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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the May 28, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Fairport Convention: Folk-Rock’s Forebears

While some might dismiss the British folk-rock band

Fairport Convention as a "has been" that reached its artistic

zenith in the mid-1970s, the reality is that the band has had an ever-changing

lineup from the get-go. Not unlike Roomful of Blues or British blues

rockers Savoy Brown or Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention had its first

personnel changes within the first three years of its existence.

Simon Nicol, the group’s guitarist, and bassist Dave Pegg are core

members of the group. Since a small group of London schoolboys met

at Nicol’s parents’ house in the London, a house called "Fairport,"

in 1966, Fairport’s members have included such notables as Richard

Thompson, Sandy Denny, Dave Swarbrick, and Ashley Hutchings.

In recognition of 35 years of Fairport Convention, Nashville-based

Compass Records released "XXXV" in 2002. Appropriately, the

album includes some of the most requested songs from the band’s 35

years performing across Europe, Canada, and the U.S. The instrumental,

"Portmeirion" includes Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson on flute.

"Banks of the Sweet Primroses" and "Now Be Thankful"

are other popular tunes from the band’s 40-album repertoire.

Nicol is the only original member of the band who remains.

He and mandolin player Chris Leslie split lead vocals on the recent

record, while Nicol, bassist Pegg, and Leslie provide harmonies throughout.

Reached at his London home prior to the band’s U.S. tour — the

second stop is Hightstown, on Saturday, May 31 — after playing

the prestigious Birchmere Theater in Virginia, Nicol says that in

middle age, he likes to think he’s a whole lot better at making music

than he was when he was in his 20s. As a touring musician, the 52-year-old

Nicol says he recognizes that he’s an old man doing a young man’s


"But in my defense, I have more wiles, more experience, and consequently

fewer surprises to deal with," he says. "And in middle age,

whatever my profession, I’d be doing it better now than when I started

out. Ask your craftsman carpenter, or a brain surgeon."

Nicol says he and the rest of the band spent weeks in pre-production,

rehearsing new and old tunes to work out arrangements for "XXXV."

With fiddler Ric Sanders and drummer Gerry Conway, the band wanted

to be as well-rehearsed as possible before they set foot into the

recording studio.

"We like to work as live as possible while laying the tracks

down all together on an Otari 24 track, usually with a guide vocal,"

Nicol says.

"The size and shape of the studio compromise the quality of this,

so unless it’s seriously outstanding, it will be replaced by an overdub

when the track gets bounced onto a computer for tweaking and further

overdubs for corrections or additional instruments. We use Soundscape

software for this but there are many systems capable of handling the

fairly undemanding tasks we require. All the recording is done next

door to Dave Pegg’s house in a deconsecrated Baptist chapel and the

mastering is done 130 miles away in Taunton, Devon," he explains.

While numerous rock ‘n’ roll reference books cite Fairport Convention

for having "invented" folk-rock, Nicol is typically humble

about any such claim to fame.

"Nobody invents anything, really," he says, "there are

12 notes and you get on with it. Even history can’t decide about who

it was who invented the various degrees of harmony. I don’t think

we were inventing anything, we were just playing what came naturally."

Asked about critics who say that Fairport Convention without Richard

Thompson — who has since forged a successful solo career, and

Sandy Denny, who died after a fall down some stairs in her house in

London in 1978 — can never compare to that early 1970s lineup,

Nicol argues that Fairport’s current lineup are all seasoned musicians.

"If we listened to unknowing rock fans and casual critics,"

he says, "well, why would you even bother to go out the door,

let alone put yourself through the rigormarole of getting a U.S. work

permit?" he asks.

The revolving door and ever-changing lineups in the band — more

than 20 musicians have passed through the ranks of Fairport —

were a product of the fertility of the late 1960s and early ’70 music

scene in and around London. Musicians were always on the lookout for

new opportunities, different musical bags, and sometimes, just better

compensation. Dave Pegg, who joined the group in 1985 when it reformed

after taking some time off from touring and recording, was the longtime

bassist with Jethro Tull.

"The revolving door of musicians we had with the band just happened,

and really, the impression belies the fact: all the early changes

were the hectic ones," Nicol relates.

"Compare 36 years of this band with a small office employing four

to six people over the same time period," he argues.

Asked about his earliest musical inspirations, Nicol says much of

the music that shaped his songwriting, playing, and singing came from

America, and was broadcast on BBC radio. This included music by the

Byrds and Bob Dylan.

"There were some open-minded DJ’s working for the BBC in

the late 1960s, and thankfully, John Peel is still there, and better

than ever, he’s now in his 60s," Nicol says.

Regarding memorable shows over the years, Nicol says

playing for 120,000 people at the Led Zeppelin farewell concert in

England was certainly a highlight, but so was playing small coffee

houses in America for as few as 80 people.

Every August, Fairport Convention plays in Cropredy in Oxfordshire,

in the geographic center of England. The festival regularly draws

crowds of 30,000 and 40,000 fans of Fairport Convention and other

British folk and blues-rock groups. This summer, Procul Harum will

join the show.

"At the Cropredy Festival there’s more uniting these people than

there is making them feel different," says Nicol. "I’m hugely

proud to be part of such a great, unique event. No other band has

spawned such a joyful celebration and managed to keep it going."

Asked about the band’s approach to live performances, given that the

band has recorded more than 30 albums since 1967, Nicol says his band

mates aren’t expected to be human jukeboxes.

"We really don’t attempt to have all the tunes and songs at our

fingertips," he explains, "We are not a jukebox, but

we know which of the back catalog items suit the current band, and

most importantly, we know which new songs will keep us moving forward

the best," he adds.

For those who haven’t seen Fairport Convention since the 1970s, Nicol

says the audience can expect performances of their hits from the past

as well as plenty of newer material from "XXXV" "The Wood

and the Wire" and other recent albums.

"We try to recognize the past without parroting it," Nicol

says, "our shows play to our strengths as a group, and I hope

it sends the ticket buyer away at the end of the night happy that

the ticket was purchased!"

— Richard J. Skelly

Fairport Convention, Outta Sights & Sounds, Grace

Norton Rogers School Theater, Hightstown, 609-259-5764. Reserved seating,

$25. Saturday, May 31, 8 p.m.

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