While the world goes bonkers for the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper – this writer included – another major milestone is being celebrated by folk rock’s first family, Fairport Convention. Fifty years to this day, a teenage quartet from north London tested their musical mettle with their first-ever gig in a church hall in Golders Green. Tonight, co-founder and last original member Simon Nicol, bass player Dave Pegg, drummer Gerry Conway, violinist Ric Sanders and mandolin/banjo player Chris Leslie return to their regular London home, the reverential circular space of the Union Chapel, where the band have cosied up to the impressive stone pulpit on stage many a time at the start and end of their recent winter tours.
This might be billed as the 50th birthday celebration but for Fairport it’s business as usual, a message pointedly delivered by opener Our Bus Rolls On – the same song that kicked off their show here back in February and the shape of things to come as the set barely deviates from the one they played that night. Later this month, at the band’s own Cropredy Convention festival in Oxfordshire, there’ll be a fuller, more indulgent event where past members and current guest contributors will rub shoulders. Tonight there’s little squeak room for surprises and although the marvellous Jacqui McShee is here to sing Lady Of Carlisle (from their latest album, 50:50@50) and Sally Barker does a fine job on Rising For The Moon, it seems a shame that the very early years – and their remarkable West Coast-inspired self-titled debut – are untouched. Meanwhile, their first vocalist, Judy Dyble, has been invited to attend and watches cheerfully from the audience, amid a clique of rosy-cheeked 60-somethings who were also there at the beginning. It’s a missed opportunity, to say the least.
The crowd, however, seem happy enough as the between-song jokes flow freely (the impish Sanders especially has a gift for a one-liner), and Nicol makes a brief reference to Fairporters both extant and passed away before performing a presentable Who Knows Where The Time Goes? (It does lack the vulnerable trill of a certain singer’s rendering, though.)
Set two livens up with the Chris Leslie-led reel John Gaudie and the trad knees-up Matty Groves, the very lovely Portmeirion and Ralph McTell’s The Hiring Fair, a story that perfectly propels us back in time to the first flush of youth. Meet On The Ledge is its usual rousing encore, with some rows of fans standing, swaying hand-in-hand to its unifying sentiment.
It’s all exquisitely played, edifying seasonal fodder from these elder statesmen, but given the occasion, somewhat low on steampower and nostalgic thrills.
Let’s see what they pull out of the bag for Cropredy.