Generally, as some bands sometimes forget, the term ‘progressive’ is more about pushing boundaries and taking the music forward than how many mellotrons can be incorporated.
This is precisely the case with Fairport Convention, since they invented the English folk-rock genre – almost by accident – on the track A Sailor’s Life, some 45 years ago.
Far from the revolving-door membership of yore, the current Fairport crew have been together for 16 years, although still featuring bassist Dave Pegg and founding guitarist Simon Nicol from those earlier days. For the whole of this winter tour, they’re ably supported by acoustic duo Kevin Dempsey and Rosie Carson, who tonight manage to prep the audience perfectly with their excellent guitar/violin work and Carson’s strong vocals. The question is, will Fairport be resting on their laurels at this most stable point in their career? The answer, happily, is certainly not.
The band’s intentions are shown early on with the title track from the current Myths And Heroes album, in which the folk-orientated instrumentation is perfectly integrated into a brilliantly structured rock song. Much of the material tonight follows the same path. New instrumental The Gallivant, from former Soft Machine violinist Ric Sanders, possesses a complexity and instrumental interplay that wouldn’t disgrace a Gentle Giant piece. Meanwhile, the fluid yet brooding Mercy Bay demonstrates an easy, dark majesty. Most impressive in the band’s performance is the way instruments are changed at will as the songs require it, giving variety and fluidity – particularly from multi-instrumentalist Chris Leslie, who appears to be able to coax a tune from any instrument handed to him.
Part of any Fairport performance is the easy bonhomie the band display during the between-song banter (perhaps enhanced by the comfortably seated nature of the venue), and the rambling introduction to The Festival Bell in particular is priceless. From the fact that the titular church bell has been named after the band, a discourse develops regarding the number of eponymous bells that other bands possess, leading to Pegg proclaiming them to be “more metal than Black Sabbath”. Sanders then affirms that, as the years go by, he is increasingly enamoured with that band’s “classic album ‘Haemorrhoid’” – though his assertion that one band member possesses “the boxed set” should perhaps be glossed over…
With the newer material accompanied by a sprinkling of classics (Crazy Man Michael is an unexpected delight), the capacity crowd leave well satisfied. There’s nothing mythical here tonight – just another triumphant performance from a true British institution.