Folk-Rock Fortitude

It’s difficult to overstate Fairport Convention’s influence on the world of British folk-rock. Founded in 1967, the band’s seminal 1969 release Liege and Lief was the first record to masterfully combine traditional English folk songs with searing electric guitar work and a galloping rhythm section.
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Liege and Lief was conceived as an experiment,” explains founding guitarist Simon Nicol. “The idea was to take traditional songs and make them sound modern, and also create newly-written pieces that sounded hundreds of years old. They were all story-based songs with a cinematic quality, and that’s still what we focus on.”

The current line-up—which features drummer Gerry Conway, bassist Dave Pegg, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Chris Leslie, and fiddler Ric Sanders—recently released Over the Next Hill [Compass], and the title track sets the tone for the disc’s reflective, yet celebratory attitude. “The song draws a parallel between the physical act of making these long journeys from gig to gig and the different phases of life we all go through as we get older,” says Nicol. “The key word in the title is ‘next.’ You have to remain optimistic to keep doing what we do for so long.”

Even with more than three-dozen albums, more than 25 members passing through its ranks (including guitar great Richard Thompson), and thousands of gigs behind it, Fairport shows no signs of slowing down. The group still performs more than 200 shows a year, but with the band often touring unplugged these days, Nicol is focusing more on his Santa Cruz Tony Rice acoustic than his Stratocaster. “The Rice has a lot of headroom, and it sounds very sweet—even when I’m playing very hard,” says Nicol. “I use a lot of dynamics when I play to create dramatic emphasis. I’ll be doing some quiet fingerpicking, and then switch to spanking the strings.”

Fairport still maintains a highly loyal fan base. Every year, more then 20,000 people assemble in the British village of Cropredy for Fairport’s Cropredy Convention, England’s largest folk festival. “I get a huge feeling of warmth from people all over the world who have their own, unique angle on the band,” says Nicol. “Having such devoted listeners is a source of considerable quiet pride.”