Cropredy - where even the security is unconventionally friendly

SECURITY guards at festivals: surly, officious and with no discernible interest in music. But Fairport’s Cropredy Convention isn’t like other festivals.

As we leave, the man at the gate waves us off and says he’ll see us next year. The only thing that might stop you bringing a picnic to the main arena here is the array of tempting food stalls and a bar that would please the pickiest Camra member.

Cropredy veterans had an unexpected surprise this year: three days of heat. Fairport eased things off with a sparkling acoustic set, followed by Irish singer-songwriter Kieron Goss, a man so eager to please I found myself wondering what would actually make him cross.

In this weather, and with the whole Bob Marley back catalogue to draw on, Legend would find it hard to put a foot wrong, and they don’t. Continuing the party, Bellowhead singer Jon Boden looks like the sort of man who elopes with bridesmaids, but he knows how to charm. There’s a Jacques Brel song, old favourites and promising material from their next album.

Closing the night are Squeeze. They’re not easy listening, but they’re easy to listen to and perhaps a shade too slick. Every song told a story, but I couldn’t tell you how most of them ended.

If Thursday is the day everyone meets old friends and lets their hair down, Friday is the day for coping with the hangover and planning the weekend’s menu. BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winners Ioscaid (pronounced iss-kidge) start the day like, well, a very good Irish band, but the pace flags a bit for Ellen and the Escapades and Dead Flamingoes. Many people are pleased to see Tarras back, and American sisters Larkin Poe are good but perhaps a little clinical.

The Saw Doctors have the charm, songs to make entertaining thousands of people look easy. Davy Carton’s voice shows no sign of fading and reaches all the way to the back.

Fairport founder and crowd favourite Richard Thompson starts his solo set with just an acoustic guitar, but ends with Fairport members and Pete Zorn onstage, tearing through classics Wall of Death, Man In Need and Tearstained Letter.

It’s hard to see how Joan Armatrading can follow it, but she does. Jazzy and sophisticated, hers is the kind of music you put on late at night after a hard week. At the end of one song I looks sideways and see my friends in the same trance.

Saturday morning brings Richard Digance, whose touching and funny set reminds us why so many people turn out to see him. Next is Morris On. A reprise of the 1972 album that hauled morris tunes into the age of the electric guitar. Most of the people who played on it are onstage and most of the people who bought it are in the audience.

With two drummers, one of whom wears a vest, Brother and Bones are the year’s Marmite band. Some people love it. For my part, if they’re not playing arenas in two years’ time it’ll be because they’re bombastic, clichéd, humourless and most of their songs sound the same.

Next up are the infinitely more charming Calan, a youthful Welsh band apparently dressed for a night out in Swansea, albeit with a singer in gold clogs. With an irrestistible twin fiddle attack and some jazzy accordion lines, theirs is the album I’ll be buying.

Electric guitars that sound like bagpipes? Two bass drums? It’s Big Country. It was all a bit before my time, but a friend whose childhood hero was the drummer, apparently a much-respected sticksman, is delighted.

Squeezed in before Fairport, Dr Hook singer Dennis Locorriere comes across like a cheery rogue, but makes the late songwriter Shel Silverstein seem like the Shakespeare of 1970s pop.

In a three and a half hour set, Fairport dip into their back catalogue for one of their strongest closing sets in years. It’s easy to forget, but the band defied tragedy and loss before becoming a folk-rock institution.

A woman queuing for coffee makes the point that the best songs are the ones with a female singer, but they’re also second to none at the headlong reel, with Dave Swarbrick kicking things up to speed. It’s down the front for Matty Groves and Meet on the Ledge, before heading off and planning next year’s assault on the curry stalls.

Robert Collins