Over the Next Hill

Fairport Convention celebrates 40 years of British folk-rock.

British folk-rock Devendra Banhart Joanna Newsom Fairport Convention The Winchester, 12112 Madison Avenue, Lakewood 9 p.m. Friday, May 18, $20, 216-226-5681
Come All Ye: It's Fairport Convention time.
Come All Ye: It's Fairport Convention time.
Ever since indie tastemakers like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom started reviving vintage British folk-rock, their fans have been soaking it up. But 20 bucks says there won't be more than two of these hipsters attending Fairport Convention's May 18th gig at the Winchester -- just a bunch of old heads celebrating the band's 40th anniversary.

For those freakers, the real Fairport ceased to exist long ago, around 1970's Full House -- the first LP after vocalist Sandy Denny's departure and the last to feature singer-songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson.

But others aren't nearly as dismissive.

Author of the new book White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, Joe Boyd was pivotal in the development of British folk-rock, producing records for Fairport, Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, and Vashti Bunyan.

Boyd believes Fairport was at its most innovative during the Denny/Thompson era ('68 to '69), but he respects the band's continued dedication to the music. "They tour once a year all around England and once a year all around America. It's just a fantastic accomplishment," says Boyd, phoning from his home in London, where he's just finished putting together a Syd Barrett tribute concert that featured Bunyan, Chrissie Hynde, Kevin Ayers, and others.

In that sense, Fairport is not unlike the Grateful Dead of later years: eschewing radical change for a subtle but constant tweaking of its sound, while releasing roughly 30 albums since Thompson left the group.

"We're not a band that trades on past successes -- past glories, as it were," explains violinist Ric Sanders, who joined the group in the mid-'80s. (He also served time in the Soft Machine in the '70s.) According to Sanders, the current set is a mishmash of material mostly culled from the band's last couple of records: Sense of Occasion and Over the Next Hill. With these, Fairport exudes a modern Celtic vibe as well as covering Brit pop like XTC's "Love on a Farm Boy's Wages" and reworking the traditional ballad "Tam Lin," a version of which appeared on 1969's Liege & Lief, one of Fairport's all-time classic LPs.

Sanders is on interview duty, because singer and guitarist Simon Nicol is busy driving the tour van across California. Although Nicol is Fairport's last original member (Thompson and others join the band only for special occasions), Sanders points out that the group -- which is touring America as a trio -- is more like a "big family," with an identity that transcends any one of its many members, past, present, or future. "The elements may change completely, but the concept and the spirit remain," writes Nigel Schofield in the liner notes for the Fairport unConventional boxed set. For the past four decades, Fairport has attempted to do for the U.K. what the Band did for America: to create uniquely British folk music that's rooted in the archaic as well as the contemporary.

Furthermore, Fairport's rotating membership has never been a symptom of declining popularity or artistic drought; as Boyd states in White Bicycles, "No two consecutive . . . records have ever featured the same lineup." The only constant, then -- besides a true desire to create high-quality music -- has been the group's extended family: the fans. And here, another parallel can be drawn to the Dead. Not only has Fairport developed a dedicated grassroots following, it's also become a DIY business venture based on old-school hippie values. "We have our own festival, the Cropredy festival, every August in Oxfordshire, which attracts the better part of 20,000 people into a field for three days," explains Sanders. "It's something that's run completely independently by the band. There is no corporate input."

While the modern Fairport doesn't scale artistic heights like previous versions, freak-folkies should take the band's new records as seriously as 2005's indie-hit Lookingafter, Bunyan's first record since her 1970 debut, Just Another Diamond Day. Sure, Bunyan collaborates with Banhart and Animal Collective, but most of her new music feels more nostalgic than anything by Fairport these days. Of course, none of this really matters to a band that has one of the most loyal fan bases in rock. As Barnes asks me, "Devendra Banhart? Who's he?"

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