Cropredy is probably the best beer garden bash in Britain

Fairport's Cropredy Convention 2011 review

By Ian Wright | Published: Tue 23rd Aug 2011

around the festival site (1)

Thursday 11th to Saturday 13th August 2011
Cropredy, nr. Banbury, Oxfordshire., OX17 1OO, England MAP
£90 for the full weekend
Last updated: Wed 27th Jul 2011

A T-Shirt slogan neatly summarised the Festival as "Cropredy, a Weekend at the Bar". Boasting twenty thousand or so regulars, this is quite some bar and it has a pretty impressive beer garden to boot. What's more the landlord's band is known to do a decent turn on a Saturday night.

around the festival site (1)
Cropredy is a simple festival – everyone sits in one field to watch one stage. There's one Bar on site, so you'll jostle with the drummer from the last act to get a jug of 6X before the next lot strike up. It's all rather egalitarian, "The People's Republic of Cropredy" as another T-Shirt has it. Happily Cropredy is a People's Republic where queues are minimal. The Bar is reputed to be the longest in Britain, and is crewed by some of the hardest working bartends I've seen. They need to be; the drinking starts at midday and doesn't abate until midnight.

It's run by Wadsworth so their ales rule the roost but alongside a decent selection of lager and laughing juice ciders. There's enough choice of catering stalls to keep everyone well fed without the frustration of twenty minutes stood in line wondering if falafels might have been a better idea. Blocks of portaloos strategically positioned around the main arena keep well up with the inevitable outcomes of the drinking and eating, with only the occasional need for chaps to 'Wee on the hedge' between the headline acts.

around the festival site (people)
Whether by fortune of accident or design Cropredy's arena field is near enough perfect for the job. For several hundred feet the pastureland shelves gently down towards the stage where it flattens out for some fifty feet. The effect is that, when seated in fold-up chairs, each row can see over the heads of those in front. The big screen behind the stage projects an image of the goings-on large enough to be seen from the back of the field from where, thanks to an excellent sound system, for the most part, music can also be clearly heard. The seating is demarcated to leave a flat 'mosh pit' area in front of stage free for those wishing to stand, sit or simply lie on the ground. Pretty much all of the twenty thousand can see what they paid to see, which always makes people happy.

People seem to feel a strong urge to occupy a particular spot in the arena day-by-day and year-by-year. These patches have to be claimed early, so as soon as the gates open people pour in to the arena hauling trolleys laden with enough gear to sit out most imaginable weather conditions and marking their location with banners and flags. A nice by-product of all this claim staking is an opportunity to test the national flag recognition skills, perhaps next year we'll make up some bingo cards. I'm never sure if familiarity breeds content or contempt, at Cropredy it seems knowing you were conceived under the sound tower or having stood at the same spot by the bar since 1982 gives people the feeling that Cropredy is their Festival, and they like it like that.

around the festival site (2)
Most things that happen around and about the Festival can be prefixed with 'The Cropredy'. So we have 'The Cropredy Skies', the big open skyscapes of the North Oxfordshire countryside with their mellow sunsets, clear dawns and stacked thunderclouds - which this year threatened deluges, but thankfully did not deliver. 'The Cropredy Wasps' seem to know there will be an extraordinary feast on this site every year and so appear in their thousands keeping the lovely St John's Ambulance people busy. Is there something about musicians that makes them particularly scared of wasps I wondered, watching various attempts to swat away the jaspers with guitars, perhaps forgetting thousands of people were watching.

around the festival site (dogs)
'The Cropredy Dogs' must be one of the festival's unique selling points, is there another of this size where dogs are allowed onto the main site? Scarves and flashing collars were de rigueur for these well-behaved festival going dogs. Apparently like their owners many been coming since puppy-hood, so they likely know the favourite spot and feel secure. Despite there being hundreds of dogs around the site I've never seen a scrap or even trod in their inevitable product. 'The Cropredy Dog Show' would be a great thing, for now we've put a pooch parade in the gallery.

