Chris Leslie is the new kid in Fairport Convention. He’s been a member of the band for eleven years, but he was no stranger when he was asked to join.
“I’d known the band for many years as friends,” he told me recently, “because I lived in the vicinity where they were based. I was always on the periphery of the band. Since I was in school, I was always a follower of that particular kind of music. So I knew that stuff by osmosis.”
When he called a couple of weeks ago, he was traveling south towards Los Angeles from a gig near San Jose with bandmates Simon Nicol and Ric Sanders. Their road manager was at the wheel.
“The other two guys are sleeping,” he laughed, “and I’m not driving.”
They had just started a monthlong American tour that will bring them to the Chrysler Museum’s Kaufman Theatre Wednesday night for a Port Folio Weekly Music Series concert. With Fairport celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, I wondered what it was like to join an institution with such a rich musical history.
“I was incredibly honored,” he said. “When I joined, my biggest thing was that I had mainly been a fiddle player, it was my role in life. I had dabbled with the mandolin, and just at that time I’d bought myself a bouzouki, just because I loved the instrument, little realizing how it would become part of my main work. I decided when I joined that to actually play the fiddle all the time was not the best use for me in the band; Ric Sanders was fantastic.
“I play the fiddle these days maybe a couple of times an evening. My own musical facility has been broadened by being in the band because I’ve really worked hard on the mandolin and bouzouki over the last ten years. And, in turn, that has fueled my songwriting because they are great songwriting tools.”
That songwriting will be very much on display Wednesday night. Since he arrived, Chris Leslie has given the group some of its best material.
“It’s something I’ve had a go at over many years,” he said, “and only after arriving in Fairport did I have the vehicle where everybody was very accepting of what I came up with. What’s great is when you work on something, and then turn it over to the band and have it turn into something more. I’ve never considered myself as a songwriter—I’m a musician who comes up with songs. And being in the band, I’ve been inspired to produce more.”
Much of what he’s produced sounds like the traditional British folk music that Fairport has always deconstructed so well.
“My own particular background was the folk music scene,” he explained. “I’ve always been interested in songs that have stories. I tend to be interested in the lives of people that, for one reason or another, have done something extraordinary in their lives. I like finding people that are slightly left of center but they’re not very much known about in the wider world. I’m trying to get an angle on it to come up with a song.
“Being a musician, there’s a great opportunity to come across things [while] traveling. Travel is a great educator and wherever I go, I find interesting stories, tales and events that happened. Certainly traveling in America is a fantastic opportunity to come across things. A couple of years ago we went to a ghost town on the east side of Yosemite called Bodie. It was amazing; someday there will be a song that comes out of that experience. It left so many fantastic impressions on me.”
Fairport Convention played its first gig in 1967. The band took its name from Simon Nicol’s family home, called Fairport, in the suburbs of London, where he and several teenaged friends convened for rehearsals. In those days, the group was inspired by the American folk-rock sound coming out of California. But the band quickly found its own voice by incorporating elements from their homeland.
“In the very early days of the band,” Leslie said, “it was listening to that west coast American music. After ’68-69, there was a big injection of British music to work with. And that vein of material has stayed within the group. There’s always been those kind of British songs, and I think because of where we live and who we are, that’s the sound the band makes.
“Probably over the years it’s been influenced by real ale!”
Nicol is the only original member in the band today. There have been several versions of the group along the way and the alumni association roster is impressive: Richard Thompson, Ian Matthews, Sandy Denny, Dave Swarbrick, Martin Allcock, Dave Mattacks. The sound has evolved through the years, with each change in personnel moving the music in a slightly different direction. To my ears, the current edition is the best yet.
“I guess it’s like any working environment that’s been around for forty years,” Leslie said. “There’s the strength that individuals bring in at any particular time. Whenever somebody leaves they take those away with them. I replaced Martin Allcock, who was a fantastic multi-instrumentalist and much more in a guitar-based, rockier vein than myself. When he left, that particular aspect went with him. I was very much left to do my own thing when I came in, which I think is one of the big strengths of Fairport over the years—it’s always played to the people in the lineup at any particular time. No one’s had to come in and replace like for like.”
On record, Fairport Convention is a quintet, with longtime member Dave Pegg on bass and Gerry Conway on drums. When I saw them at the Birchmere in Alexandria three years ago, they had the whole gang with them. But it’s just the three-piece for this tour, fiddler extraordinaire Sanders joining Leslie and singer-guitarist Nicol.
“It is a more detailed sound,” Leslie said of the trio format. “There’s a lot of clarity between the instruments and the voices. The repertoire itself includes one or two left of field numbers that you wouldn’t probably hear in a five-piece lineup evening. It’s still quite powerful. When you get down to the three-piece, everything’s well positioned.
“Without that bottom root that the bass puts in, the band can become slightly freer because things are being driven along and rooted by chords rather than a bass line. With the three-piece, the dynamics between full-on and quiet can be even more so.”
One of the band’s greatest strengths has always been its vocal versatility and harmonic richness. Nicol’s baritone has that classic, rich and evocative British folk timbre that seems to call you home to the mother country. And with his distinctive tenor, Leslie may be the finest singer yet to grace the Fairport fold.
“As the years have gone by,” he acknowledged, “I enjoy singing more and more. What’s been one of those happy coincidences is that when I joined the band, I realized that my vocal range was in the range that Dave Swarbrick occupied, so it enabled us to look back at some of the material that he was the vocalist on and bring some of that back into the repertoire. The band has a huge back catalog to dip into and bring appropriate numbers forward to sit alongside the songs from the current lineup. So that was a very pleasing thing for me personally to bring back ‘Now Be Thankful’ and some of those songs that haven’t been heard since Swarbrick left. That’s been great fun. And I’ve come to get used to my voice over the years. When I was younger I wanted a deeper voice. You’re never happy with what you’ve got! Now I’ve come to work with what I have and enjoy it.”
Chris and I were talking on the day after Tony Blair announced he was stepping down as Prime Minister, the week after Queen Elizabeth visited Virginia. I had to ask him what Britons thought of their American cousins these days.
“Whenever I travel over here playing music,” he answered, “I only come across lovely people. I guess we play to a more liberal mindset. The musical area that we’re involved with, that’s the kind of people that enjoy it and have a community around it. This is my fourteenth time to America, and every time I’ve had that wonderful experience.
“On the wider aspect of it, what I see in the news and what I know, I think both our countries have gone down a particularly untruthful path. We’ve gone down an alleyway that is getting narrower and narrower and we’re finding it harder and harder to get out of. And I wish we would get out of it because it’s not productive.”
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.