Fairport Convention, Cropredy 98 (Woodworm Records, 1998)

I played this CD three times the day I got it, if that's any sort of indication! Fairport have been staging their festival in Cropredy, Oxfordshire since 1977 and, particularly in the mid-to-late eighties, they regularly issued limited-edition cassettes of the event. With the exceptions of the 25th and 30th anniversary celebrations in 1992 and 1997, respectively, there haven't been many official recordings in this decade, although the festival has increased in popularity every year. However, for 1998, we've had both a video, Beyond The Ledge, and this new CD, which has been released in a limited run of 1000.

It is certainly going to appeal to the dedicated Fairport fan for a number of reasons, the first being the fact that fans of this band are notoriously loyal and will eagerly snap up any new release. Beyond that, the album is the first to feature Gerry Conway as the band's new drummer -- in fact, it was effectively his first gig with the band -- and he manages to make his mark on material previously associated with Dave Mattacks' style, such as favourites "Matty Groves" and "John Gaudie" (the latter is sure to become a staple in the repertoire for many years). He also adds some light brushwork to Ric Sanders' "Woodworm Swing" which DM never did, and it gives the tune a new and equally appropriate feel.

The CD also includes a number of guest appearances not included on the video, although it doesn't have all who appeared at this festival. Nevertheless, this is certainly a selling point when you are talking about talent of the calibre of Chris While, Dave Cousins, Rabbit Bundrick, and Pete Zorn amongst others. In most cases, they perform songs which are not usually associated with Fairport but will appeal to the completists among us. Chris While performs "Easy To Slip" and "Jump The Broomstick", songs once performed by Sandy Denny, and Dave Cousins sings his song dedicated to Sandy, "Ringing Down The Years" in an emotional but somewhat ragged style which some will love and others not. [Editor's Note: be sure to check out Pam Winter's new book No Thought of Leaving: A Life of Sandy Denny when it comes out this summer]

When Chris While and Simon Nicol trade verses on "Who Knows Where The Time Goes" along with Ric Sanders and Chris Leslie's wonderful violin arrangement, it's a magical moment. I might even stick my neck out and say it's the best version of the song yet recorded, including Fairport's original from '69! Just hear it once and you'll know what I mean.

The remainder of the album is material from the current lineup of Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, Ric Sanders, Chris Leslie and Gerry Conway. There is typically a good mix of songs old and new. In fact, Chris' song "Close To You" is included here in its first recording (the man is FC's first in-house songwriter for many years) and sits comfortably among the better-known material. The twin violin assault of Leslie and Sanders is exhibited to great effect on "The Bowman's Retreat", and Pegg's excellent bass-playing is evident, well, anywhere you care to listen really!

Nicol doesn't pick up the electric guitar much nowadays; but, since Maartin Allcock's departure, he brings it out occasionally just to show he's equally adept plugged or unplugged. As is well known, his vocal abilities are a true asset as well. It may be questioned as to whether another live recording of "Matty Groves" or even "Meet On The Ledge" is needed, as they seem to appear on every live album the band has produced. There were certainly a number of other lesser-known songs performed at Cropredy 98 that could have been included instead. Butboth songs are absolute staples of their repertoire, and it is obviouslya juggling act to keep the balance between newer material and what people want to hear. And, overall, this album achieves that aim.

It has become a trick in recent times to include a bonus track at the end of albums, and in this case, Fairport have included the studio track "Castle Rock. Originally from the Alan Simon album "Excalibur" (released only in France), it is both Dave Mattacks' swan song with the band and also a rousing instrumental which rocks like mad. Classic folk-rock, in fact. Those unable to find "Excalibur" will be very glad of its inclusion here.

So, Cropredy 98 is certainly an album for the fans. Anyone wanting to discover what Fairport are like these days will still get a good indication while finding some equally enjoyable songs not necessarily associated with the band. Either way, the trick is to be quick, as there probably won't be any more pressed once the first thousand are gone. And it certainly isn't a necessity to have attended Cropredy to enjoy the album -- I've never been, and the album is still a damn fine one as far as I'm concerned.

[Michael Hunter]

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