Paul Johnson is still suffering from delusions of grandeur and is again banging on about our ‘world renounced’ interviews as if he actually believes it.
Meanwhile… back in the real world, it would be more appropriate to use the term ‘world renounced’ to describe that ‘Pretty Damn Cosmic’, fiddle player extraordinaire, Mr Ric Sanders. So, let’s do that then to introduce this year’s folking.com interview with Ric Sanders (interviewed by Darren Beech and Paul Johnson).
In the interview we talk about Ric’s 34th Year with Fairport, the call from Dave Pegg in April in 1985 to join the band to be part of the Gladys’ Leap album. We talk about the ‘Fairport Extension’ set, the New Forest Folk Festival and Maart’s inspirational heroic ‘Metal Matty’ performance last year.
We discuss ‘echo delay pedals’ and Ric’s musical background of Blues, Jazz and Rock. We move on to the new Ric Sanders Trio album Headspace with Vo Fletcher (Guitar and Vocals), Michael Gregory (Drums & Percussion), talk about the previous album Standing on the Corner and Graeme Taylor’s fantastic new studio where the new album was recorded.
The interview closes with a Home Service announcement that totally took us by surprise. Ric talks about his first album for Harvest EMI, when he recorded with Soft Machine and how that led up to working with John Tams on Rise Up Like the Sun.
The interview should start playing automatically, if not click on the play button below to listen.
The joke, you see, is that Kip Winter and Dave Wilson recorded Live & Unconventional on the road with Fairport Convention during their 2018 winter tour. In fact, the first voice we hear is that of Ric Sanders doing compere duty and the rest of the chaps appear later. There are several things that struck me immediately. The first is that you have to be good to be a Fairport support on a long tour and the audience certainly got behind them. (I’ll ignore that story that I believe I got from a Fairporter that the best way to record a live album is to do it in the studio and then dub on the applause from a Deep Purple gig. There isn’t a word of truth in it!) The other thing that stands out is the quality of the recording. Two voices and a selection of two instruments from guitar, banjo and piano accordion make a big sound and Winter Wilson squeeze fifteen long tracks onto the album with just enough chat to keep us in the loop.
They open quietly with the title track of their most recent studio album. ‘Far Off On The Horizon’ was inspired by a sleepless night and is an example of Dave’s ability to take almost nothing and turn it into a superb song. The crowd-pleaser, ‘Tried And Tested’, turns up the volume but then we get to the meat of the set. History and literature are absolutely on trend for a Fairport audience and Dave and Kip run through the Falklands war, Jack London, John Steinbeck and emigration to Canada. Politics come in to the equation, firstly with ‘Ghost’, which I still think is one of Dave’s absolute best songs – but I also think that about ‘I Wish I Could Turn Back Time’ which follows it.
Fairport Convention take the stage to accompany them on ‘Still Life In The Old Dog Yet’ – Kip couldn’t understand why they chose to play on that one – and Sandy Denny’s ‘It’ll Take A Long Time’. In real life Winter Wilson’s set ended here, but they give us two more tracks to go home with. ‘This Day Is Mine’ is an idler’s charter but ‘Common Form’ returns to war and history and we remember that they really do have something to say.
From the first notes Kip and Dave exude confidence and I realised how well the songs I’ve only heard as studio recordings have developed in the live set. If Live & Unconventional doesn’t promote Winter Wilson up to the next division there is no justice.
If you’ve ever been to a Cropredy Festival you’ll know exactly what they do on Saturday. They gather together a bunch of former band-mates and old friends and play a mammoth set long into the darkness (subject to health and safety restrictions, of course). These days, Fairport Convention don’t need an excuse to mount a celebration but 2017 marked the band’s fiftieth anniversary and so this was the perfect opportunity to tell the band’s story in music – although not strictly in the right order. Thus we have What We Did On Our Saturday, packaged in an homage to their second album.
The album begins with their first album and (almost) their first line-up. For younger readers that was Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Iain Matthews and Judy Dyble now with Dave Mattacks on drums. They kick off with ‘Time Will Show The Wiser’ and ‘Reno Nevada’ and I was impressed at the way Richard played the sort of guitar lead appropriate to 1967. He couldn’t help himself, of course, and went off on one but I don’t suppose that anyone complained.
