A fixture on the adjacent “festival fringe” of Fairport Convention’s annual Cropredy extravaganza each year, Wigan-based folk-rockers, Merry Hell, have finally made it to the main stage and will appear there this August. With impeccable timing (and something that will sell like hot cakes at this and other festivals this summer, I’m sure) the band have released their first ever ‘best of’ compilation.
Emerging back in 2010 from the ashes of 90s folk-punk outfit, The Tansads, the band weren’t quite sure how things would take off but six albums later Merry Hell have more than proved themselves and there’s no shortage of strong material for a proper career retrospective.
Never afraid of wearing their hearts on their sleeves and standing up for what they believe in, Merry Hell have developed a strong niche as purveyors of rousing folk-rock anthems with socially-conscious lyrics, all delivered with characteristic good humour, energy, verve and passion.
In compiling the album the band had some assistance from fans, alongside each individual band member also choosing their own particular favourite. The result is a whopping 28 tracks over two discs and, for me, there’s plenty of personal favourites among the final selection: from the ecologically-themed paean to decluttering, ‘Bury Me Naked’; to the band’s self-proclaimed “alternative national anthem” ‘Come On England!’; to the rousing ‘Leave It In The Ground’ from the climate-themed Emergency Lullabies album.
With over half of the members of the eight-piece band also being songwriters, Merry Hell explore a variety of styles and influences in their output and so it’s not all rousing, amped-up sing-alongs, albeit that is very much their forte. The compilation has its mellower, tender moments, too, such as the beautifully-poignant acoustic number, ‘No Place Like Tomorrow’.
Whether you’re a long-term follower of Merry Hell or just discovering them for the first time at a festival this summer, Let The Music Speak For Itself is a strong compilation which is sure to find favour with fans both new and old. Role on Cropredy!
With all the performers originally booked for 2020, then rescheduled for 2021, then rescheduled again for 2022, a lot has happened since this festival line-up was first announced at the back-end of 2019. Festival mainstay, Richard Digance, could no longer make it. He had a booking at the Edinburgh Fringe this year so his Saturday lunchtime set was given over to Seth Lakeman. Matthews Southern Comfort, who had originally been down for the early Saturday evening slot, had now morphed into The Matthews Baartmans Experience, the band having gone their separate ways during their Covid-enforced career interlude leaving just Iain Matthews and BJ Baartmans to fly the flag as a duo. And for myself (who had originally booked tickets for me and my now ex-partner) I would now be accompanied by the lovely Simon (below right) who has stacks and stacks of camping experience but had never been to a musical festival before.
Simon’s verdict:“I couldn’t believe how well-organised it was . It was just like a proper campsite. I was expecting it to be really rowdy and nowhere near as civilised as it was.”
Day One – Thursday:
I’ve been at Cropredy in all sorts of weather conditions, from thunder and lightning to torrential rain to baking hot sun, but it soon became clear that we wouldn’t be able to just sit in the field all day watching pretty much every band that came along. Me and heatwaves don’t mix. I could just about cope with the mid-day sun and the late evenings were exceptionally pleasant once the sun had dipped below the horizon but after downing several pints waiting for Fairport Convention’s twenty-minute opening acoustic set on the Thursday afternoon it soon became abundantly clear that a very different strategy was needed this year.
This was fine as pretty much all of the artists I really, really wanted to see had either early lunchtime slots or later evening slots. It meant I would miss out on the experience of trying out some new bands in the afternoon but even a jam session with the reincarnation Elvis and Jimi Hendrix would not have got me back on that festival field in the afternoon sun.
Following a snooze to recover and then listening to Edward II from the comfort (and shade) of our campsite gazebo, we headed back over for Clannad. A band I’d long wanted to see, their set was absolutely stunning and a fitting finale to their 52-year career. Back in 2020 they had decided to call it a day but the pandemic has meant a two-year delay to the completion of their farewell tour. When Cropredy 2020 was cancelled I treated myself to a copy of their double-disc career retrospective so I was pretty familiar with pretty much all of their set-list (not just the ubiquitous TV theme-song classics) by the time it came to Cropredy. Well worth the wait.
