the piece along.
The band continue to swing between the classics and some excellent new material, which often highlights their humorous side. Devil’s Work reveals a previously hidden interest in DIY from Pegg, even if his skills with a toolbox aren’t at the level of his exemplary bass work. The Naked Highwayman, an attempt to craft a new traditional tune, warns about keeping focused lest you end up like the titular character. Even Matty Groves acquires an IKEA reference. Sanders also does a couple of minutes of band-related stand-up halfway through the set, which deftly turns into a defence of the NHS.
It’s not all laughs, though. New number Eleanor’s Dream is a song about separation and loss which sees the most forceful drumming by Conway so far, in what is the most prog song of the night. A touching version of fan favourite Farewell Farewell heightens emotions some more, and Sally Barker re-joins the group for perennial set closer, a heartstring-tugging Meet On The Ledge.
Tonight shows a band in their prime. Despite much humorous self-deprecation about their age, which they claim is a combined 338, they play for nearly two hours and their tour schedule would put many to shame. With pride in the past and an eye to the future, here’s to 50 more years.