From Oxford (not, not that one) to Cropredy - Part 3,
I managed to upset my wife from the other side of the world by buying a hat the first thing the next day so that I wouldn’t get either burned or drowned (it was left behind in the UK…), and then grabbed a coffee before making my way down to the front of the stage to start the serious business of discovering new artists. The only person I desperately wanted to see was Richard Thompson, who was headlining, but I know one of the joys of this festival is the number of “unknown” bands that appear.
On Friday and Saturday, the day starts at 12:00, and by tradition the opening act on the Friday is the winner of the Radio 2 Young Folk Awards, and this year was no different. So, a very nervous looking Josie Duncan & Pablo Lafuente walked on stage, but they had nothing at all to worry about as they were among friends. Pablo is on acoustic guitar, and is pure Scots whatever his background is, while Josie is from Lewes and is a fluent Gaelic speaker as well as English. They soon had everyone highly involved with their wonderful lilting take on traditional songs. Josie has a standout voice, and they have arranged the numbers so that Pablo is very much the accompanist, and sometimes that means not playing at all. I was incredibly impressed with these guys, and having recorded an EP they are now trying to raise the funds for an album and I wish them all the best as they have a great future ahead of them.
I then received a message from Stu to let me know that another old friend of mine, Matt Ellis, was also at the event, and one way or another we managed to meet up. I don’t think I’ve seen Matt for some fifteen years, and we still moan and talk about obscure prog bands just like we used to do back in the day. Apparently, he is revitalising the Mattfest event to get some prog bands a place to play, and I hope it goes well. By now the Gerry Colvin Band were playing who struck me as more comedic than anything else, although I do think they were trying to be serious. In some ways, they were reminiscent of The Pogues, just not in the same league, and this was something I more endured than enjoyed.
Next up were Quill, and this was much more like it. Full electric rock with a fiddle, great tunes and vocals, with a wonderful image. This is a six-piece led by three powerful women, and they were all having a blast and were very much in their element. If I was to pick a band to compare them with then it would probably be Stone The Crows, but very much in the modern era. Just to show how much they are regarded by others, Clive Bunker joined them for one number while none other than Bev Bevan joined them for the last song of the set. These guys were a major surprise for me, and if I was in the UK then I would definitely go and see them play a longer set, as this was superb.
Next up were Gigspanner Big Band who were suffering with a muddy sound, but at least it allowed me to catch up with Ian Burgess for the first time in decades. Ian is behind ‘The Ledge’, and probably knows more about Fairport than anyone would either want or admit to. I eventually started listening to what was going on at the front again, and by now it was CC Smugglers who are a real fun rock and roll band. This is music that is all about having a good time and if they’re having fun then the crowd will catch onto the idea as well. Again, well worth seeking out.
Having had something to eat (and possibly a beer), it was time to get down the front. I had come all this way particularly to see Richard Thompson and there weren’t many bands left until the main event. I was also intrigued to see what the Pierce Brothers were like. Cropredy is one of the largest festivals of its type (this year was the normal sell out of 20,000) and having different bands is one of its strengths, so bands are never booked to return the next year. But, these guys had gone down so well in 2016 that they were invited back in 2017, the first band ever to do that. Apparently, the year before they had arrived and asked what stage they were playing on, when they were told that there was only one and that they would be playing in front of 18,000 people their response was “Bloody hell, mate!”. Did I say they were Aussies? There is no doubt that these guys were the discovery of the weekend for me, and I only hope that I can see them again as they come from (nearly) this part of the world. They have an energy and enthusiasm that is infectious, effective, and exhilarating. The basic set up is one on guitar, and one stood behind a drum kit, both singing, but they are both multi-instrumentalists. At one point one (they’re twins called Pat and Jack and I don’t know which one is which, sorry!) of them jumped off the stage, but then it took him a lot longer to run back on that he thought it would, much to the other brother’s amusement! This is high octane roots rock that must be heard and seen to be believed. Apparently, they have independently sold 50,000 copies of their EP, quite some achievement.
Then it was Petula Clark, yes, that Petula Clark (who is eighty-five before you ask). Peggy wanted her to perform at her first ever UK festival so she did. This is not my style of music at all, but the crowd were appreciative and she certainly did an amazing job vocally given her age.
But finally, it was time for the man himself to appear, Richard Thompson. I have been listening to his music a great deal in recent years and it has been a source of dismay for me that I hadn’t even seen him play when I was in the UK as I hadn’t got into his albums, whereas now he is one of my very favourite musicians. There is a great quote in the programme, attributed to the LA Times, which says “The finest rock songwriter since Dylan and the best electric guitarist since Hendrix” – I’m not sure how they would rate his acoustic style, but I believe that to be better than his rock! He came on by himself, and started performing classic after classic with “Gethsemene” and “Persuasion” sitting alongside “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and “Down Where The Drunkards Roll”. Christine Collister then joined him for a few numbers, such as “Sweetheart on the Barricades” before he was joined by Simon Nicol, Peggy and Dave Mattacks and suddenly everything was full electric. From “Wall of Death” through “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” and “Hand of Kindness” here was a musician and band at the very height of their powers. All too soon it was over, but I just stood in awe, as tonight I had finally seen a musician who I knew was going to be incredible, but I hadn’t realised just quite what it would mean to me. I slowly walked back to the car thinking over what I had seen and heard, and there was still another day to go.