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October 26, 2004
The 3-day Columbus Day weekend and a Saturday gig at the Jazz on the James festival in Richmond provided the opportunity to accomplish two things that have been on my “to-do” list for a long time: See Fairport Convention in concert and go to a show at the Birchmere in Alexandria.
Fairport Convention was the best of the British folk-rock bands that emerged in the late ‘60s, a group that started out with a mission to weld traditional folk music of the British Isles with the sound coming from American groups like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. I first saw them in 1971 as the opening act for Traffic, and in recent years have reconnected with them through their excellent recordings. Their last three discs, The Wood and the Wire (2000), XXXV (2002) and the brand new Over the Next Hill, all released in the States by the Nashville-based Compass label, make a compelling argument that Fairport is better now than ever. But I hadn’t seen them perform live in thirty years.
The Birchmere, which bills itself as America’s Legendary Music Hall, has existed to me only as that, a celebrated concert venue that I’d never been to. It’s a true “listening room,” with a sign on the door saying “QUIET PLEASE…In deference to the artists and those who came to enjoy the music, silence is requested while the performers are on stage.”
The Birchmere’s been around since the late ‘60s, but moved down the street from its original Alexandria location to a former Kodak film processing plant a few years ago, expanding its capacity from 250 to 500. If I were Bill Reid with the Norva or Bobby Wright with the Granby Theatre, I would emulate this place. The food is good, there’s a brewery on site that produces a golden lager, red ale, pale ale and dark lager; and you can sit at a table and enjoy music the way it’s meant to be heard.
There really isn’t a bad seat in the house, with tables arranged in rows fanning out around the stage. The music is the star here, and the P.A. volume was as close to perfect as anyplace I’ve been in thirty-five years of concert-going, enabling us to hear all the sublime subtleties of Fairport Convention’s music.
And what fine music it was. The band drew its setlist from the full length of its thirty-seven-year career, with a heavy emphasis on material from the just released Over the Next Hill. Fairport fans from the early days were treated to “Genesis Hall,” “Walk Awhile,” “Now Be Thankful” and “Crazy Man Michael.” These songs and other ventures into the classic repertoire actually sounded as strong, if not stronger, than they did in their original incarnations back when Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny and Ian Matthews were handling the vocals.
These days, lead vocals are shared by guitarist Simon Nicol, the lone original member still in the band, and Chris Leslie, a versatile multi-instrumentalist on mandolin, bouzouki and violin, whose original songs are a crucial element in modern-day Fairport’s reinvention of itself. Long-time bassist and good humor man Dave Pegg pitches in on vocal harmonies, while Ric Sanders’ amazing fiddling gives the music its unique richness of texture. Drummer Gerry Conway, a British folk-rock veteran who first hit the big time playing with Cat Stevens in the ‘70s, looks nonchalant as he handles the rhythms, accents, and delicate nuances of this group’s repertoire.
The setlist included a healthy sampling from Fairport’s potent new CD. The punchy title track, “Over the Next Hill,” is apropos for a band still looking forward optimistically after all these years. Sanders’ “Canny Capers” is one of those fiddle tune medleys that sounds familiar yet fresh and was even more exciting in concert than on record, as he and Leslie took their twin violins through intricate unison twists and turns without missing a note. The band’s catchy ride through “The Wassail Song” is an energetic take on a variant of the tune we Americans know only as a Christmas song.
Chris Leslie’s introductions to his compositions helped explain the origins of his lyrics. He’s writing new folk songs that stand with the best of the band’s long canon of traditional interpretations. “I’m Already There” was inspired by a stained glass window in a church in the band’s native Banbury, North Oxfordshire, and tells the story of Sir John Franklin’s Arctic voyage in the early 1800s, framed instrumentally by Sanders’ mystical violin lines and Irish jig between-verse interludes. “Over the Falls” is a rocking evocation of the first guy to walk a tightrope across Niagara Falls.
“The Happy Man,” a reworked traditional drinking song from XXXV, got the crowd singing along: “How happy’s that man/That’s free from all care/who loves to make merry, who loves to make merry/with a drop of good beer.” “The Crowd,” a tribute to the band’s annual Cropredy Festival, retained its anthemic power even without the overdubbed horns heard on the recording.
The five merrie Conventioneers ended the evening with “Matty Groves,” the same set closing tale of adultery and its aftermath that they played the first time I heard them long ago, then returned for an encore of Richard Thompson’s “Meet on the Ledge” from the band’s second album.
It was a masterful two hours of music, one that made fans of my wife and children. Perhaps by the next time Fairport Convention journeys across the Atlantic, some enterprising entrepreneur will have figured out that a cool and classy listening room like the Birchmere is just what our region needs to complete its entertainment mix.
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