Lyric Theatre, Belfast
27th May 2019
I suspect there are many in the audience on a Sunday night in the lush settings of the Lyric Theatre, who went along partly as a nostalgia trip. Fairport Convention is one of the seminal groups in folk. Their historical significance in the genre is secured and revered. With a combined age of 240 on stage, some may have expected a sedate and reverential history lesson.
Instead, we were we treated to a witty and enthralling trawl through their career as pioneers and even some new sounds.
First to whet the palate on the night was The 4 Of Us. There is a train of thought that says that the Irish take their own for granted. In the case of the Murphy brothers, this is hugely evident. Their easygoing manner and banter with the crowd belies a hugely talented pair of musicians. Declan Murphy’s ability around the fret-board and his superb left heel percussion are a thing of wonder. As a vocalist, Brendan beguiles, hoping that maybe in this song at least, love will be kind to him. The songs too are hugely underrated. The majority of tonight’s short set is drawn from their ‘Sugar Island’ album, in my view one of the best Irish albums in recent years.
There’s no need to rely on their best-known songs, ‘Mary’ and ‘She Hits Me’. Tonight is above a feeling invoked in living in those twilight years for many of growing up during “The Troubles”. Little observational details in ‘Going South’ and ‘Hometown on the Border’ hit home every time. Title track ‘Sugar Island’ has hit a resonance with me every time I hear it. It’s a song of man looking back and wondering if, and why he gave, up perhaps the love of his life.
Fairport Convention arrives on stage to an audience already in buoyant and lively mood thanks to The 4 of Us. They carry on from that high. The stage set for ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is semi-permanently in place for its run at the theatre. The strange wooden balustrades and porches of New Orleans look weirdly out of place. Cue much jesting about IKEA sales and shoddy cowboy builders. We are treated to a band of musicians who seem to revel in each others company. There is an intuitive interchange amongst them that cannot be completely taught but only gained through time spent playing together.
Lead vocals and solos are shared with no risk or favour, and the instrumentation is as one would expect, superb. The tales and songs are delivered as if for the first time. Old songs and newer additions such as Chris Leslie’s, rather enchanting ‘Moondust and Solitude’, blend very well, but truth be told, it is the classic hits that we have come to hear.
A beautiful rendition of ‘Fotheringay’ is sung by Simon Nicol in remembrance of Sandy Denny, who continues to have a presence around the band over 40 years after her death despite her relatively short time in the group. ‘Sir Patrick’s Spens’ is given a rich round of applause as is ‘Journeyman’s Grace’.
An absolute highlight of the night is ‘The Girl From The Hiring Fair’, a song gifted to the band by Ralph McTell. ‘My Love is in America’ is a beautiful piece, sung with such remorse and longing. Another pinnacle of the evening.
In between the music we are treated to witticisms and fun. Ric Saunders is a fine, fine fiddle player, but some of his comedic lines pre-date the fashions on the ‘Unhalfbricking’ album of 1969:
I was at the funeral of a friend killed by a tennis ball. It was a lovely service!
Dave Pegg shamelessly hams it up and Simon is constantly reminded that his old bandmate Richard Thompson, is variously an OBE and a Sir and a Knight, and various other accolades. It’s great entertainment, amid fantastic music. Gerry Conway shows his skills on new tech drums and percussion with a drum solo leading into to the rousing ‘Matty Groves’.
The band hides behind their instruments, rather than leave the stage before the encore. The Murphys are invited back on stage for an exceptional version of ‘Meet on the Ledge’, which has the theatre rattling along.
As Mr Nicol suggested at the top of the gig, “This is no cover band!” Fairport is an institution, a festival, purveyors of memories, and keepers of the folk flame. But most of all they are a brilliant live band.
Long may they run!