And so, at last, they’re back, with their marathon 29-date Wintour 2022 and, as you’ll have expected, At The Barrier was poised to follow the tour bus to drop in to one or two of the shows. But Fairport luck has struck once again… Bassist Dave Pegg tested positive for the dreaded COVID on Tuesday 8th February, and the rest of the band had to soldier on without him for their sellout show at Solihull’s Core Theatre. Wednesday 9th February brought the news that several other members of the Fairport entourage had also tested positive, and the shows at Leeds and Manchester (where we were lined up to attend) as well as those at Stockton-on Tees and Bridlington have had to be cancelled. Needless to say, Fairport are devastated by this awful slice of luck. And so are we!
We feel so fortunate, then, that we were able to get to Exeter Corn Exchange on 4th February, to catch the guys just as the tour was getting into gear. Exeter was, in fact, the third date on the tour and followed dates in Dublin and Tewkesbury, and it was clear that, despite the long lay-off, Fairport and their entourage were already well-and-truly back in their touring mindset. Whenever Fairport tour, I always like to get along to one of their shows in a venue that I hadn’t visited before. By doing so, I’ve been able to discover some fantastic venues up and down the country – places like the Whitby Pavilion, Bath Forum and the wonderful Electric Palace in Bridport. Exeter Corn Exchange wasn’t quite the old, venerable theatre that I’d pictured, but it’s a pleasant venue nevertheless, with accommodation for 500 punters, excellent views and acoustics and good facilities – and it’s smack-bang in the middle of the city, with loads of hotel and eating options around and some excellent choices of pubs for before and after the show. I’d certainly recommend Exeter to anyone considering a short break in a vibrant small city.
But – enough of the tourist brochure stuff – we were in town to see Fairport!
As the latest developments have demonstrated, life isn’t back to normal yet – a reality that had already been recognised by a few significant changes to the established Fairport touring routine. We’ve all come to expect and love the “Meet and Greet” sessions around the venue bars when, after the show, the band assemble, Sharpies at the ready, to chew the fat with their audience and to sign sundry items of mechandise and, on occasion, clothing, heirlooms and even flesh. Well – it’s not happening this year. Ironically, in view of recent news, Fairport had taken the wise decision to refrain from unnecessary mixing. Instead, they’ve signed copies of the tour programme and of their Shuffle and Go CD in advance and these items can be purchased at the tour venues by placing £5 per item into a honesty box that’s located on what remains of the merch table. It’s an unfortunate but very necessary precaution intended to help ensure that the Fairport wheels keep on turning. But, as circumstances have demonstrated, nothing is completely COVID-proof!
I’ve remarked previously that Fairport are invariably meticulous in their choice of the support act for their annual Winter Tour. My record collection is rammed with CDs by acts such as Kieran Halpin, Julian Dawson, Huw and Tony Williams, Anthony John Clarke, The Four of Us, Flossie Malavialle and Winter Wilson, all of whom I first came across on Fairport Wintours. And this year’s choice – Luke Jackson – is another name to add to that ever-growing list. Actually, we’ve known about Luke for quite some time here at At The Barrier and we’ve already had cause to rave about his 2019 album, Journals, and, more recently, his 2021 EP, Of The Time.
Introduced, as is the tradition on the Winter Tours, by Fairport’s Ric Sanders – this time with the imaginative catchphrase “All the way from Canterbury, but with his very own tales…” Luke strode to the mic, and our 2022 Winter Tour experience was underway! Judging by the audience’s reaction to Luke’s opening number, the a cappella Trouble Now, it seems that Luke has already won quite a few fans in the Exeter area. As Luke delivered the song in his crystal-clear voice and decorated the number with clicking fingers and a stomping foot, quite a few voices were detectable, joining in with the “Bury my head deep in the ground, ‘coz I’m in trouble now” refrain. A passionate version of the bluesy Honeycomb followed, before Luke moved on to the lazy, folky, Tiny Windows. Luke’s rapport with his audience is highly engaging and he gives wonderfully concise yet informative introductions to his songs, particularly so in the case of Eliza Holt, the harrowing tale of a lady imprisoned for the “crime” of giving birth to a child outside of wedlock.
Just a day or so after the Exeter concert, I was “treated” to the views of an old windbag in a midlands pub, who shared his opinion (whether we wanted it or not) that the many refugees who risk crossing the English Channel in inadequate boats do so only because they know that they’ll be accommodated in 4-star “luxury” hotels when they get here. He should be made to listen to Luke’s desperately sad Oh Channel for true perspective on the desperation that drives the refugees to take such a terrible risk – it’s a wonderful song, and Luke performed it faultlessly.
It’s always the practice on the Fairport Wintour that the support act is joined by Fairport for his/her/their final number – and so it is this year – as Fairport filtered onto the stage to back Luke for a rocking, mocking performance of Nothing But Time, his contemplation of the frustrations of lockdown. It’s a truly great song and was a fine way to hand over the controls to Fairport. With his confidence, competence and comfortable engagement, Luke Jackson is a name to watch. if you’re planning to go along to one of the shows on this tour, make sure that you get there early – you won’t want to miss a minute of Luke Jackson!
