Midway through the perennial three-hour trawl through the songs and bandmembers from his band’s now fifty-year history, Fairport Convention’s frontman Simon Nicol summed up the Cropredy experience with one simple phrase, “We’ve all been here before”. A knowing cheer rising from the twenty thousand strong audience showed the truth of this. Cropredy people know what to expect from their festival, and come back year on year for it, bringing their children and then then grandchildren along for the ride. They know the place, they know their place in it and they know the routine. It’s a formula of familiarity which many folks love, and one that gives the festival its particular feel.
The formula is certainly paying off, as the festival field was packed by the time I arrived. Navigating through the crowd with my little terrier dog in tow it was all I could do to find us a space within the massed ranks of fold up seats. Having made acquaintances with my neighbours - three generations of a family on one side, wolfhound lovers on the other – I settled in to bask in the sunshine and a set of the “Good ole songs” from Plainsong. Fortunately, the field has an almost perfect slope, which gives all a decent view of the stage, though that might be seen through the giant screens on either side of it, and the PA had the power and clarity for Iain Matthew’s musicality to reach and be appreciated by the whole field. Soon though I found my eye casting around, noticing the seemingly infinite range and vintage of the souvenir t-shirts on display, and checking out other people’s dogs; the many, many other terriers but also plenty of handsome lurchers and placcid Labradors, and the odd crazy Chihuahua cross. People had clearly set up for the long haul, with rugs, beach shelters, flags, cool boxes, and bags full of kit and supplies – all sporting the pink-tags given out as a security measure. Though it was a little early for tea, I guess aromas from the grills, pans and fryers of the food stalls surrounding this sea of seats was rather enticing, as long queues had started to form.
For me though it was time to move on, down into the village for a Cropredy institution, Leatherat’s show at the Brasenose Arms. Now for those unfamiliar with the festivals format, its fairly straightforward, there is one stage. Ok sometimes there is a spot on the Radio Oxford tent – and Marillion pulled a crowd to theirs – but, in essence, if something else is happening it’s happening somewhere else. So, as I walked through the campsite I spotted any number of groups sitting around shooting the summer breeze beneath gazebos and awnings, one group even had a bar set up with an impressive array of optics. Onward along the Southern Oxford canal, where the boater community were engaged in a busy towpath trade with passing gongoozlers. Into Cropredy village, to find festival goers mooching around the village shop and impromptu tat stalls nearby, wandering the pretty village lanes for garage sales and pop up cafes, and admiring the entrants for Fairport Scareport scarecrow competition. But the Brasenose was my destination, so I could not tarry too long, and the way was clear – towards the mass of boozers spilling out onto the village green. By the time I got there the barman was wringing the last out of a cider bag in the pub’s outside bar, and Leatherat’s old-school-crustie raucousness of a show was in full effect. The beer garden was jumping and got properly whipped up by their traditional closing number, the counter culture classic “Reefer song”, belted out with plenty of screech and distortion, more than enough surely to penetrate the addling effects of an afternoon’s drinking.
The show being over, a mass exodus from the beer garden told me it was time to head back to site, where I found Marillion’s set was well underway. Whilst I was away the tide had risen in the seated sea, it was even more packed than earlier, and now a bigger standing crowd was evident in front of stage. From their rapt expressions, presumably they were Marillion devotees. Singer Steve Hogarth joked with the audience that they would usually try and do short songs for festival crowds, but there was no need at Cropredy, where most neutrals were more than happy with the extended instrumentals and proggy atmospherics. On the big screen twitter feed one punter posted ironically “#only missed half song queuing for food”. Now, this was a band I had not seen before, even back in their popular heyday with then frontman Fish, but I can say it was a beguiling set of real listening compost, and as I relaxed on my little rug my mind drifted easily on their melodies. Certainly it was a much gentler experience than the one I’d just come from, and that vibe continued with the performer who followed on soon after, the legendary Dougie MacLean. He told us he knew many of the faces in the audience, and possibly even he knew even more backstage from his lifetime of wanderings as a travelling troubadour. The set was full of heartfelt humour, and of course his classic song “Caledonia”, as well as some nice stuntwork, for example playing digeridoo and guitar at the same time. Great skills for a soloist to have. All too soon though this very enjoyable spot was over, and I could really feel the anticipation building as the crew rigged the stage for Fairport Convention’s grand finale.
There weren’t many who didn’t know what to expect from the show. There would be the breakthrough songs from the sixties and early seventies for sure, there would be special guests, and most likely these would be from the remarkable complement of musicians who have convened with Fairport over the years. There would be tributes to those who’ve checked out, and there would be some form of theme. As expected, the epic set delivered in spades on all of those categories. The theme – 50 years of Fairport Convention. The ex-members, well how about the original ‘67 line up – Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble (complete with her knitting) joined Simon Nicol to perform songs from the eponymous first album they made as teenagers. The emotional tribute, Simon Nicol his voice for once wavering, as he paid tribute to Martin Lamble, the original drummer who so sadly did not live even to see the seventies. Then when it came to the big songs, Richard Thompson playing on “Suzanne” was truly out of this world, and what a treat to hear Ashley Hutching’s play the bass part of his song “Tam Lin” with so much feel. Chris Wild had the unenviable task of singing like the incomparable Sandy Denny, but seemed to relish the challenge and her efforts seemed well appreciated. The current line-up came back together for barnstorming performances of “Farewell, Farewell”, “Sloth” and “Now be Thankful” which apparently had been enough to get them through the somewhat briefer sets of their tours of America in the seventies. But at Cropredy it seemed only a brief interlude. More songs, more guests and several shooting stars later, as midnight approached, it was time for the unifying experience which alone is worth the ticket price, the singing of “Meet on the Ledge”. The sea of seated rose as one to their feet and as their swaying gathered momentum the whole field chorused ‘If you really mean it, it all comes round again’. A lyric which really does seem to capture the essence of the Cropredy Festival for its fans.
As for me, well I can get into that message, and Cropredy has something else about it which appeals to me. The simple set up and seating thing mean that you do spend most of the time appreciating the music in front of you or just relaxing, rather than bimbling around the site looking for the next thing, so come the time to see if you can make it through Fairport’s finale you still have something left. Its almost like an endurance event, a festival for those in it for the long haul.
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