A Lighter Side of Life – Fairport Convention at The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen – 18th May, 2019
Another side of the venerable Fairport Convention presents itself at the packed Lemon Tree on a Saturday night. There was a minimum of instruments on display, certainly no electric guitar and drum kit. All of it could easily be fitted into the back of small van. However, any suggestion that the band are going to sound stripped back and bare was quickly dispelled with a strident trot through Walk Awhile as the opening number – even though they all remained firmly seated (apart from Gerry Conway (percussion) in the background) throughout the two part performance.
The band are clearly relaxed in the small setting. Every single song is introduced with a great deal of well-honed wit which is lapped up by an Aberdeen audience which is nothing short of warm throughout even if the clapping and singing does not start in earnest until the final numbers. Ric Sanders (fiddle) performs a comedy act for each tune he introduces full of knowingly groan-inducing punchlines (as the others check their watches). Simon Nicol (guitar) responds with topical dry comments with a mellifluous turn of phrase (thanking the audience for foregoing Eurovision on TV to come out and see them or a mock-envious aside at the increasing number letters raining down on former Fairport guitarist, Dr Richard Thompson, OBE, awarded his honorary doctorate at Aberdeen University). Dave Pegg (bass) plays the clown with a wide array of facial expressions and gestures. Chris Leslie (banjo, mandolin, whistle, harmonica) is more self-deprecating and whimsical. The band amiably mix at the bar with the audience during the interval too which is a nice touch.
Such is the present (and longest steady) incarnation of a band that started its journey in 1967. They are a diverse array of characters in person. Yet, as a band, they are perfectly unified. What is clear in this intimate setting is the dexterity and subtlety of the playing that is often not fully appreciated if you have only caught them at the big annual Cropredy bash or in fully fledged electric mode. Dave Pegg is introduced by Simon Nicol as one of the best bass players in the world, and after seeing (and in this setting, hearing the poetry of every last turn of bass phrase) who would disagree? Simon Nicol playing acoustic guitar equally shows his artistry and the sort of touch that comes from knowing his instrument and material inside out, and in his singing, how to express it despite not having the widest of vocal ranges. The talents of Chris Leslie on his many instruments and the fiddle of Ric Sanders have always been at the forefront in whichever setting they play. Gerry Conway is perhaps least best served in this context since his percussive involvement and power is muted although the use of a cajon drum is impressive.
The set list allows a wide range of styles within the folk-rock idiom. Despite the obvious classics like set closer, epic ballad Matty Groves and encore favourite, Meet on the Ledge, there are great versions of Crazy Man Michael, Sir Patrick Spens (with its incidental reference to Aberdeen), Honour and Praise, Fotheringay, The Journeyman’s Grace, Eleanor’s Dream as well as the more irreverent songs to the joys of DIY (Devil’s Work) and topical social commentary. The highlight, though, is the closing song to the first half of the set, The Hiring Fair. Over the years, this Ralph McTell song has been honed to a sublime instrumental perfection which highlights every emotional nuance. If you could choose just one song to show to the uninitiated how great Fairport currently are, this must be it. Simon Nicol admits a little intrepidation before performing it, and you can see why: it is so delicately put together that you feel its perfection might break at any moment. Fortunately, there are fewer more capable hands around.
They do not disappear before their encore, the restrictive stage at the Lemon Tree making the whole point of going on and off pointless. Instead, they cover their faces with their instruments for a little time until the applause reaches a peak. Simon then tells a story (mock-ruefully) that when he broke his ankle and could not move without crutches at the start of the noughties, the rest of the band would leave the stage at the close of a concert and merely drape a blanket over his head and upper body as though he was a parrot in a cage – and then take the blanket off when they returned for the encore!
At the end, as they depart, they announce themselves as the winners of the Eurovision Song Contest but, in actual fact, they are way too good for that distraction. Tonight, the Lemon Tree is where it’s at for a good three hours.