This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here
Day one: Thursday
Cropredy 2018 kicks off with Fairport Convention doing a brief twenty-minute acoustic stint. We’ll be hearing a lot more from them later on in the weekend, of course, but a short opening set from the hosts has become something of a Cropredy tradition.
Fairport are then swiftly followed by Smith & Brewer. Ben Smith and Jimmy Brewer met a few years ago while on tour with Joan Armatrading and their Americana-infused acoustic playing, combined with August sun and a few beers is the perfect way to get us into the festival vibe for this most friendly and laid-back of festivals. Next up and on a similar sort of theme is Police Dog Hogan. Guardian readers will perhaps be aware of them through Guardian writer, Tim Dowling’s regular exploits as banjo player for the band in his regular Saturday column. No reflection on Tim or the rest of the band but your GRTR crew departed at this stage for a bit of chill-out time back at the campsite ahead of the evening’s headliners – 80s folk rock veterans Oysterband and surf supremo, Brian Wilson.
Oysterband are as good as ever but for me, and many others, it’s Brian Wilson’s night. A visibly frail Brian Wilson took to the stage assisted by a walking frame and a couple of roadies. Seated at his huge white keyboard in the centre of the stage, however, he was master of all he surveyed giving us an hour and a half of sheer magic. He’s accompanied, of course, by a stage full of top class musicians and amazing vocalists and hit after hit of Beach Boys classics come thick and fast, followed by a rendition in full of the masterpiece that is Pet Sounds, followed by yet more hits. Wilson these days is also often accompanied by his old Beach Boys colleague Al Jardine. At 75 his voice sounds almost as fresh as it did at 20. Jardine’s son Matt, blessed with equally amazing vocal abilities, is also part of the line-up. If there comes a time when the last surviving Wilson brother becomes too frail to tour I would happily pay good money to see Jardine and his son continuing the Beach Boys legacy. Definitely one of the highlights of the weekend for me.
Day Two – Friday
Festival-goers will be familiar with those days when the skies are grey, the temperature drops, the rain is relentless and everything – just everything – becomes an ordeal. Friday is one of those mornings. None of our group can face the thought of standing in the wet and cold all day and we head off to explore the ‘Cropredy Fringe’. Although Fairport have resisted the pressure to go down the route of other festivals and introduce multiple stages, a mixture of local pubs and enterprising landowners have put together their own programmes of entertainment to compliment (or compete with?) the action on the main stage. We therefore spent the first couple of hours in a marquee full of soggy festival-goers drinking cider and looking out on some truly depressing weather. Missing the first two acts on the main stage we were contemplating whether to brave it for the third when the sky brightened, the sun shone and we made it back to the main arena on a glorious August afternoon just in time to catch The Travelling Band begin their set. This talented band’s brand of Mancunian Americana was the perfect tonic as the day morphed from a horrendously cold and wet morning into a beautiful lazy sunny afternoon.
I assume that a big chunk of this year’s artist budget had been blown on securing Brian Wilson (a decision I thoroughly, thoroughly approve of by the way). In consequence, compared to other years this year’s line-up was perhaps a touch lighter on household names. However, even if it lacked many big names we did have the likes of Jim Cregan who had an 18-year stint with one of the biggest names ever – Rod Stewart. A talented musician and songwriter Cregan co-wrote a number of Stewart’s hits and Cregan and Co turned out to be one of the unexpected highlights of the whole weekend. 20,000 people up dancing and singing along to the likes of Baby Jane, You’re In My Heart and Tonight I’m Yours as hit followed hit followed hit. Cregan also reminded us he’d done a stint with Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel – before launching into a wondrous Come Up And See Me (Make Me Smile) which sent the crowd even crazier. We even got a special treat right at the end as the Fairport boys came out en masse to do the mandolin part on Maggie May.
Larger than life Quebec folkies Le Vent Du Nord never disappoint and they wowed the crowd at Cropredy, just as I’d seen them wowing the crowd at Womad a couple of years earlier. Then it was the former Marillion main-man, Fish, but sadly coming on for that early evening slot where, once again. we really needed some chill-out time if we were to keep going until midnight.