Chris While took over on lead vocals for ‘Suzanne’, a slightly less off-the-wall arrangement than the original. Chris does a very good Sandy Denny particularly on the rockier numbers but she’s her own woman and the grace notes and decorations are all her own. Judy and Iain get time off and the others take it in turns so the current line-up doesn’t actually appear until ‘Crazy Man Michael’ when Gerry Conway briefly wrestles the drum stool away from DM. The remainder of the first disc is taken up with selections from Liege & Lief and Full House and they keep ‘Sloth’ to under ten minutes.
The second disc opens with ‘Now Be Thankful’, a song which Chris Leslie is rapidly making his own, even though Richard elbows him off the mic on this occasion. It’s worth noting that Chris doesn’t get a break after the third track until the Fotheringay homage of ‘Ned Kelly’ and ‘Rising For The Moon’ which feature Sally Barker and PJ Wright and introduce Maartin Allcock to the stage. The latter is a feature of the revamped Fotheringay’s set but sadly, of course, Jerry Donahue isn’t available. I have to say, in passing, that Simon does a wonderful job with ‘Fotheringay’. Maart gets to lead ‘A Surfeit Of Lampreys’ and Ralph McTell takes centre stage for ‘White Dress’ but Simon keeps ‘The Hiring Fair’ for himself.
There is only one song that originates with the current line-up and that’s Chris Leslie’s ‘Our Bus Rolls On’ and now we’re on the downhill run. You know how it ends: ‘Matty Groves’ – with both drummers – and ‘Meet On The Ledge’ with everyone back on stage.
As you might imagine, I own a lot of Cropredy recordings and all have their own attractions. For me the 25th anniversary set stands out while the earlier ones: A.T.2 and The Boot have the particular ramshackle charm that we used to associate with Fairport Convention thirty-odd years ago. What We Did On Our Saturday is tight and slick without much in the way of stage chatter – an appropriately serious set to go with such a milestone in Fairport’s history. Exemplary performances as we’ve come to expect, of course, but sometimes I do miss Simon playing rhythm viola!
Okay, first off let me declare that I’ve known Mark and Carolyn Evans, who are the core of Birmingham-based Red Shoes, for some 30 years. This, however, has no bearing on what I think of their music. Even had I not known them, I would still be a massive fan. I would also rate Carolyn as one of my all time top five female vocalists, and I’m not the only one who has compared her to Sandy Denny, admittedly her biggest influence.
Originally formed in 1983, they self-released the All Fall Down EP produced by Clive Gregson and a single on Mooncrest, a version of ‘By The Time It Gets Dark’, as well as a never-released album. However, eight years later they called it a day to focus on raising a family. Some twenty years later, they decided to give it another go.
Fate brought them into contact with Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg who offered to produce and play on, what would become their debut album, Ring Around The Land. Released in 2009, it was followed in 2012 by All The Good Friends, produced by the late Mick Dolan and again featuring Pegg, alongside Dave Swarbrick and Bev Bevan, and including a slow, deeply sad stunning version of ‘Blackberry Way’.
Now comes their third release, this time a double CD set comprising two acts, one electric and on acoustic, the former featuring the core line up of Mark, Carolyn and guitarist Nigel King alongside drummer Rob Mason and contributions from Pegg and Ric Sanders, while the latter is just the trio. Both discs also feature guest appearances by Joe Brown on Dobro and ukulele, respectively.
As depicted on the artwork, Act One opens with ‘Salters Screen’, one of two rerecorded numbers written as a commission by Worcester County Council for a libraries and communities audio-visual project. An uptempo folk-country chugger featuring Pegg on mandolin and Brown on dobro it was written in response to the memories of Droitwich locals who used to go to Salters Super Cinema which finally closed in the 1960s. A similarly uptempo approach is taken for ‘Dust In The Hallway’, although, carried along on shuffling brushed snare with Sanders on fiddle solo, the lyrics are actually about alcoholism.
