“Handel then teamed up with Hinge And Bracket to form The Doors, as I’m sure you know…” Simon Nicol is introducing a song with a history lesson, and taking his time about it.
In the early stages of this 150-minute, two-set show, his zany anecdotes are endearing. The audience chuckle along. Later in the evening, our patience is somewhat exhausted, and one rather wishes Fairport Convention would spend more time playing music than indulging in interminable sub-Monty Python sketches.
After 50 years as a member, Nicol – the only founder standing – has the right to take the fabled folk ensemble where he chooses, but if you’re expecting the inventive intensity of the early Sandy Denny/Richard Thompson-era albums at a concert these days, forget it. A night with The Fairports now is primarily a cosy exercise in easy listening and folk songs about historic Irish soldiers.
Nicol tackles most vocals, but shifts are taken by bassist Dave Pegg (who joined in ’69) and Chris Leslie (a new boy of a mere two decades), while Ric Sanders (once of Soft Machine, who signed up in ’84) plays violin. Drummer Gerry Conway (ex-Jethro Tull and Cat Stevens) is probably still on trial, having only joined in 1998.
All are, of course, consummate musicians, switching between instruments like it’s nothing and never putting a foot wrong. They mix classic and newer material, featuring most recent album Myths And Heroes extensively. “I was going to refer to it as our last album,” quips Nicol, “but that might be tempting fate.”
They explain that some leftover boxes of said album were found “in one of Dave Pegg’s bicycle sheds”, thus prompting the need for their traditional winter tour. Whether the songs are old or new, an awful lot of them do seem to be about dead soldiers called John, from John Condon to John Hawkwood, the latter being mentioned in Hawkwood’s Army. Introducing one, Nicol points out: “You can tell it’s a folk song as it has 16 verses and only two chords.”
Soft and sleepy as the sets are, the picks from their illustrious catalogue lift the energy, even if their choices, with no female singer to tackle ‘the Sandy role’, eschew what most would deem their finest moments. Leslie’s My Love Is In America is a fine song, and compositions by Ralph McTell and Anna Ryder perk things up. 2011’s Festival Bell is also visited.
While it’s commendable that Fairport Convention aren’t just recycling nostalgia, one suspects the fans here could have tolerated a lot more of it. Finally, there’s a welcome flourish of anthem Meet On The Ledge. Support act Roger Davies joins in, as do the crowd. The chapel sees the light.