And so to Fairport – and, with Simon’s now customary “One-two-ticketty-boo” we were off into Walk Awhile. Fairport are clearly intending to pick up right at the point where the events of 2020 and 2021 so cruelly cut them off and, as Simon explained right at the start, the setlist for the tour focuses strongly upon the now not-so-recent (but still excellent) Shuffle And Go album that was prevented, by COVID, from receiving the on-the-road promotion that it so richly deserves. Cider Rain, a wonderful song from the members of Nantes band Rosemary and The Brainless Idols, was the first of the evening’s Shuffle and Go selections, and all was going well until… Well – I don’t really know what happened – perhaps Ric forgot to come in with his solo or something and the music stopped! But Fairport are old hands and don’t let a minor crash put them off their stride – they handled the mix-up magnificently and, after a few quips – “Like Get Back” said Peggy; “Andre Previn had the same problem” muttered Ric – they picked themselves up and carried on regardless.
An excellent take on Don’t Reveal My Name – Shuffle And Go‘s opening track – followed, before we were treated to the first of the evening’s genuine surprises. Lalla Rookh is a song that came about when Chris Leslie – in the days before he became a full-time Fairporter – came up with a set of lyrics to a tune of Maartin Allcock’s and the resulting song was featured on the Fairport “Acoustic” album, Old – New – Borrowed – Blue, back in 1996. I honestly can’t remember the last time I heard Fairport play the song live, but they did it in Exeter, and the performance was immaculate. Lalla Rookh is the name of a ship’s figurehead that is now displayed in the Cutty Sark collection; the song recounts the misadventures of a fateful voyage of the ship, and it was wonderful to hear it resurrected after all these years!
A staple of any Fairport live set is Ric’s comedy slot and, this year, Ric gets to rerun a few of the gags that, if you caught Fairport at The Brasenose or during their short Autumn Tour, may already feel like old friends. But I won’t spoil the surprise for anyone who didn’t get to any of the shows in ’21….! The comedy routine was followed by a wizz through Ric’s dazzling Steampunkery, before we were taken “up to the news” with a blistering version of old favourite, Sloth. The band’s current interpretation of this mainstay from the Full House album is, what I’d perhaps call, sympathetically abridged – if you’ve heard the excellent Off The Desk 2020 live album from the 2020 Wintour, you’ll understand what I mean. But no matter how often I hear Fairport play this particular number, I’m always amazed and exhilarated by Dave Pegg’s bass solo and, at Exeter, he played another blinder.
The second half of Fairport’s set sticks pretty closely to the itinerary followed at The Brasenose and on the Autumn tour. Journeyman’s Grace, from the Angel Delight album, gets the second half underway before the band returns to Honour And Praise – a song retrieved a couple of years ago from the period Simon describes as the band’s “Cryogenic state” of 1985. It’s still a great song and its current incarnation, enlivened by Chris’s whistle and harmonica embellishments, is particularly good. The humour in many of Fairport’s song introductions is often the perfect counterbalance to the band’s exemplary musicianship, as demonstrated this evening by the band-audience interaction when Chris referred to the story in The Banbury Guardian newspaper that inspired his Sci-Fi song, The Year of Fifty-Nine (“We’ve been in that!” exclaimed Peggy, referring to the newspaper, “but in a different week.” “Same yurr though…” shouted a Devon-accented wag from the audience). And the jokes didn’t end there – in his intro to Bankruptured, Peggy expressed his disappointment that the Performing Flights Society have yet to stump up any royalties from the birds in his garden seeming to whistle his tune.
And so it went on. Shuffle And Go received more exposure with sublime versions of Moses Waits and the awesome Moondust and Solitude before we were treated to the welcome return of Ralph McTell’s Hiring Fair to the set. Of course, no Cropredy Saturday evening would be complete without it, but the song’s inclusion in a Wintour set was somewhat surprising, and the Thomas Hardy imagery was particularly suited to the Devon location – almost, but perhaps not quite, in Hardy’s Wessex. And Simon’s acoustic guitar playing was, as he always manages to achieve for this song in particular, magnificent.
Fairport’s set concluded, as it invariably does, with Matty Groves and meet on the Ledge. Chris’s banjo illuminated Matty and Luke Jackson returned to the stage to deliver a stunning vocal contribution to Meet… The audience, which included Phil Beer from local heroes Show of Hands, was raucous and fulsome in showing its appreciation – in fact, the atmosphere all evening was electric. As Simon said in his parting words: “This is just Day Two of our tour – and it’s so nice to be in a room with you.” And, with you Simon – it’s SOOOOOO great to be back! Let’s hope that the recent setback proves to be just a minor hiccup.
Categorised in: Reviews
This post was written by Luke