Then comes ‘Hostile Place’, a song written several years back during a brief stint under the name of The Lorelei, arranged here by King and, quite frankly, with its line “this home’s a hostile place” one of the greatest songs about a dying relationship ever written. Sung with a vocally quivering heart-wrenching intensity by Carolyn and with Sanders augmenting the emotions on violin, if you’re not a weeping wreck at the end then you have no soul.
Taking its title from the Kevin Spacey TV series, the tumblingly melodic state of the world themed ‘House Of Cards’ was written as a biting response to Donald Trump and American politics and is in turn followed by the title track. Now, long standing fans will know this as a powerful ballad written and sung by Mark, here, however, it’s transformed into one of their jaunty folk numbers in the manner of ‘Swansong’ off the previous album. Both versions are terrific.
‘I Wish It Would Rain’ finds Carolyn in soulful mode for a powerful, slow-paced calling for a cleansing of the country to wash the hate from the shores of its green and pleasant lands. The curtain then falls on the first act with the five-and-half minute ‘Maple Tree Boy’. Sanders’ violin introducing a moving traditional-folk flavoured ballad set to a military slow march inspired by the true story of Arthur Wallace, a navy medic at the Normandy lands, the first casualty he treated being a young Canadian who died in his arms from a bullet that had passed through his helmet. Wallace was haunted by the experience to the end of his days and the fact he was never able to find out the lad’s name. Another one to exercise the tear ducts.
Act Two opens with ‘Floorspot Annie’, a poignant fingerpicked number about a would be folk singer who escapes the 9-5 grind down at the club on a Tuesday night, her hopes of getting spotted never materialising but, despite the fact that “she may not play the finest note or sing the brightest tune” always cheering the audience.
‘Heart of Stourport Town’ is the second of the commissioned songs, a touching slowly strummed, melancholic Dennyesque ballad about friendship and the ‘joyous company’ community that draws on an interviews with two women who grew up in houses attached to the Tontine Hotel, built in 1772 to provide lodgings and premises for the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal Company, in the 1950s.
They don’t do many storysongs, but, Mark singing lead, the spare ‘Six Boats’ is a number inspired by Cornish (?) smugglers and sung in the voice of a young father condemned to hang after being betrayed to the Redcoats. Appropriately enough, this is followed by ‘Pirates’, written by Mark and sung by Carolyn, a wistful song of regret and of not putting down roots as she sings “my dreams have faded, faded far away and the sands have covered my footsteps”, Springsteen surely inspiring the line “like a pirate, riding a stolen car.”
Again penned by Mark, their debut single gets a six-minute revisiting with Brown on baritone ukulele, like the title track, has also been reimagined, transforming from its original soaring chorus ballad of desperation sung by Mark to a slower strummed, more world weary reading.
Mark taking lead again, taking its title from the Ayrshire town ‘All The Way To Troon’ is probably the newest number here, a lovely Celtic-hued folk ballad about seeking a lost love, one I can imagine club audiences swaying long to and one which Daniel O’Donnell might want to wrap his ears around.
A passionate member of the anti-fox hunting lobby, the last album featured protest song ‘Red Coat Ride’ and here she’s channeled her love of foxes into an adaptation of the similarly-themed traditional ‘Reynardine’, a stark reading featuring just her electrifying voice underscored by Mason’s rumbling drums.
And, speaking of foxes, she also has another identity as fledgling author C.S.Evans and, accompanied by King, the collection closes with her singing ‘Martha’s Song’, the words taken from her debut novel, Martha – Trinity of the Chosen, a magic-realism murder mystery in which foxes feature prominently, but existing in their own right as a celebration of childhood innocence and nature.
Although, live work will continue, there’s talk that this might be their last album, and, if so, then they are bowing out on a glorious high. However, I live in hope that it isn’t over yet. So should you.
Opportunities for celebration come round with increasing frequency when you’ve been in the business as long as Fairport Convention has. The current line-up has been together for almost twenty years and before that they have a back catalogue so large that they can never hope to play it all. This year sees the band’s fiftieth birthday and the title of 50:50@50 describes its contents: seven new recordings and seven live tracks. Fairport haven’t done anything obvious, though. You’ll look in vain for the old favourites that their audiences demand they play every gig – no ‘Matty Groves’ and no ‘Meet On The Ledge’.