When they last played Cropredy in 2017 The Trevor Horn Band went down an absolute storm. However, not particularly being a fan of either Buggles or 80s-era Yes, back then I decided to take a break for a snooze. I soon realised I’d made a big mistake as we heard Horn and co. churn out hit after hit from the comfort of the campsite. No such snobbery from me this time around and we made sure we were there for a set that encompassed songs from the back catalogues of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, 10CC, Tears For Fears, David Bowie, Dire Straits and many more – not to mention the obligatory Yes and Buggles hits. There were numerous guests, including Lol Crème from 10CC, Steve Hogarth from Marillion and the wonderful Toyah Wilcox and Robert Fripp who became those surprise YouTube sensations during lockdown. It was fun, brilliantly-performed and a wonderful party atmosphere, even for me who is generally quite snooty about 80s chart hits.
Day Two – Friday:
Our heatwave survival strategy came into play whereby we would catch a couple of lunchtime acts and then retreat from the afternoon sun until the evening. BBC Young Folk Award 2019 winner, Maddie Morris, finally got to perform and wowed the crowd with her sweet voice, socially-conscious lyrics and powerful advocacy of LGBT rights. Next up was Australian singer-songwriter, Emily Barker, who I’d enjoyed twice before, once doing an in-store performance promoting her wonderfully-soulful Sweet Kind of Blue album (recorded in Memphis) and once on tour with Marry Waterson (daughter of Lal) of the legendary Waterson family. The was no Marry on stage this time but we did get a wonderful rendering of the Watersons’ ‘Bright Phoebus’, alongside Emily Barker’s own unique blend of soulful Americana.
It was then time to escape the sun and also meet a late-comer to our ten-strong Cropredy camping group so I spent some time in one of the marquees at the Cream of The Crop campsite in Field 8 which runs its own parallel small festival alongside the official Fairport one. Anyone with a wristband for the main festival can get in and while I, unfortunately, missed the brilliant Dandelion Charm I did catch some other great music. After showing our new arrival to the camp it was then time to head off to the main stage for Turin Brakes.
Formed at the turn of the millennium their chilled-out and gorgeously-melodic brand of indie rock was just perfect for a summer evening and one of the weekend highlights for me. Playing a mixture of old favourites like their 2005 top five hit, ‘Painkiller (Summer Rain)’ alongside newer material, they certainly looked happy to finally be performing and it was an emotional moment for drummer, Rob Allum, when it was revealed his first visit to Cropredy was as a youngster way back in 1980.
If the previous night ended with the party sing-along atmosphere of the Trevor Horn Band’s set, this was not exactly what Steve Hackett was offering. I can dip in and out of early Genesis but this seemed very much a strictly-for-fans only set, I’m afraid, and after grabbing some pictures of the stunning full moon over the festival crowd we decided to call it a night.
Day Three – Saturday:
Seth Lakeman never disappoints at a festival and although his set is a world away from the entertaining mix of sentimentality and silliness served up by Richard Digance, he was an inspired choice to fill the latter’s regular Saturday lunchtime slot and a big enough name to guarantee that the field would be full by the time he came on stage to open proceedings.
After Seth Lakeman we slipped away, once again, before the afternoon sun really started doing it’s worst but were back at the main stage by early evening.
Early Fairport alumni, Iain Matthews, always seems as comfortable playing solo with just his guitar as he is playing with a full band, so the duo format suits him down to the ground. Playing a mixture of Matthews Southern Comfort and solo material, plus some well-chosen covers (including ‘Reno Nevada’, a regular live fixture from Fairport Convention’s early days) the Matthews Baartmans Experience are nicely timed to start off an evening of Fairport and friends. Richard Thompson (who would be back on shortly for both his own set and Fairport’s) comes on for one song. In a colourful shirt and baggy shorts sans his usual black stage uniform, he joins the duo to perform a crowd-pleasing cover of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Woodstock’, Matthews Southern Comfort’s biggest and best-known hit.
