Fairport Convention is a headline name in the history of folk music.
But as Manchester United could tell you, it’s harder to stay at the top than getting there in the first place. And much like in sport, few bands spend decades at the top of their game.
Pioneers of ‘folk rock’ – for those fond of categorisation, essentially a fusion of blues, British folk music and elements of the emerging progressive and hard rock genres – Fairport Convention have led a generation of exceptional musicians who re-examined their cultural roots and mixed it magically with more modern styles.
Successfully straddling the past and present, 45 years of touring and recording has seen the band evolve into a true part of the British musical landscape, a lengthy list of legendary musicians coming and going along the meandering journey.
Manchester has always been prominent on the folk circuit –famously it was at the sadly-demolished Manchester Free Trade Hall where newly-electric Bob Dylan was heckled by irate folk fans – and as they gear up to play the Waterside Centre in nearby Sale on Saturday night, founder member Simon Nicol spoke about the pleasures of returning to the area.
He said: “It’s always been a very active place musically, and a strong independently-minded area – going back to the early days I remember doing all the university gigs, which were just great.”
As for their upcoming show at the Waterside, he added: “We’ve actually never played there, so it’s nice to find a new venue after 45 years on the road!”
The original guitarist and current lead vocalist, Simon has seen many musicians join him on stage with Fairport. The current line-up has lasted over a decade, but illustrious names to have played with Fairport include Richard Thompson, Dave Pegg and the much-missed Sandy Denny, famously the only singer to collaborate with Led Zeppelin (on ‘The Battle of Evermore’).
Simon said: “Back then we were all exposed to all sorts of live music and I suppose I had absorbed much of the folk elements without meaning to – we weren’t directly a folk band, but when Sandy joined [before seminal albums Unhalfbricking and Liege and Lief] it became more permanent.
“Liege and Lief was a concept album I suppose – it gave us more impetus, especially after Martin [Lamble, the original drummer] died [in a car crash in 1969], it showed how the band kept evolving. To do traditional songs like ‘Tam Lin’ and new ones like ‘Mad Man Michael’ so that they sounded as if from the same time was deliberate.”
The band soon rose to the forefront of the folk rock scene, alongside the likes of Pentangle, Steeleye Span and Lindisfarne, and though many of their contemporaries have faded from the live circuit folk fans old and new continue to keep the community feel strong.
Fairport’s most recent release, By Popular Request, is a collection of re-recorded classics chosen by fans. A mix of traditional tunes, lesser-known album tracks and Fairport standards, the internet poll brought long-time fans and new converts into fruitful conversation.
“That’s the good thing about folk – there doesn’t seem to be any age limit,” said Simon. “Folk is a very inclusive area in music, and it will always be there at some level.”
As well as the current tour and album the band have much to look forward to, not least their own festival.
Fittingly for a famous folk festival, Cropredy is surrounded by layers of myth – starting as impromptu shows alongside a village fete in rural Oxfordshire in the mid-70s, by 1980 it had become an important date in the musical calendar.
Prefiguring the current trend for smaller festivals catering for all ages, Cropredy has long been renowned for its welcoming air, eclectic music (this year featuring Joan Armatrading and Squeeze alongside many folk stalwarts) and the close involvement of Fairport’s members in organising the celebration of all things folk.
“It wasn’t a festival when we started it – we were just invited to perform at the fete as two of the band lived in the village,” said Simon.
“That was the acorn, and now we have a mighty oak! It’s the highlight of my year – it’s just so special.”
Looking back over 45 years, there are many moments and plenty of people who made the band what they were. Pushed for a favourite time, Simon plumped for the summer of 1968, and the release of the band’s brilliant second album What We Did on Our Holidays.
“Back in ’68 was such an important time in my life, and so I look back at that album with such fondness,” he said.
“I was 17 and just in awe of everything – as everyone should be at that age – and it was the start of so much. I’m so glad we’re still doing it and still enjoying it now – turns out it wasn’t a bad career choice!”
Nearly half a century on from their first gig, having suffered their share of tragedy and upheavals along the way, Fairport Convention continue to show folk the way forward.
Fairport Convention will be playing at Sale's Waterside Arts Centre on May 19 - visit here for more information.