The album opens with the first of Chris Leslie’s new songs, a return to his favourite maritime themes. ‘Eleanor’s Dream’ feels like a sequel to ‘Lord Franklin’ and indeed it mentions Lancaster Sound, part of the fabled Northwest Passage. But Lady Franklin was Jane so Chris has given us a puzzle. The first live track is ‘Ye Mariners All’, originally from Tippler’s Tales, recorded at The Mill in Banbury, venue for the famous Cropredy warm-ups. In fact the band returns to the tradition on this album more than they have done in recent years.
‘Step By Step’ is a pretty but rather slight song and it’s followed by ‘The Naked Highwayman’ also live and a real vocal tour de force by Simon Nicol. So far so not unexpected but don’t sit back and relax just yet. Ric Sanders has re-recorded his ‘Danny Jack’s Reward’ subtitled “expensive version!” with a host of friends, woodwinds and brass and a guest appearance from Joe Broughton. It’s a superb reading of the piece but the surprises aren’t over yet. Next is another live track, ‘Jesus On The Mainline’, with Fairport taking on the role of Robert Plant’s backing group!
I’m not sure if Chris Leslie’s ‘Devil’s Work’ is autobiographical – I can’t see a professional musician doing manual work any more hazardous than fettling a fiddle. That’s another puzzle he’s set us. The next live track, ‘Mercy Bay’, is another of his epic sea songs and that’s followed by ‘Our Bus Rolls On’, a song in praise of the band. It’s a bit twee for my taste but if you can’t blow your own trumpet when you’re fifty when can you? A rewrite of ‘Angel Delight’ would have been great fun – Simon and Peggy remain from the original but I expect that their tastes have matured over the years.
Next is a superb live version of ‘Portmeirion’, possibly the best I’ve heard, and then another surprise. Fairport Convention don’t really do traditional songs like they used to but here is a new addition, ‘The Lady Of Carlisle’, with lead vocal by Jacqui McShee followed by a live version of ‘Lord Marlborough’, originally recorded a mere forty-six years ago. Unexpectedly, PJ Wright contributes ‘Summer By The Cherwell’ – self-referential, of course, but I can see it being a live hit at every Cropredy from now on.
The final live track and the album’s closer is another surprise. Guess what it might be and I bet you won’t say ‘John Condon’. This is a sensitive, thoughtful reading of the song as befits its subject matter with Gerry Conway’s brushes holding the rhythm but not intruding on Ric’s fiddle or Simon’s vocals. One second thoughts, a song of reflection is an appropriate way to send this set. We all have more to look back on than look forward to.
It’s funny how some things turn out, when your path takes you somewhere that you were not expecting to go. It all started in the Kensington Village Hall (as Mr. Steve Knightley would call it) at that amazing Ralph McTell Albert Hall concert on the 12th May. I found myself sitting next to Ken Maliphant completely by chance. We got talking, and he told me about the St George’s Festival for Beckenham and mentioned that Fairport were playing on the 4th June and Ralph McTell on the 24th as part of it.
Now, Ken can spin many a “Tipplers Tale” and his story is very much interwoven with Fairport’s and the album of that name. Ken actually worked for the final record label the band was signed to at the end of the Seventies. In fact, as Dave Pegg mentioned last night, the Cropredy festival has a lot to thank Ken for as he was the main driving force behind organising the settlement figure when the label refused to fund another Fairport album. It was that settlement that financially built the first building blocks for the Cropredy festival we so love today.
After receiving the news on Friday about the sad loss of one my of my all time musical heroes Dave Swarbrick, this concert and the journey to it became a personal pilgrimage to celebrate the man and his music.
In my opinion, Swarb was the finest of English folk fiddlers and one of the most colourful characters that you will ever find on the English traditional and folk/rock music scene. He was a major facet to the gem that set me on my folk music journey all those years ago and a true inspiration to all of us at folking.com. Rest in Peace Swarb, you will be greatly missed. Keep those angels feet a dancing and that timeless twinkle of mischief in you eyes.
David Cyril Eric Swarbrick RIP 5th April 1941 – 3rd June 2016
Paul Johnson and I caught up with Gerry Conway, Chris Leslie and Ric Sanders before the concert last night and we recorded the interview below. Click on the play button to listen.