A Fairport in a Storm

35 years after its founding, the legendary English folk-rock band plays Tucson.

Sometimes there's reason to believe the hype. For instance, Fairport Convention--next to which the word "legendary" so often seems to appear--long has been hailed as the group that invented English folk-rock. Fairport bassist Dave Pegg can't find a reason to argue.

"That's pretty true," says Pegg, without the least bit of hesitation during a recent telephone interview.

"I mean I can't say that they invented folk and rock because folk and rock were around a long time before then and they always shared similar origins. But they certainly made the first album, Liege and Lief (released in Dec. 1969) that was recognized as an English folk-rock album. That was the birth of British folk-rock, I think."

Pegg refers to Fairport in this context as "they," rather than "we," because he didn't come aboard until the group's next album, Full House, which was released in 1970, three years after the group formed at original member Simon Nicol's London home, which was named Fairport.

Now, the group is touring the United States to celebrate its 35th anniversary and the release of its 52nd album (including live recordings, best-of collections and fan-club-only releases), the title of which is simply XXXV.

The tour will stop in Tucson on Friday night, October 4, for a concert at the Berger Performing Arts Center. Equation, a young folk-rock band from Devon, will open the show. That group is currently playing a handful of dates with Fairport.

The only founding member remaining in Fairport Convention is Nicol, who plays guitar and shares vocal duties with mandolin player Chris Leslie. Nicol initially formed the group with guitar hero Richard Thompson and bassist Ashley Hutchings.

Thompson left Fairport in the early 1970s and eventually enjoyed a popular career with his then-wife and -partner, Linda Thompson. Since the early 1980s, he has been a well-respected solo artist. Hutchings later went on to found the more traditional English folk groups Steeleye Span and The Albion Band.

Over the decades, Fairport Convention has been an evolving musical college through which members rotate, learning their chops, contributing to the mix and sometimes moving on--not unlike a folk-rock version of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

The band has included such exemplary folk and rock players as Thompson, Hutchings, Sandy Denny, Dave Swarbrick and Ian Matthews. By Pegg's reckoning, 29 musicians have done time as "Fairports."

"In the early days, I guess some people commented that it seemed to be an ever-changing line-up," Pegg says. "But we were like 21 and we were changing, figuring out who we were as people and as musicians, and that's why people came and went."

"We like to say (former members) left because of musical differences--they were musical and we were different. That usually gets a laugh on stage." But even former members of the band are treated as members of an extended family.

Each summer, when the Fairport Convention presents its annual Cropredy Festival (a three-day music bash in the English village of Cropredy), former Fairports usually show up to sit in with the band and play their own sets.

The current line-up includes Nicol, Pegg, Leslie, violinist Ric Sanders and drummer Gerry Conway, a veteran of playing with Cat Stevens in the 1970s and Jethro Tull in the '80s. This version of the band has been intact for about four years, Pegg said.

Leslie, the youngest member of the band at 45, adds a pleasant and decidedly pop tinge to the Fairport style on XXXV and the 2000 release The Wood and the Wire.

"It's nice to have someone coming up with new songs and to have another singer," says Pegg. "He writes a lot of great songs with his writing partner, Nigel Stonier, and having their material has been very beneficial."

When it comes to making albums, Fairport Convention is very old-fashioned, Pegg says. "We don't try to follow a concept or anything. We just of find a bunch of songs that we like and then record them. This last album was made in about three weeks last year."

Besides the new material, XXXV includes new recordings of Fairport classics such as "The Banks of the Sweet Primroses," "Now Be Thankful" and "The Deserter."

Pegg says some of Fairport's younger or more recent fans didn't even know those were old songs. "With 'Now Be Thankful,' we started doing it again in concert, and some of our newer fans had come up to us and said, 'That's a great song, you guys should record it.' And we'd say, 'We did, back in 1970!'"

During live shows, Fairport often draws from its back catalog for numbers. You can expect that such memorable tunes as "Matty Groves," "Meet on the Ledge" and "Crazy Man Michael" will be part of the band's 90-minute set on Friday.

The group also has been doing the late Sandy Denny's beautiful trademark tune, "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," with Nicol on lead vocals.

Although promoters are billing the concert as Fairport Convention's debut in Tucson, the band has played here before, Pegg recalls.

"We did an open-air concert with Loggins & Messina back in 1974, and the hotel we stayed at had a sauna, and Dave Swarbrick got mugged at gunpoint in the sauna. They'd taken all his clothes and everything, including a belt buckle that once belonged to Hopalong Cassidy," Pegg chuckles.

"I had been at the movies with another band member, as we returned to the hotel that night to find Swar all red-faced and in just a towel arguing with the hotel manager. Oh, yes, Tucson I can remember quite vividly."

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