Sounding like a medieval haircut 'The Cropredy Fringe' is the umbrella term for all that goes on in the village and along the towpath over 'The Cropredy Weekend'. 'The Cropredy Breakfast', just like a normal cooked breakfast but colder, stodgier and eaten with tens of others whilst perched on plastic chairs. Amongst others the village school, church, cricket and canoe clubs are in on this eggs and bacon game. Both village pubs put on extra bars and have bands in their beer gardens.

around the festival site (2)
The Brasenose's being the larger garden of the two attracted a good crowd to see Country charmers ahab and fabulously quirky Aussie band Kangaroo Moon. The Red Lion's more compact and weatherproof yard leaned towards the pub rock side of things, but had really tasty burgers. The Festival's folkie side showed itself with Morris dancers plying their jingle jangle trade in the pubs and churchyard. Elsewhere villagers cashed in on the passing trade by selling tasty homemade food from their doorsteps; Buffalo burgers, curry and cake – a festival-goers delight. There seemed an inordinate amount of tat for sale at Cropredy – although strangely not promoted to full 'The Cropredy...' status. Villagers sell it off their drives, traders sell it in roadside yards and on site, narrowboats laden with the ethnic and craft variety sell it from their holds. There's even a car boot sale on Saturday for anyone who hasn't spent their fill on stuff which will end up forgotten in a cupboard. There were some stalls worth a visit in the Fringe and on site – a chainsaw sculptor by the canal and on site the Pandora's box which is the Music Room being the most notable.

'The Cropredy Reggae band' was an interesting one this year, and not only because unusually it didn't rain on them. UB40 split opinions with an ultra professional show to headline Thursday night. Many folks didn't bother to hang around for it and some said without Ali Campbell were just a tribute act but hopefully they still enjoyed the bass from the safety of their tents or caravans. If you like listening to 70s Reggae hits like 'Homely Girl' and 'Wear You To The Ball' loud and clear then this was a great gig. Two winners from the Jamaican Independence Festival song competition 'Boom-shaka-laka' and 'Cherry Oh Baby' went down particularly well forty years later at this Festival. The band dipped and swayed in unison along to the beat with the cheesy smiles of experienced Reggae-men, definitely smirking music.

The Urban Folk Quartet
'The Cropredy Surprise' was for me The Urban Folk Quartet. A dazzling blonde with one heck of a diamond smile, a little bit of flattery and plenty of enthusiasm won over the Friday evening 'The Cropredy Crowd' in one tune. Amazing musicianship from the fourpiece of two fiddlers, an oud-man and a drummer did the rest. Soon many, many hundreds were down the front dancing to the Celt meets Latin meets Rave 'Funky House' sound. Who'd have thought Afro-Peruvian handclapping could be so much fun. 'Super Offbeat Return' was a joy, 'Missing Jig' the happiest sad tune I have heard all summer. The band's exuberance could have been lost on the seated masses but the screen came into it's own as the band clowned for the cameras, their playfulness getting cheers from all across the arena. The delighted crowd demanded and got an encore, one of very few over the weekend.

Saturday night's closing act was no surprise, the Festival's head honchos Fairport Convention played their customary three-hour epic set. This year they also opened the proceedings with a short and sweet set of acoustic tunes on Thursday afternoon, supposedly the Festival Bell ringing from the village's church tower formally opened the event, but the ring seemed to be lost in the wind. Still at least the set got 'Ukulele Central' out of the way. This year the main show marked forty years since the band released the folk rock opera concept album 'Babbacoombe Lee', the story of the man they couldn't hang - seemingly a particular favourite with much of the crowd.

