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Culture: Anniversary Convention; Bass guitarist Dave Pegg talks to Andy Farquarson about 35 years of Fairport Convention.

Byline: Andy Farquarson

It's more than 30 years since a young bass guitarist from Acocks Green, Dave Pegg, was invited to an audition in London by his mate Dave Swarbrick.

Also from Birmingham, Swarbrick was playing fiddle with Fairport Convention whose founder and original bassist, Ashley Hutchings, had just quit. Pegg got his job and has been in the band ever since.

'That was in 1969 - even the Great Train Robbers didn't get that long,' he quips.

By the time Pegg joined, Fairport were at the height of their popularity and were about to release the hugely-influential album Liege and Lief. The group had formed early in 1967 and gone on almost singlehandedly to invent the British folkrock genre.

This year marks Fairport's 35th anniversary. The five current members are marking the occasion with a 30-date tour of the UK, a highlight of which will be a concert at Birmingham's Symphony Hall on Sunday with guest appearances from soloist Vikki Clayton and folk legends Waterson-Carthy.

'We always kick off our tours in the Midlands,' says Pegg. 'We've already played Tewkesbury and Leamington. Four of us live in north Oxfordshire and two of us are from Birmingham - though at one stage Fairport had an all-Brummie lineup - so Symphony Hall gigs are particularly dear to our hearts. This year will be even more special because Martin Carthy MBE and his wife Norma Waterson are joining us on stage.'

On Monday, the group will be in London to launch the DVD of a live festival performance, recorded last year on broadcast-standard video. In the evening, their musical stature will be recognised by a special lifetime achievement award presented at the prestigious BBC Radio Two Folk Awards ceremony.

It's a very busy year for Fairport. January saw the release of their latest album, XXXV, which mixes newly-penned songs with rerecorded classics from the band's repertoire.

After the current UK dates, Fairport tour Japan and Australia, return to play in Germany and Belgium, then head off for Canada and the USA.

In August, there will be a special anniversary flavour to Cropredy Music Festival, the annual event staged near Banbury by Pegg and his wife, Christine.

This year's festival will feature guest appearances from many of the group's past members. There's no shortage of those - more than 30 musicians have played with Fairport over the years.

Some went on to achieve solo success - notably Richard Thompson, Ian Mathews and the late Sandy Denny - while others started their own bands. Ashley Hutchings, for example, formed Steeleye Span before moving on to launch the Albion Band which, in various guises, he has led ever since. This constant evolution of personnel and spin-offs has been described as Fairport Confusion.

Only one member of the 1967 nucleus is still with the band, guitarist/vocalist Simon Nicol. It was at his family's Muswell Hill house, Fairport, that the budding musicians first convened. The original members were all from north London but over the years the Midlands contingent grew increasingly dominant and line-ups have also included an Australian, an American and a Breton.

Fairport have also seen their fair share of loss. In 1969, returning from a gig in Birmingham, the van overturned on the motorway, killing the original drummer, 19-year-old Martin Lamble, and injuring everyone else. Sandy Denny, Fairport's best-known singer, died in 1978 after a fall at home. The shadow of these tragedies still hangs over the band.

After four years with Fairport, Nicol left to pursue other musical directions but rejoined after a few years. By 1979, however, Fairport's record deal had ended acrimoniously, punk had revolutionised the music scene and folk-rock had temporarily gone out of fashion. Nicol, Pegg, Swarbrick and drummer Dave Mattacks decided to call it a day - it looked like the end and there was even a farewell concert and album.

Within a year of disbanding, however, a reunion was staged at Cropredy Festival followed by New Year's Eve gigs. By then, Pegg had joined Jethro Tull and Swarbrick had formed Whippersnapper.

In 1985, Pegg, Nicol and Mattacks decided to get Fairport back on the road and into the studio. Swarbrick, though willing to guest with them, didn't want to participate full-time so two longstanding friends joined the fold: multiinstrumentalist Martin Allcock on electric guitar and keyboard, and jazz violinist Ric Sanders of Soft Machine fame.

Lasting 11 years, this wasFairport's longest-running line-up. Alcock left in 1996 and was replaced by Chris Leslie, a Banbury multi-instrumentalist with a background in traditional folk music.

As well as adding to the group's vocal prowess - Nicol and Leslie are both fine singers - the repertoire has been expanded as Leslie is also a talented songwriter.

Mattacks moved to the USA in 1999 and the drummer's stool is now occupied by Londoner Gerry Conway whose association with Fairport goes back to the earliest days.

Fairport Convention still draw the crowds, still sell albums and are clearly prospering. What is the secret of their longevity?

'Live performance,' answers Nicol without hesitation. 'We still love playing and we still take risks musically; audiences pick up on that buzz. We feel very close to our fans and know hundreds of the regulars by sight if not name.

'I suppose you could also liken us to a choir or brass band in that the personnel may change but Fairport retain their distinct identity. I can't see why the band shouldn't outlast the lot of us.'

Fairport Convention play Symphony Hall on Sunday at 7.30pm (Box office: 0121 780 3333). The new album XXXV (price pounds 12 inc UK p&p) is available by mail order from PO Box 37, Banbury, Oxon OX16 8YN. For details of the DVD of Cropredy Festival 2001 featuring over 100 minutes of music, visit: www.fairportconvention.co.uk

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Fairport can still pack in the crowds even after 35 years in the folk-rock business and multiple changes in line-up
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 7, 2002
Words:983
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