Heed the Festival Bell: Fairport Convention Brings Something Old, Something New to 45th Anniversary Celebration
Forget the Olympics. This August, thousands will descend upon England to celebrate the folk music champions Fairport Convention as the band celebrates its 45th anniversary.
The band founded by Ashley Hutchings not only birthed British folk rock but brought Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Simon Nicol, Dave Swarbrick, Dave Mattacks, Jerry Donahue, Judy Dyble, and many others to the contemporary folk-rock scene.
Gerry Conway has been the band’s drummer since 1998. A master percussionist whose credentials include work with Jethro Tull, Cat Stevens, Paul McCartney, Steeleye Span and other legendary musicians, Conway took some time to talk about Fairport’s latest albums, some of the key players, and just why Cropredy has developed into a “must-attend” festival for legions of fans.
Q: Fairport Convention’s new album “By Popular Request” is so interesting because you put your own twists — in subtle ways — on classic Fairport songs. What is the story behind the decision to make this album?
GC: I think is really a tribute to the 45-year Fairport history. What we have done is record the songs so that none sound quite the same as the originals. They wouldn’t anyway because of the line up, with Chris Leslie singing and [and elements we incorporated as a result of] rehearsals. But it was a really joyous thing to do.
Q: Were you tempted to change some of the percussion on the songs?
GC: Some of the songs we recorded had previously been included in our live sets throughout the years and consequently, [especially considering] the recordings I wasn’t on, it was almost like a duty to recreate the parts that previous player Dave Mattacks and Martin Lamble had played, not just for the band’s benefits but for the listener who has those records at home.
Fans may have found it too much hard work to listen to an entirely new part, especially [when you consider such classic Fairport songs as] the ‘Red and Gold’ [written by Ralph McTell] and ‘Jewel in the Crown’ [written by Julie Matthews]. I found those [original] parts were so intrinsically important to the original recordings, I didn’t veer away from them. So I did play as [close to the originals] as me playing on my kit could do; but it still sounds different [because I am playing]. I didn’t feel I could really mess around with [such classic] songs too much whereas songs like [the traditional] ‘Hexhamshire Lass,’ we gave that sort of a rhythmic make over.
Q: How did that come about?
GC: I woke up one morning and thought ‘This is what I think we should do.’ I took it into rehearsal and sheepishly suggested it and everybody sort of jumped on it and said ‘Yeah, we like that idea. That idea is good.’ So that’s what we did. We gave it a bit of a different feel.
Q: Before I forget, I have to mention that [long-time Fairport drummer] Dave Mattacks can’t say enough great things about you. He must be your biggest fan.
GC: He is very kind. He is somebody I first met in the ’70s. I think I may have even been on his first Fairport gig and we met up back then and our paths have crossed many times over the years. We’ve never really lost contact with each other.
When I was offered the gig with Fairport, I was deeply unaware DM was going to leave so it was a big surprise. I admired his work with Fairport a great deal and remember it was possibly his last show with Fairport I went to. He felt I was the right person to hand over the seat to and I accepted and turned up to his last show.
Q: That had to be a difficult transition to make because, as you said, he was and is an incredible player.
GC: I was very aware of the way DM played with [bassist] Dave Pegg; They were a very strong unit for many years. I confess when first came into the band I was a bit intimidated by it. I just wanted to do a good job.
I don’t know if you have this in the U.S. but [in the U.K. we have special license plates for student drivers] and I found one, stuck it on the front of the kit and everyone liked that.
Over the years things have kind of settled down and we have our own thing going now. Some nights when we’re playing live, Dave will turn to me and give me a smile. That is a very sweet thing. It’s not only the playing, it’s getting the music right.
Q: What’s it like to play with Dave Pegg?
GC: He has a very strong pocket and that, for a drummer, is an immense help when you’re playing. I can rely on him 100 percent, which means I can relax and I don’t have to pull the rhythm back or pull the time forward. I just have to sit in among it and everything will be comfortable. Dave is one of only a handful of players that I am really comfortable with and that is a very important thing.
Q: It’s obvious when you guys play together – all of you in Fairport – it’s such a great brotherhood. It was almost surreal last year to watch the news about all the craziness that was going on in London and then to watch Cropredy and see such a happy, peaceful atmosphere.
GC: We go out there and for that period of time, at whatever show we play, and we want to make people happy, to give them some peace in a very difficult world. We want to spread some happiness and peace in that short time.
That’s one of the strong underlying reasons the festival is so important. The band goes out and promotes that kind of thing. Every night we finish a show – anywhere – the band goes out front and meets everybody and talks to them and everyone feels like a friend. That is very important to the audience and certainly to Fairport.
Q: What was the thinking behind recording a live version of the  album “Babbacombe Lee?”
GC: I think for a while we had one or two of the songs in the set on our winter tours. I confess I wasn’t too familiar with the album. Certainly, I’d heard it. It has taken years to learn the back catalog of Fairport. I know practically every song they have ever recorded, but it has been quite a task. I think I carry a fair percentage of them now but “Babbacombe Lee,” I wasn’t as familiar with as some of the other.
We had quite a number of fans saying they really liked the album, so we decided two or three years ago that on one of the Winter Tours we would play “Babbacombe Lee” in its entirety [for the first half of the show]. It went down extremely well; people loved it. We decided we should record at least one or two [of those shows].
Q: That seems like one of the most interesting things about Fairport, that you can recreate those classic songs but really mix things up on your new songs. Tell me about how some of that new instrumentation works its way into Fairport songs.
[Chris Leslie] is extraordinary. It’s almost like any instrument he picks up, he just plays it or quickly learns to play it. Ever since I’ve been in the band I’ve watched him go from bouzouki and mandolin, to a fascination with Indian flutes and so on. Then we did some recordings and he had some Irish type flutes he played. And then recently a friend of the band gave him a Portuguese guitar that is quite different from European or any other type of guitar. He sat there and persevered and the next thing we knew, he had written [“Rui’s Guitar”], we worked it into the set, and it’s on “Festival Bell.” He just does his own thing.
Q: What about the instrumentation you’ve brought to the various songs?
GC: My own story is that prior to playing with Fairport my partner at home is Jacqui McShee and we have our own band and we both [have played extensively] with a singer named David Hughes. He is a fantastic talent and a very funny songwriter. He does great satirical stuff.
I think it was Jacqui who said ‘Why don’t you get this little clay drum?’ so I got one at a place called Knock on Wood in Leeds and from that my whole collection started to grow. I didn’t really stop until I got a room full of stuff. David Hughes would give me free reign to play all this stuff and given that big landscape to work with I would bring all these things along and developed this style.
Q: How did you learn to play all of these different instruments and incorporate them into the arrangements?
GC: Everything I play has no training in it. What comes out is what I feel. I may not be playing these drums in the traditional sense or studied sense but if something interests me and I get a sound out of it I work with that. It’s a quite a naive way of playing but I am happy doing that.
Q: Since you talk to so many fans, I’d love to hear what you think is a misconception about Fairport, past or present. What do you want to clear up?
GC: I know some bands that have been playing the same set for 30 odd years and have never changed it. They don’t do anything new. That’s not what we do.
As a rule, there is always songwriting going on within Fairport Convention. Chris is very active and [fiddle player] Ric Sanders is constantly writing instrumentals. As a result, as soon as we can make a new album of new material, we will.
We try to always give a nod to [songs from the back catalog], because that’s the foundation. But we are always moving ahead.
This year’s Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival will be on August 9-11. Find information about Cropredy, the band, and its albums on the Fairport Convention website.