Then it’s straight into a set from Richard Thompson. With a great mix of old favourites (‘Genesis Hall’, ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’, ‘Beeswing’, ‘Bright Lights’ et al) and newer material (‘Singapore Sadie’, ‘The Rattle Within’), he’s always a star turn any time he’s been at Cropredy and he had the crowd roaring for him from the word go. The voice, that guitar, those songs: this was always going to be a winning combination at Cropredy. And it was. Iain Matthews returned the favour by providing vocals on the wonderful ‘From Galway To Graceland’ and, all in all, it was the perfect prelude to the grand finale.
2020 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Fairport Convention’s first post-Sandy Denny album, the much-celebrated Full House) and two years later they finally get to perform it in full with all of the original line-up from that album, bar Dave Swarbrick (whose place was taken by current member, Chris Leslie, taking on the late Swarb’s fiddle and vocal parts). First, however, the current line-up deliver a handful of old favourites not from that album like ‘Ye Mariners All’ and ‘Fotheringay’, alongside a very hefty dose of songs from the most recent studio album, Shuffle And Go, which was released back in 2020. On their 2022 Winter Tour earlier this year Dave Pegg joked that given they had not had chance to flog them on tour for the last couple of years, there were still stacks of these albums sitting in his garage and so they were making no apologies for heavily pushing it. Clearly, the same rule applied but there are some pretty entertaining songs on the album and the musicianship is never less than excellent.
The moment virtually all of us were waiting for, however, was the start of the Full House segment and it was a really special seeing ex-Fairporters Dave Mattacks and Richard Thompson taking their places alongside Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg and Chris Leslie. Together they captured the drama, intensity and outright weirdness of that classic 1970 album – and some more. All are seasoned players compared to their younger selves and while Dave Swarbrick’s presence was sorely missed, they played and sang with such confidence and swagger that it almost felt better than the original album.
The between-song banter in the early part of the set and the non-negotiability around playing the Full House album in full meant that they had started to run short of time towards the end of the set, where they were up against an equally non-negotiable curfew. ‘Matty Groves’ was unceremoniously dumped but we still got a beautiful rendition of ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ with a lovely video introduction from Sandy Denny’s daughter, Georgia Lucas, as well as the traditional end-of festival emotional sing-along that is ‘Meet On The Ledge’.
I didn’t mind missing ‘Matty Groves’. My only real niggle is that I felt there should have been a proper on-stage tribute to original vocalist, Judy Dyble, who sadly passed away in 2020. I was expecting something to be played from the first album and perhaps an accompanying video tribute. Yes, she was only around for one album but she participated in numerous reunions and was an enthusiastic attendee of the festival each year.
Nevertheless, it was great to be back, it was a spectacular evening courtesy of Fairport and friends and it was an emotional end to the festival. It all comes round again (eventually).
This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rockhere
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.
Adapting the chalk-board cover and title of the band’s classic 1969 album ‘What We Did On Our Holiday’, Fairport Convention’s latest album ‘What We Did On Our Saturday’ is a two-disc live recording of a 50th anniversary performance at their Cropredy festival last summer.
I was there last year and it was indeed very special to see all five surviving original members of the band take the stage and perform their earliest songs once again; along with surviving members of later line-ups and other guests deputising for the ones who are are, sadly, no longer around to perform. It was an absolutely unforgettable night and it’s obviously lovely to have a memento from that special performance.
The question now, however, is how much the live recording lives up to my memories of that evening, particularly when performing material from such iconic albums in the folk rock canon as the aforementioned ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’, ‘Liege & Lief’ and ‘Nine’.
The double CD’s twenty-five tracks are heavily weighted towards the band’s late 60s/early 70s heyday when what is now a much-loved national treasure really was pushing the boundaries in terms of both rock and folk music. The superb ‘Hiring Fair’, however, from the band’s mid 80s renaissance is rightfully included along with the instrumental ‘A Surfeit of Lampreys’, as is the rather twee ‘Our Bus Rolls On’ from last year’s studio album ‘50:50@50’.
