Trying to chart the history of Fairport Convention is akin to drawing a family tree with branches that snake out in a multitude of directions. Credited with creating British folk rock, Fairport Convention has evolved, in the forty years since its original incarnation in 1967, from a band to more of an organic experience. In theory, that was their plan all along. Then again, history has a tendency to revise itself as time moves forward.
It's easy to say now that Fairport Convention was conceived to be more of an ongoing experience with an ever-changing lineup, much like a football team or a classical orchestra, with an eye to a certain music tradition. But the truth of the matter is that tragedies, restlessness and shifting tastes took matters largely out of their hands. Still, despite more than a few breakups, Fairport Convention has maintained a foothold, albeit it a cultish one, in the annals of modern folk music. Think of them at this point as a sort of British version of the Grateful Dead, with ale subbing for psychedelics. They have annual "reunion" festivals, dubbed the "Cropedy Festival."
Fairport Convention 35th Anniversary Concert, filmed at Basingstroke, England's Anvil Theatre in 2002 is a live performance by the longest-lived incarnation of the band: Simon Nicol (lead vocal, rhythm and electric guitars), Dave Pegg (backing vocals, bass guitar, mandolin), Ric Sanders (violin), Chris Leslie (lead vocal, fiddle, bouzouki, mandolin) and Gerry Conway (percussion and drums). Nicol is the only member of the original 1967 line-up, and though he soldiers on valiantly as a lead man, he frequently plays the role by rote.
It's not that it's a bad show, but far too much time is spent on exposition between performances. I realize that explaining the origins of the piece is something of a folk tradition, but the band explains the story to death before striking the first chord. The resultant performance is punctuated by long verbal lags, as if the band doesn't give the audience credit to interpret the songs on their own.
At 153 minutes, this DVD fails to do what a concert DVD must do — which is hold the viewer's attention. The first third of the set, particularly, plods along with a somnabolastic pace. It's only when Chris Leslie takes center stage that the show comes alive. When he and Ric Sanders trade licks between violin and fiddle, the concert finally shows sparks of life. They fuel a life in a band that probably should have quit two breakups ago.
The last third of the concert harkens back to the days that made Fairport Convention legendary — traditional English folk music transformed, electrically, into a modern context. It's powerful stuff, to be sure. It's then that the band finally shows a bit of energy in their performance, which they maintain for the duration.
Unfortunately, it comes too late for the average viewer to care.