At the start of 2020, things were normal for Britain’s first and longest surviving folk-rock group: they embarked on their annual winter tour, with a fine new album, Shuffle And Go, to promote, their spring acoustic tour in place and a year ahead of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of Full House, leading up to the first ever complete live performance of the album at Cropredy, where the bill would include several acts with strong Fairport links, including Richard Thompson and Matthews Southern Comfort, also celebrating 50 years since their number one classic Woodstock.
Then, in the words of the song from the follow-up to Full House, sickness and diseases brought them (and the rest of the world) down. At a stroke, the spring tour was cancelled. Then Cropredy, like dozens of other festivals, was cancelled: to compensate, Fairport screened a time-synchronised performance of the previous year’s set… so we could all at least share the moment again.
A year dragged by. News trickled through – bands breaking up, singers returning to other careers, clubs closing permanently, magazines folding. Come Cropredy time, with rules somewhat relaxed, no festival was possible, but Fairport again shared a live performance at Cropredy weekend, this time filmed the weekend before at a one-off gig in the performance field behind the iconic Brasenose (as featured on the sleeve of Fairport, Nine).
Even the Winter 2022 Tour fell victim as, after a strong start, whole weeks of gigs had to be cancelled after members of the band and crew contracted COVID. Keen not to let down disappointed fans, Fairport rescheduled some gigs for the end of the tour and added others to an extended acoustic Spring Tour.
So it was on April 28th I found myself in Settle, watching the return of Fairport. As Simon Nicol remarked at the start of the show, “It’s been a long time. It’s been a strange time. A lot of things have changed. But some things don’t change, like the opening number…” and then went straight into a joyous version of Walk Awhile. The two sets that followed (there was no support, just pure Fairport) included a couple more tracks from Full House (and a chance to assure us the first complete performance would still happen at Cropredy); the mighty, room-filling epic acoustic Sloth, with four separate solos, was the stunning conclusion to the eight-song first half.
The band returned to the stage, with a journey back to Chris Leslie’s children – Banbury in the year of 59 and strange reports of flying saucers, one of six songs from the “now-where-were-we?” ‘latest CD’. Elsewhere, the set took us to various points in their career – Chris joining the band (the ‘new boy’ celebrates a quarter century in Fairport next year!), the commemorative Festival Bell in Cropredy Church (literally making them a heavy metal band), the late sixties, the late seventies, the mid-eighties (a magnificent, captivating retelling of the saga of The Girl From The Hiring Fair which directly preceded a banjo-driven, fast-paced Matty Groves.) Some opening songs need never change, nor should the closers.
After Matty struck no more, no one left the stage… they hid behind their instruments before reminding us we would “see all our friends”. Meet On The Ledge has never sounded so relevant or so reassuring.
In true folk style, next day, the band headed by rail from Settle to Carlisle.
I next saw them on May 24th, when an acoustic, seated set at Leeds City Varieties held its own novelty value. The performance, however, was one of the best I’ve seen in over 50 years of Fairport gigs. We didn’t just hear truly outstanding music (special mention for Simon’s reference-packed solo in Sloth, in which he proved himself the Dizzy Gillespie of the acoustic guitar), we transported in place and time – medieval murder, the man round the moon, 19th century barques and barns, tourist traps from Wales to Kenya, Lancashire hills and Oxfordshire fields and an encounter with Dr Monk, most certainly not the kind of carer you’d clap for. Folk-rock’s finest at their very best.
In August, two years delayed, but with all but one act still in place, that celebratory Cropredy festival takes place. The surviving members of the Full House line-up will reconvene. And, as they remind us at the end of every gig, “if you really mean it, it all comes round again.”