We did make it back to the arena to see an utterly stunning set from Kate Rusby. Witty, passionate and engaging, with beautiful voice and deeply emotional songs the Barnsley-based folkie absolutely stormed it, in a time-slot where, to be truthful, I’d seen other female folkies struggle a bit to keep the crowd’s attention in the past.
Then came Friday headliners, The Levellers, who I found to be a real disappointment to be perfectly frank. I’d seen them only a few weeks ago where they have been completely reworking their material in a sit-down, mellow, acoustic set accompanied by a string orchestra. Now while that was well-received in a medium-sized theatre with an audience of devoted fans, it is really not what you want for a festival set – certainly not when you are headlining and it’s late at night, it’s getting cold and the majority of the crowd were probably expecting to warm themselves up bouncing around to a full-on, rocked-up, classic Levellers set. A huge missed opportunity for the band – an innovative idea but just completely the wrong approach for a festival.
Day Three: Saturday
No relentless rain to put a damper on things on the Saturday morning, we have bright sunshine for Richard Digance, who has become quite a Cropredy institution over the years. His sentimental and gently humorous songs may not be everyone’s cup of tea but his set is worth it alone for the surreal sight of 20,000 white hankies waving in the air when Digance finishes his spot each year by getting the whole crowd on their feet for some mass morris dancing.
With a brief interlude from singer song-writer Eric Sedge, it’s time for yet more insanity, this time from the Bar-Steward Sons Of Val Doonican. Their formula isn’t a million miles away from the path trodden over many years by the likes of the Baron Knights, the Wurzels et al – humorously silly alternative lyrics to well-known pop songs. But the Doonicans dress it up with a bit of very twenty-first century surrealism including, at one point, the lead singer launching himself off the stage to surf above the crowd in a rubber dinghy. I spoke to people who had been crying with laughter and had them down as one of the absolute highlights of their weekend while my brother (and GRTR’s official photographer for the weekend) was adamant that they were the worst act ever to appear at a festival in his entire existence. I quite liked them.
Next up is young singer-songwriter Will Varley. A great voice and superb musicianship I felt at times, that he perhaps has to develop a bit more as a writer in order to give us some truly memorable songs – but I’m sure that will come. Then it’s time one of the weekend’s highlights for me was a cracking set from Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys. Putting a modern edge on traditional folk, Kelly and his band-mates really get the crowd up and jigging. Definitely one of the most exciting bands to emerge on the contemporary folk scene in recent years.
Then it was back to the van for a big long snooze, missing both Afro Celt Sound System and Al Stewart. In my mitigation I thought the Old Speckled Hen mini keg that I’d polished off that afternoon contained five litres rather than five pints. Still, I was up bright, refreshed and rested for Fairport Convention’s Saturday night headline slot and, even more impressive, I’d completely missed out on all the heavy rain.
Fairport Convention always strive to give us something a bit different with their mammoth Saturday night set each Cropredy festival. Last year was very much a celebration of the band’s fiftieth anniversary, with surviving former members from each era reuniting on stage. This year the two stand-out sections of the set were a lengthy and poignant tribute to former lead singer, Sandy Denny, who died forty years ago this year, and an emotional and amazingly touching tribute to another former member, multi-instrumentalist Maartin Allcock. The latter’s musical input was a huge part of the band’s renaissance as a touring, recording, functioning outfit in the 80s and early 90s. A couple of months before this year’s festival, however, Allcock announced on his website that he had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer, was unlikely to be around for very much longer and that Cropredy would be his final public performance. An incredibly brave way of facing the final chapter of his life but what a performance it was and what love for him in the assembled crowd. Playing the rocked up ‘Metal Matty’ version of Fairport’s traditional classic. Matty Groves, that Allcock helped create back in his days with the band and, finally, taking centre stage to play out the encore Meet On The Ledge he said goodbye to the Cropredy Fairport family in true style with grace, dignity and some stunning playing. Certainly one of the most emotional moments I’ve ever experienced in thirty-odd years of festival-going. Thank you for your contribution Maartin and may your final days be full of love and free of pain.
All photo credits: Sam Reynolds