I first “discovered” Fairport Convention in the summer of 1969 when , at the age of 15, I heard their hit single “Si Tu Dois Partir” on the car radio whilst on the way to a family holiday in Devon. I have been a fan of the band ever since.
However, I missed out on the band’s early years ,from its formation in 1967 until mid-1969. Until now that is . Last year , in 2017, Ashley Hutchings , Fairport’s original bass guitarist , put together a “words and music celebration to mark the group’s 50th anniversary” , which was commissioned by Scott Butler and performed at The Festival on the Pier, Cromer in May 2017 , almost 50 years to the day since Fairport’s first ever gig at St.Michael’s Hall, Golders Green on 27th May 1967.
The Cromer performance featured Ashley and a four-piece band that included Becky Mills, formerly a member of the acclaimed Waking The Witch.
Tonight at The Atkinson, Ashley and Becky performed the show again and it was superb!
Ashley and Becky gave a marvellous portrayal of the heady days of 1967 when Fairport were known as “the English Jefferson Airplane” and who played gigs with Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, at a time when “anything under the sun seemed possible”. The Jefferson Airplane association was beautifully illustrated with Becky’s superb version of “Somebody To Love”.
We heard what the young Fairporters wore, read, listened to, ate, the films they watched and the “happenings” they went to in 1967. Ashley described himself and his bandmates as “human blotting paper”.
In their early days ,Fairport listened to “the best of the singer songwriters” and “short melodic songs where the lyrics were important”.
Ashley and Becky gave us some beautiful examples of those songs, from Bob Dylan [“Lay Down Your Weary Tune”]; Joni Mitchell [ Becky’s stunning version of “I Don’t Know Where I Stand”]; Leonard Cohen [“Bird On A Wire”]; Jackson C. Frank [“You Never Wanted Me”] and Eric Andersen [“Close The Door Lightly When You Go”] , many of which were recorded for BBC Radio sessions , particularly for John Peel.
Ashley told of playing in late night clubs until sunrise , which he portrayed in the song “About Dawn” which describes how “a rattling van unloads its cargo of crumpled youth”.
Particularly poignant were Ashley’s memories of the brilliant but tragic Nick Drake and how he first saw Nick perform at The Roundhouse. Ashley paid a touching and emotional tribute to Nick in his song “Given Time” [from the Rainbow Chasers’ album “A Brilliant Light”] .
Fairport were themselves struck by tragedy in May 1969 , when their van crashed and drummer Martin Lamble was killed , along with Jeannie Franklyn who was Richard Thompson’s girlfriend. Ashley described how the band reconvened at Farley Chamberlain , a “place of recuperation” . He told us how the band , along with new members Dave Pegg and Dave Swarbrick , became a “whole group” and created “a magic that had never existed before”. The result of this was ,of course, the seminal folk rock album “Liege and Lief” , from which Ashley and Becky gave us a marvellous rendition of Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick’s “Crazy Man Michael” . A fitting end to a wonderfully evocative show which transported us back to a magical time half a century ago.
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