Chris While and Sally Barker both do an excellent job filling in for the irreplaceable Sandy Denny on tracks like ‘Come All Ye’ and ‘Rising For The Moon’, as does PJ Wright standing in for Denny’s late husband Trevor Lucas on a superb ‘Ned Kelly’. Richard Thompson’s unmistakeably brilliant guitar on tracks like ‘Sloth’ alone make it worth buying, never mind all the other highlights.
Standing in a field in Oxfordshire last year witnessing all of this felt like something really, really special. This album is, indeed, proof that it was. Buy it.
This review was also published by Get Ready To Rock here
Fairport Convention’s festival at Cropredy has been an annual fixture for almost four decades now but the big celebration this year was marking the fiftieth anniversary of the band’s formation. In the eight years since I have been going it has always been quite an eclectic bill, straddling folk, rock and retro pop. This year it leaned more towards the folk-rock end than normal because, it being the fiftieth anniversary, a number of sets from ex-Fairport members and close associates were on the bill. This meant there were lots of acts that I was really looking forward to, this time, even if there was perhaps a little less variety in the festival line-up than normal.
Before we got to the three-hour set from Fairport Convention on the Saturday night, therefore, there were plenty of highlights over the three days: including the ever-impressive Show of Hands; last year’s festival darlings, The Pierce Brothers, who returned for a repeat performance; and the Gigspanner Big Band (where Peter Knight’s trio join forces with folk duo Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin). Of the Fairport friends and family spin-offs we had Ashley Hutchings’ recreation of Morris On, a stunning solo set from Richard Thompson and original Fairport vocalists, Judy Dyble with her Band of Perfect Strangers and Iain Matthews with Plainsong. Lots of highlights there.
And niggles? With a three day festival and three days of camping and drinking and music we normally choose an act we’re not too bothered about for a bit of early evening down time back at the camp-site. On the Friday, the Trevor Horn Band drew the short straw for us this time. I’ve never been too bothered about either ’80s Yes or Buggles I figured. But sadly it meant missing a surprise guest appearance from Russ Ballard. ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ (Ballard’s hit for Rainbow) and ‘God Gave Rock n Roll To You’ (the Argent classic). Both sounded great from the comfort of our gazebo anyway…
Marillion sounded good but they did a dedicated fans’ set rather than a festival set. I’ve got my one greatest hits album and was really hoping to hear a few more songs I was familiar with that I could sing along to. To me, Marillion not doing ‘Kayleigh’ at a festival is as daft as Petula Clark not doing ‘Downtown’. Happily the latter obliged. Would I pay to go and see a Petula Clark gig? Probably not. But was singing along to ‘Downtown’ in a field with several thousand others one of those not-to-be-missed life-affirming moments? Absolutely!
While it might not have been my favourite Cropredy line-up ever, it was definitely, without a doubt my favourite Fairport performance of all time. Fairport Convention are a band that never knowingly pass over the chance to celebrate an anniversary and they certainly pulled out all the stops for this one.
Things began with a couple of songs from the modern-day Fairport and then suddenly, magically we were transported back to 1967 with all of the surviving members from the first album reconvening on stage for a stunning recreation of the first track on the first album ‘Time Will Show The Wiser’, followed by ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ and ‘Reno, Nevada’. It completely captured the magic of that first album and was really special seeing Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Judy Dyble and Iain Matthews sharing a stage together. When early Fairport reconvene like this I am always reminded of when groups of old school friends get together they often seem to slot back into the roles and pecking orders of decades ago. Even though he has not been a member of the band for 48 years, Ashley Hutchings effortlessly slots back into the role of band leader, doing all the talking and introducing the songs.
Tragically, it is now increasingly challenging to reconvene some of the later later line-ups of the band and more and more stand-ins are required. Nevertheless, Chris While does a superb job filling in for Sandy Denny and likewise Chris Leslie for Dave Swarbrick’s fiddle parts, in renditions from the iconic Liege & Lief album. Songs from other classic albums Full House, Nine and Rising From The Moon (with Sally Barker on vocals) also get a good airing.