Fairport Convention
Compared with previous years there were just a few special guests, but both Ralph McTell, and PJ Wright added a fair bit of spice to the mix – in particular 'Hard Times' was superb. Inexorably the band worked through their thirty odd numbers towards the finale. The story of and murder behind the penultimate song and perennial favourite 'Matty Groves' acted out on the big screen in stop-motion animation by Ken, Action Man and Barbie was terrific. All too soon the time came for the closing number 'Meet on the Ledge', those who could stood, swayed and sang along "If you really mean it, it all comes round again". I doubt there was a dry eye in the field, or on the stage.

The Cropredy line-up is famous for it's variety and quality; this year nearly thirty acts took the stage over the three days. It was nearly all killer, hardly any filler – for me there were three acts which stood out.

Seasick Steve
Seasick Steve who headlined Friday night with a session of blisteringly raw railroad blues played on and a guitar made from two Morris minor hubcaps and a broomstick. Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones kept the momentum going as Mr Seasick and his wire haired drummer went down some mean blues alleys. From the packed-out mosh pit to the back of the field, wherever I walked this set got rapturous applause.

Hayseed Dixie seemed to find their spiritual home at this "The Old Original" Festival. The novelty value of pissing off the porch bluegrass meeting heavy rock in numbers like 'The Ace of Spades' or 'Highway to Hell' has worn off some over the years but 'Bohemian Rhapsody' still worked brilliantly and 'Keepin your Poop in a Jar' was hilarious. For an encore the audience were offered the choice of Hillbilly or Rock, as the vote was split we got a mash up of 'Deliverance' and 'Eton Rifles'. Drinkin' music pure and simple – so it worked a treat at Cropredy.

Prog-folk trio Lau's set was one to admire although it wasn't altogether entertaining. Accordionist Martin Green and fiddler Aidan O'Rourke worked themselves into a trance-like state, their flickering crazed eyes not an altogether attractive sight on the big screen. Along with Kris Drever on guitar the bands musicianship was however quite extraordinary. Their tunes constantly skirted the border of discordance, always on the verge of becoming noise, which created a great feeling of dramatic tension. Definitely a set for the seated, I had to have a little lie down myself. At times it was literally and metaphorically like staring into the sun.

The Cropredy tradition of mixing the bands of yesteryear with artists just breaking through continued this year. Part of prize for the BBC Young Folk Award winner of the is a slot at Cropredy, this year Moss, Moore, Rutter, wowed with a traditional instrumental set on a par with Lau's and certainly much more tuneful. The Travelling Band were great fun, a proper band of young dudes with a great folkpop sound like a less dirgey Mumford & Sons. The bands name seemed a misnomer as their van broke down five miles from the site, they crowd sourced a mechanic during their set to fix it and then reportedly sold the van. Katriona Gilmore & Jamie Roberts gave a smashing set to follow Fairport on Thursday afternoon, Katriona's impassioned singing and Jamie's unusual lap slapping guitar technique earned them a rare Cropredy encore.

Their was a fair selection of music for the older generation to stand at the bar reminiscing too. If a reminder of Bob Dylan's influence on the late 60s scene and Fairport in particular was needed The Dylan Project delivered. The 70s Celtic folk-progrock of recently reformed Horslips veered dangerously close to dancing dwarf noodliness but was clearly appreciated by most men over fifty. A slightly younger demographic loved The Blockheads, the 'mosh pit' being temporarily taken over by forty plusses with 'Reasons To Be Cheerful'. Home Service's folk rock meets brass section seems to have stood the test of time well and attracted a comparatively young crowd who may know frontman John Tams from repeats of Sharpe on the History Channel better than his Anti-Thatcher activism in the 1980s. As the Fairport generation start passing retirement age it will be interesting to see what other Eighties bands take up the reins.

So all in all Cropredy is probably the best beer garden bash in Britain. It's a boozy Festival for sure, but I didn't see any obnoxious drunks, just a field full of friendly folks who know where they are and what they are doing. As much an institution as convention, but an institution with a lovely touch of the shambles – that feeling which has characterised the counter-culture since the Fairport lads first struck up all those years ago.

around the festival site (2)
review by: Ian Wright

photos by: Ian Wright / James Creaser

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