PIONEERING, prolific and prodigiously talented, few bands are as deserving of the accolade of ‘legendary’ status as Fairport Convention.

The group which forged the genre of English folk-rock, have been playing and recording, in one form or another, for more than six decades. And while virtually all their late 60s contemporaries have long since exited the stage, Fairport are not only still here, but remain relevant and endlessly creative – their ever expanding discography boasting a good 30 studio albums and many more live releases.

It is no surprise, then, that the collective of technically brilliant musicians have a huge following of fans – 20,000 of whom make the annual pilgrimage to the band’s spiritual home in Cropredy, near Banbury for the Cropredy Festival – known to denizens of Banburyshire as simply ‘Fairport’.

A fortunate few of those followers descended on Oxford’s Beaumont Street on Thursday, February 15, for a chance to see the band out of their natural festival habitat and in the intimate surroundings of the Oxford Playhouse, as they dropped in for an almost-hometown gig on their winter tour. And what a treat it was.

For a start, the tour sees the full Fairport five-piece reunited, with founder member Simon Nicol on acoustic guitar and those unmistakable vocals, Dave ‘Peggy’ Pegg on bass (and banter), Ric Sanders on violin (and jokes), Chris Leslie on fiddle and mandolin and their old drummer Dave Mattacks returning to wield the sticks.

Oxford Mail: GIG: Fairport Convention photographed in November 2016. The band will play Milford Haven this week

The band have an extensive family tree of former members but this line-up seriously clicks – members harmonising and chiming off each other with elegance, beauty and deep intuition.

With most of the band having lived, or still residing, in the county, it felt like a homecoming.

“It’s great to be here in Oxford,” Peggy told the crowd, following a strong support slot by engaging and talented Yorkshire duo Plumhall.

“There are so many friends here... and luckily no creditors, which is always a danger with a local gig.”

Classic songs like Walk a While were followed by little-played tunes like 1971’s Sir William Gow. “This song rarely sees the light of day for 50 years, and you’re about to see why!” quipped Simon. But it was wonderful; an unearthed gem.

The hypnotic Sloth was captivating, a dexterous Peggy putting his bass through its paces, while Simon’s rich voice – at the same time commanding and lilting – filled the theatre.

Having previously only seen the band at a distance, once a year, while standing in a field at Cropredy, their sheer virtuosity was startling. It is only by seeing them in a hushed room at close quarters – and without being jostled by merry revellers on their way to the beer tent – that you appreciate the exquisite talent of that fretwork, frantic fiddling and Simon’s honeyed vocals.

Oxford Mail: Fairport Convention at Oxford Playhouse. Picture by Tim Hughes

And the best bit... they refuse to take themselves too seriously. Each song was introduced with anecdotes, jokes and banter, much of it absolutely hilarious.

Half way through the second half, the comic introductions escalated into a full-blown stand-up routine by Ric. It was as funny as it was unexpected.

A bit corny it may have been and with a mixed reaction (“a groan is as good as a laugh,” he chirped, undaunted) but he was a lot funnier than a heck of a lot of big name comics whose sets I’ve found myself yawning through – some at this very same venue.

The band’s masterful rendition of Ralph McTell’s The Hiring Fair shimmered, Simon holding us in the palm of his band with that sonorous voice.

The highpoint came, in bittersweet traditional style, at the end, with an absolute banger of a tune –electrifying murder ballad Matty Groves.

Introducing it, Simon says: “For a folk-rock band, we haven’t done much in the way of folk, but this is the real deal: 19 verses, two chords... and even a banjo.”

It was a searing performance, Fairport doing what they do best: fusing traditional English roots music with a gathering storm of rock. It shouldn’t work but it’s captivating; a clutch of incredible musicians, who also just happen to be lovely self-effacing guys, weaving soundscapes of haunting fiddle, guitar, mandolin and bass grooves on a bedrock of old familiar melodies and storytelling rooted in a distant shared past.

It’s a compulsive mix of light and shade, serenity and clamour, sweetness and twisted darkness.

There is only one way a Fairport show can end. And with the band taking their bows and briefly leaving the stage, they were hailed back for an encore, sending us off into the night with their own anthem: Meet on the Ledge.

The song – with which they sign off their Cropredy Festival closing headline set every year – has a special place in the hearts of the fans, and indeed the band themselves, with its tender salute to absent friends and hope of reunion – in this life or the next.

And as we joined in with the chorus, there can barely have been a dry eye in the house.

It can’t be topped, and never is.

As we shuffled out of the Playhouse, the rain and cold came as a surprise. For a brief interlude it felt like having been transported from a wintery night to the warm embrace of a summer festival. We’ll see them again on a north Oxfordshire hillside in August – and that can’t come soon enough. Roll on Cropredy!

  • Fairport's Cropredy Convention is at Cropredy, near Banbury, from August 8-10. Tickets from