The set-list is heavily weighted towards the band’s first eight years or so, with only a smattering of songs from later eras but considering Fairport’s outstanding legacy of truly groundbreaking from this period that seems entirely appropriate.
Having seen Fairport Convention on stage some twenty-five times now and never once failing to enjoy them, for me this has easily been the best. A stunning way to celebrate fifty years.
Fairport Convention set-list:
Bottom of the Punchbowl / East Neuke of Fife / Ye Mariners All
Summer By The Cherwell
Time Will Show the Wiser
I Don’t Know Where I Stand
Crazy Man Michael
Come All Ye
The Lark in the Morning Medley
Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman
Now Be Thankful
Sir Patrick Spens
The Ballad of Ned Kelly
Talk About Money
Rising for the Moon
A Surfeit of Lampreys
The Hiring Fair
The Hexhamshire Lass
Jewel in the Crown
Who Knows Where the Time Goes?
Our Bus Rolls On
Meet on the Ledge
Raucous sounds, catchy tunes, dark lyrics and a whole lot of fun, Blackbeard’s Tea Party have been making a splash on the folk scene for some time now.
As well as loud electric guitar from Martin Coumbe and pumping electric bass from Tim Yates, what really makes this folk act rock is the presence of powerful duel percussionists, Liam “Yom” Hardy and Dave Boston, making Blackbeards’s Tea Party kind of the folk world’s answer to the Glitter Band. Laura Boston-Barber provides spiky, tuneful fiddle playing throughout. Stuart Giddens on lead vocals and melodeon was not the original singer but he’s been with the band several years now and his vocal delivery and hyperactive stage presence have meant he’s truly made the role his own, such that it would be difficult imagining anyone else filling it.
They’ve got a new album to promote “Reprobates” – featuring songs about a range of characters who are all engaged in activities that are either “illegal, immoral or ungodly” explains Giddens with a fair degree of relish. It’s literally just out in time for this gig so we get to hear a a selection of new song, like album opener The Steam Arm Man – about a soldier who loses an arm at Waterloo, builds himself a replacement which unfortunately turns haunted and takes him on a murderous rampage.
We do get a few old crowd favourites as well, such as the sing-along-and-do-the-actions-Agadoo-style Chicken On a Raft (it’s based on an old saying about sailors’ rations I understand and not “Chicken in a Wrap” as numerous of my friends have innocently sung while watching the band.)
I was lucky enough to see Blackbeard’s Tea Party at Cropredy festival in 2014 where they absolutely stormed the place. But they are just as enjoyable up the road in my local, The New Cross Inn, where they also stormed the place. They gig extensively and are well worth catching.
On my first visit to Fairport’s Cropredy festival in 2010 one of the upcoming bands that, for me, proved to be one of the highlights of that weekend was ahab. And it appears that many others that weekend felt the same way about this newly-formed alt-country band back then, too.
ahab went on to travel the world, make several albums, work with Stone Roses producer John Leckie, jiggle their line-up around a bit; and then, to the disappointment of many fans, promptly called it a day (at least temporarily as members each began to work on other musical projects). However, ahab acknowledge that Cropredy 2010 provided them with their big break. So five years later they are back, in their original line-up, to say thank you to the festival crowd that helped them on their way.
It’s a great performance. A classic slice Americana. Lovely harmonies. Upbeat melodies. Beautiful musicianship. And some great songs they’ve written, too, like Lightnin’ Bug and She’s Wearing Red as well as a brilliant cover of Wagon Wheel. Who’d have thought that they originated from Hackney not Tennessee?
The band were clearly very emotional to be back at the place where it all took off for them and seem genuinely moved by the warm response they get from the Cropredy crowd. After a million thankyous to the crowd they then ask us the one question they perhaps shouldn’t have asked: “Do we look any older since we were last here?” “Yes!” we all shout back. “I love them,” whispered my friend, “but it looks like they’ve done a fair bit of partying over the last five years.”
