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Fairport's Cropredy Convention 2016

Venue: A Big Stage
Town: Cropredy
Date: 11-13/08/16
Website: http://www.fairportconvention.com/

Fairport Convention's Cropredy Festival has been going since the mid-70's and now attracts more than 18,000 music lovers to a large green field site near the village of Cropredy, just north of Banbury every August.

There were a dozen camping fields surrounding the large arena, with its gentle slope making it ideal for a large outdoor stage and two large video screens.

On first glance, the organisation seemed flawless with subtle security and helpful, friendly stewards, and even troops of local scouts who were roped in to help set up the campsites.

Yes this was festival that knew how to put on a good show.

With only a single stage, the weather gods once again looked on kindly and music fans were blessed with fine weather and lots of fine music across the three days.

The nearby village of Cropredy, with its two pubs and thatched cottages, was making hay while the sun shone as locals geared up for their busiest weekend of the year. Local bands were playing in both pubs during the festival, and there was lots of stalls and entrepreneurs, the local church was charging a fiver to go to the top of the tower, and you could grab a cooked breakfast for a similar sum.

The site is licensed for 20,000 people and the arena was pretty full on Thursday when the first acts took to the stage.

The arena had plenty of food stalls and other outlets around the perimeter as well as the renowned bar - one of the longest on the festival scene - and judging by the size of the tanker parked up alongside, they were expecting plenty of business.

The organisation has come leaps and bounds since the early days when they used to use tea chests to store cash at the bar!

There were also charity stalls and a charity raffle, with a signed guitar one of the prizes. There were even on-site ATM's in case you ran out of cash.

One of the nicer touches was the after gig signing sessions which gave fans a chance to meet the performers.

As for the music on offer, it was an eclectic mix - from traditional folk to progressive hard rock.

A brief acoustic set from Fairport Convention got the Festival off to a flying start.

They opened with Festival Bell, and included John Barleycorn and a couple of tunes that got a great reception and got the crowd in the mood.

A word too about the MC for the three days. Anthony John Clarke, did an excellent job not only introducing performers but bringing the festival spirit alive.

Gryphon, a quirky band that was around in the early Seventies and have now come back together, were next up. This six piece folk band played a wide range of medieval and renaissance music on a wide variety of instruments, and while their set was never going to set the heather on fire it was superbly played and the band won my award for the best song introduction when they announced they were going to play "a Kent jig from 1580"!

Next on stage were a band from Canterbury who started out as buskers and are now one of the most sort-after bands on the festival scene, Coco and the Butterfields ignited the crowd with their lively set that incorporated infectious rhythms, a clever blend of styles, and included their single Warriors.

It was no surprise to see a while later that they had sold-out of CD's.

Hayseed Dixie have been doing plenty of festivals this year and it easy to see why. They have bags of personality and high levels of musicanship and a great line in stage patter that comes from so many live performances.

At Cropredy they played an extended set that included mountain music versions of ACDC songs , and other classic such as Eye of The Tiger. The standout for me was their version of Bohemian Rhapsody - the performance of the day.

In his programme notes, one of the organisers, Gareth Williams, said he been trying to get Madness to play at Cropredy for the past ten years. Well it was well worth the wait as Suggs and Co reeled off hit after hit during their 90-minute headlining set that brought the first day to a great finale. Songs such as One Step Beyond, Baggy Trousers, and House of Fun were lapped up by the large crowd who danced away into the night.

FRIDAY

The Arena opens up an hour before the first act and veterans grabbed their favourite spots and settled down for a full 12 hours of great music.

The PA kicked off with the theme tune to "Black Beauty" that brought a smile to many. There was a gentle start to proceedings with a brief acoustic set from Anthony John Clarke and Dave Pegg.

The duo - Anthony on guitar and Dave on bass and mandolin - performed a section from their Mirth and Mischief tour. There was plenty of fine musicanship on display and plenty of gags including a delightful song about the Cropredy Car Boot Fair.

As part of the prize for winning the BBC 2 Young Folk Award, Scottish piper Brighde Chaimbeul, played an intriguing set of tunes, accompanied by two fellow youngsters on guitar and harp.

The haunting melodies from the pipes lingered in the warm air and Brighde, who is just 17 and hails from the Isle of Skye, wowed the appreciative crowd with her prowess. I'm sure we'll be hearing a lot more about this stellar folk performer in the coming years.

Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood, who make up the Sound of the Sirens, kept up the high standard with their foot-stomping folk/rock set on guitar and mandolin. The strong vocal duo already have a Glastonbury appearance under their belt and count Chris Evans among their growing army of fans.

The largely acoustic nature of proceedings was split asunder as we mellowed in the afternoon sun. The prog rock band Lifesigns, formed after a pub argument, took to the stage.

Straight away their keyboard-fuelled anthems evoked memories of Marillion and perhaps Genesis. Their lush arrangements were well received by the Cropredy crowd.

The rock theme was well and truly maintained by Willie and the Bandits, a classic blues rock trio who have carved a lucrative niche with their slide guitar/bass and drums combination.

