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Beck Theatre, Hayes, Middlesex 7 February 2011

If a band's going to play a concept album in its entirety, you should really be there to see it in its entirety. But thanks to the so-called 'express' bus service from Croydon to Hatton Cross, where the only thing 'expressive' was my mounting anger, coupled with some downright arsepain-inducing and inexplicable traffic (bloody Carshalton Beeches, and to think I've almost moved there twice as well) I arrive at the Beck Theatre some 12 minutes into Fairport's 'Babbacombe Lee' extravaganza, missing 'Little Did I Think' 'I Was Sixteen' and the first half of 'Sailor's Alphabet' by the time I eventually find my pass and get directed to my seat.

Yet for once, I don't go absolutely apeshit: either the Beck's beautifully 1971-styled, green and brown art modern interiors (which promote the illusion that I'm actually seeing this material performed at that time) have a miraculously soothing effect on me, or my new meds must be kicking in.

Now not only celebrating the 40th anniversary of the album but very soon, a full 45 years together, Britain's premier folk-rockers are the epitome of the term 'seasoned professionals': yet, in spite of the somewhat polished sanitisation such a term could hint at, and a decidedly conservative audience, myself and BFI Flipside's Vic Pratt notwithstanding in our Wyngardian facial hair and O'Sullivanian threads, the band, finally achieving a stable lineup in the last 12 years with ‘classic' members Simon Nicol and Dave Pegg and 80s recruit Ric Sanders (ex Soft Machine - I always point that out where possible) augmented by Morris king Chris Leslie on guitar on mandolin and Fotheringay/Cat Islam/Pentangle alumni Gerry Conway on drums, still refuse to settle into comfortable predictability, retaining an edge younger 'folk' players have already lost by the time they first set foot in a studio.

Maybe it's just something that always remains with you: stripped wisely (even on 'Cell Song', which was based around Fender Rhodes on the original) of any unnecessary MIDI keyboards, which blighted some turn of century gigs, and left to excel at their respective instruments, they create a special something, a world of wood, bracken and wordsmithery like only they know how.

'Dream Song', the tune which gave me chills as a teenager despite, in my brother's opinion anyway, humorously including the word 'John' one time too many in the lyric, is as perfect as any rendition can be, while 'Hanging Song', though still stamped indelibly with the identity of the estranged Dave Swarbrick, is a roller-coaster ride of galloping rhythm and erudition that, if written by an American band, would be undoubtedly better known, if inevitably not as good.

Later on in the set Sanders, who has known Pegg since childhood, alludes to the bassist's father being worried in 1966 when 'our Dave grew his hair long and joined a pop group called the Uglys: that raw, beat group sound still surfaces in his playing tonight, even at his most proficient and exemplary, and while Leslie may lack the jagged edges of a Thompson, Lucas, Donahue or even Allcock, somewhere within both his lead and Nicol's rhythm still beats the heart of the afghan-clad psych combo from Muswell Hill that once introduced Emmit Rhodes' 'Time Will Show The Wiser' to a UK audience.

Lest we forget, this is not just folk but folk-rock, and rock it does too, with the smoky melodies and farmy harmonies of new tunes 'The Festival Bell' 'Darkside Wood' 'The Wild Cape Horn' and 'Celtic Moon' (all from an album Peggy wryly refuses to refer to as 'their last', just in case, at their age, it is) holding my attention far more than I'd expected, and even the slightly poppy 'Rui's Guitar' - dedicated to a Portuguese friend of theirs who actually supplied said instrument, and handled by Leslie as deftly as any other in his six-string armoury - boding well for the future.

Playing so many new songs in a row in front of a certain quota of oldies who in turn expect a certain quota of oldies is brave, but thankfully everyone seemed keen to join them on the journey, and their eventual reward was an incredible closing trio of 'Who Knows Where The Time Goes' 'Matty Groves' and what else but 'Meet On The Ledge' (featuring guest lead vocals from their support act) thankfully shorn of any of the arch silliness that ruined them in recent years, with the first respectfully dedicated to its late author Sandy Denny, unbelievably only seventeen at the time of composition.

Fairport may never scale those creative peaks again, or indeed attain the breathtaking scope of 'Full House' 'Angel Delight' and 'Babbacombe Lee' itself: even the mid-career highlight of their late 80s masterpiece 'Red And Gold' seems like another world away now, but invention, innovation and most of all passion are still very much on display, and one Simon Nicol or Chris Leslie alone is worth a million Mumfords and their sons.

Seems like the band they couldn't hang have escaped the gallows once more.

Review by Darius Drewe Shimon

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