A great sound, a great festival band and some great songs. It really would be a great shame if this really is the last we hear of ahab. Given the response the band get from the crowd and given how much they clearly enjoyed doing this gig, I doubt it will be. Let’s hope that’s the case.
Run Me Down
Call a Waiter
I’ve Been Raining
“This soul-restoring festival” is how one of our number described his experience of Cropredy 2014. And soul-restoring is certainly a description that can be applied to Cara Dillon’s performance.
Irish folk singer, Dillon, has been scooping up music awards for over a decade now and it’s not difficult to see why. Her elegant, crystal clear vocals are backed by a talented band of musicians, including husband Sam Lakeman on piano. Her new album, A Thousand Hearts, has been attracting rave reviews and songs from it featured prominently in the set.
She and the band perform a mixture of traditional and contemporary material, with Child ballads like Bright Morning Star being performed alongside songs like River Run, a song from a ’90s indie band that Dillon performs a stunning version of, accompanied only by Lakeman on piano. Even with folk standards as familiar as “As I Roved Out” she applies calm beauty of the Cara treatment and makes the songs truly her own.
This was indeed a soul-restoring performance and one of the highlights of Cropredy 2014.
Treetop Flyers have been a popular fixture on the festival circuit for several years now and I was looking forward to seeing them again. Singer, Reid Morrison, a regular attender at Cropredy in recent years as a punter, told the crowd he’d promised himself he’d get to sing on that big stage one day. And so he did…
Formed in London in 2009, the band’s influences are not The Kinks or The Small Faces or the Clash but rather the laid-back West Coast rock of bands like Crosby Stills Nash & Young. They are a young original band for the 21st century but one who carry that influence and musical heritage so well. And for sixty minutes or so those of us at the front were no longer in rural Oxfordshire in 2014 but transported back to Woodstock in ‘69.
Treetop Flyers (named after a Stephen Stills song) have perfected their sound and they do it beautifully. From Morrison’s expressive vocals, to the laid back harmonies, the countrified electric guitar licks, the melodic strumming of the acoustic guitar and the infectious boogie, they do sound good. And they’ve got a great collection of self-written songs, too. Rose is in the Yard, Things Will Change and Is it All Worth It are especially worth hearing and lapped up by the crowd, as was there cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Proud Mary which fitted the mood of the set perfectly.
Still only one album in, 2013’s The Mountain Moves, I’m expecting to hear some truly classic material from this band over the coming years. In the meantime they are a great live band – catch them at a festival or venue near you.
Blackbeard’s Tea Party, a young band from York, play a fantastically lively kind of folk. Fun, loud and with bags of energy I’ve seen them go down particularly well as a late night attraction in far smaller venues. But how would they fare on a Saturday lunchtime playing to an audience of 20,000, which as lead vocalist, Stuart Giddens, told the crowd is at least ten times the size of anything they’ve played to before? Well, the Cropredy audience responded brilliantly and they went down a storm. Proof of that was the massive queue for the band’s CD signing session after their set, which snaked around the festival. And when the Tea Partiers over-ran their scheduled signing slot they, along with their queue of newly-enraptured fans, decamped to a spot by the bins where they carried on meeting, greeting and signing throughout the afternoon. Although they are now seasoned festival performers and this year played one of the small stages at Glastonbury, I hope that reaching this many people is the start of something bigger for them.
The combination of loud electric guitar and pumping bass lines, together with manic but beautiful fiddle sounds from Laura Boston-Barber, creates a hugely energetic brand of modern folk-rock. Stuart Giddens, who jumps up and down like the campest boy-band wannabe but has a commanding and powerful voice, is a perfect fit for the band. His vocals and his infectiously enthusiastic stage presence have really brought something to the band. They played a number of songs from their latest album, 2013’s “Whip Jamboree” as well as material from their two previous albums, recorded before Giddens joined. A particular favourite of mine was the traditional song, Landlord, an epic tale of drinking drunkenness, which for some bizarre reason I remember being taught at primary school and still remember all the words. Mid-70s education was so much fun at times.
A talented and hugely fun band with a great sound, Blackbeard’s Tea Party deserve to go far.