Legends rocked the folks at Folk-Rock legend’s Cropredy Convention. A crowd of 20,000 witnessed headline performances from the hosts Fairport Convention and 10cc, but both were hard-pressed to match Alice Cooper’s opening night headline set .
Alice laid on a bitchin’ piece of theatre for the field-full of mainly mature music fans. From the moment the curtain dropped to reveal a stage set remarkably like that of a fairground house of horror it was a relentless ride, an extravaganza of Burtonesque costumes and props from the dark side of pantomime.
Formation guitars, whips, a python, a straightjacket, even an oversized coffee cup for ‘Caffeine’ - you didn’t need to catch all the words to get the meaning. Having won the crowd’s full attention the show took us on one hell of a crazy journey - Alice transformed into a twenty foot tall giant, got shrunk, went nuts, killed a nurse, was guillotined and then descended into the afterworld where he revived rockstars who’d checked out back in the back in the day – John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix – a brilliant subterfuge to segue in a few stonking cover versions, before finally it was time for the big hits and a ‘Thank you England’.
The show was stunning, add in the amazing guitar work, especially from the sensational Orianthi, and an extraordinary drum solo – and which crowd could resist? Cropredy lapped it up., and earned Alice praise. “The best rock'n'roll audience of the tour” he later Tweeted. As the last night of his current tour that title will stand for a while at least. An inspired booking for the opening night, and a serious coup as this was Alice’s only appearance in the UK this year, so a good few Cropredy virgins came along to witness the spectacle and stayed for the weekend.
Friday night’s headline act, the famous 10cc gave us a complete contrast to Alice’s theatrics with a display of polished musical professionalism delivered front and centre of stage. They struck up in perfect unison and allowed the sheer catchiness of tunes like ‘The things we do for love’ and ‘Art for arts sake’ do the work for them. Led by founder member Graham Gouldman, these consummate multi-instrumental musical talents made it all look and sound so easy, but there was incredible detail and variation in each number. No wonder they were so well regarded in their heyday, and the magic in their songs and tunes got through to the Cropredy audience, which is known to respect great talents. The set earned loud applause and for their appreciation the crowd got four more tunes in the encore. When ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ next comes on the radio I will listen with fresh ears.
As is the Cropredy tradition Fairport Convention took charge for Saturday night’s three hour showcase. It was as epic and atmospheric as ever as we trawled through the band’s four decade back catalogue of traditional and original compositions. Chris Leslie was on particularly good form for ‘Mercy Bay’ which revived the set’s difficult middle section. Holding with tradition, special guests came and went. Jasper Carrot warmed up the crowd, Nik Kershaw and Tom Robinson both played their big hits and joined in with the house band which featured, amongst others, the talented Martin Barre (of Jethro Tull fame) and James Wood. Inevitably the Fairport set progressed towards its climax, with the crowd pleasing favourites ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, ‘Farewell, Farewell’ , ‘Matty Groves’ giving warning that the showbiz finale of ‘Meet On The Ledge’ was imminent. Again keeping the tradition, the band’s festival friends all came on stage to sing the emotive lyrics and hope not get motion sickness from the tens of thousands of gently swaying arms held aloft in front of them. With a shared sense of achievement for lasting the course, it felt good to be one pair of arms in that mass.
The Cropredy headline acts were a real treat this year, and there was strength in depth with perennial crowd pleasers the Levellers on support duties for 10cc and reggae/folk crossover act Edward II warming up for Alice Cooper. Then we had Moulettes whose show combined outlandish entertainment, cool sophistication and thick atmospherics. Seeing the band for the first time performing on a big stage and with the weather conditions just right – sunny, but not too sunny, breezy, but not too breezy, warm, not too warm - it made perfect sense. The set was sublime – powerful but slightly scary. The sound of cello, bass and bassoon generating bags of glorious bottom end overlaid by wyrd-folk melodies and slightly waify vocals. It was a pleasure to join them in an eminently listenable trip to a time and place in another dimension on that blissful Friday afternoon.
Mediaeval Baebes Sunday lunchtime spot was another hit, especially with the mainly mature men, and perhaps for a mix of reasons both intellectual and lascivious. Middle English singing is easier to take when the singers are gorgeous females wearing well fitted gowns and sporting garlands in their hair. A certain amount of added nymph factor definitely got us through ‘Kindereley’ and ‘Arianne’, and there was a distinctly low toned groan of disappointment when the Baebes announced their last number. A three hour afternoon set from Moulettes and Medieaval Baebes, now that would be a Cropredy treat.
This year it is fair to say that Alice Cooper’s show was the festival’s highlight, which perhaps seems odd with Cropredy at the folkier end of the festival spectrum, where showiness is not the main thing. And festival definitely retains its roots in the folk, singer/songwriter styles. Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman are well within that fold, and their songs of abduction, arson and the other homely themes of folksong struck a chord with the field on a relaxed afternoon. Similarly the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk award winners Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar were very well received, both performing for thousands on the big stage and to the dozens outside the Radio Oxford gazebo. Ciaran is an all Ireland champion musician and Greg has the sort of voice that works even when he loses the words. Representing the Celtic fringe we also had fabulous Irish tunesmiths Lunasa and the irrepressibly upbeat ‘acid-croft’ sound of Peatbog Faeries. That Alice was so successful at a folk festival is partly down to his expert showmanship, partly down to his fans coming along, but biggest measure is that the Cropredy audience are music fans first and foremost. Yes what happens on stage sometimes doesn’t make sense to the under 50 and it takes a while to realise that at least one act a day is there to help your digestion more than entertain you.
But in the end people mostly want to have a good time, and this older audience have clearly had some practice at that. At Cropredy you can set up your folding chairs, take in the three days-worth of bands in the perfectly shelving arena and only move as far as the bar, the caterers and the loo. Or walk into the village take in the Fringe, grab a breakfast and a beer and sit in a bustling beer garden watch a quality band, like Birds of Chicago. You can walk the towpath and talk to the boaters. You can shop for tat to your heart’s content at any number of pop-up stalls. Or you can spend the weekend relaxing at your campsite, after all the PA seems to pervade most of the site.
So this year, the year Alice Cooper came, the show really went on at Cropredy, and long may it continue to do so.
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