Their blistering set went down a storm and brought the first encore of the day. Cropredy really rocked!

And it didn't stop there, next up was the prog rock group Headspace, featuring Rick Wakeman's son Adam, on keyboards. What stood out for me was their really tight arrangements and quality playing.

And while some of the folkies in the audience scratched their heads, the boys went down a storm with a lively set full of inventive playing.

Steeleye Span have been one of most influential folk/roots bands this country has ever produced. Lifting folk music out of the folk clubs and into the mainstream, they have been around for 47 years. And while some members come and go, the music keeps on coming.

Their Cropredy set was one of the highlights of the entire festival. Lead singer Maddy Prior was at her imperious best and the playing of Jesse May Smart on fiddle, who joined the band in 2014, was simply mesmerising.

Headlining on the Friday were the Bootleg Beatles, who looked to be on a sure fire thing after a day of great music that had been well appreciated.

They opened with A Hard Day's Night and played a set packed with Beatles classics. And while they played competently and sounded very authentic, the way they tried to mimic the originals musicians became rather wearing.

Their set, which featured a great While My Guitar Gently Weeps, was plagued by poor sound throughout. One minute the vocals were too low, next the guitars too loud, it was disappointing. And there was also some disappointment that there were no songs from the Sergeant Pepper era either.

But as the strains of Hey Jude filled the night most people seemed happy.

SATURDAY

A large crowd gathered for the appearance of Festival regular Richard Digance but not before the day had been welcomed with a rendition of the Wombles theme tune over the PA.

Next year Richard will celebrate 50 years in the music business and in a well-paced set he used all his experience to have Cropredy crowd in the palm of hand.

There was one surreal moment when most of the crowd, who knew what was coming, started waving white hankies in the air - apparently this is a Cropredy tradition.

And judging by the length of the queue for the post-gig signing session, Richard had struck the right chord with his collection pithy and poignant songs.

Next on stage was something very fresh and different. Maia are a young band who play "sci-folk" with a mixture of keyboards, guitars, drums and banjo.

And they certainly turned some heads with a set that was loud and punchy as it was tight.

Their set was stunning - driving rhythms and swirling keyboards gave their music a real edge and gained a standing ovation from the crowd. Excellent.

Gilmore and Roberts have carved out a winning formula with their brand of melodic folk and their Cropredy set was perfect for a sunny afternoon.

With Kat's superb fiddle playing and Jamie's sympathetic guitar it made for an intoxicating blend, backed with drums and bass.

Their set included Dr James, The Scarecow, and Alice Cooper's Poison.

Festivals can be a great place to see and hear new performers and it shape of the Pierce Brothers this was a case in point.

They breezed onto the stage, for all the world like two brash Aussies, with lots of whoops and hollers.

Thrashing their guitars and stomp boxes their performance was littered with plenty of calls and responses which the audience lapped up.

It was a lively performance and they were obviously moved by the thrill of performing in front of their biggest audience, after touring Europe for three months. What they lacked in finesse they more than compensated with bags of enthusiasm and what's more, the Cropedy crowd loved them.

The Demon Barbers XL promised a disco when they started their set and their performance, featuring clog and hip hop dancers, was one of the more exotic festival shows.

Indeed their uncanny way of taking traditional songs such as The Chemical Workers Song by Ron Angel and give them a modern twist, was very lively and engaging.

French band Babylon Circus were booked on the strength of a YouTube clip and boy did they delivered a great performance. Their blend of ska music with a brass section was infectious and very lively. Great stuff.

The quality of music was getting better and better. It was an eclectic line-up but it worked.

Ralph McTell needed little introduction and the master was in sparkling form with a delicious set that featured the popular songs such as From Clare to Here and Streets of London.

His stagecraft was second to none as he played a superb blues that invoked the ghost of Robert Johnson waiting for a Greyhound bus.

It was pleasure to hear one the the UK's top acoustic guitarists in sublime form. Wonderful.

It only paved the way for Fairport Convention's 150-minute set which closed the festival.

And what a brilliant set it was. Top class musicianship throughout - Chris Leslie was spectacular - and the nouse that comes from playing together for so long.

There was sadness in the air, quite naturally, with the passing of Dave Swarbrick but the silent photo tribute halfway through the set was very apt and very moving.

Fairport's Cropredy shows have often had guest performers in the past - Cat Stevens, Robert Plant spring to mind. But I don't think they've ever had an 11-year-old playing with them before. Young Toby Lee joined the band on Mr Lacey and showed why he's being touted as the next big thing.

There was another guest appearance by Roger Davies, a songwriter for West Yorkshire who was so thrilled to be on stage.

Fairport ran though a wide range of songs from Myths and Heroes, My Love Is In America and Portmeirion.

They finished with Matty Groves before returning for a storming Meet On The Ledge with everyone joining in. It was a great way to close what has undoubtedly been the pick of my Festival year. Well done to everyone concerned!

John Knighton, words and pics

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