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Miscellaneous - Profile

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 9 / 7 / 2014

Miscellaneous - Profile


Nick Dent-Robinson profiles Fairport's Cropredy Convention for this year, and talks to Chas'n'Dave and Irish singer-songwriter Cara Dillon, who are on the bill this year, as well as Fairport Convention members Simon Nicol and Dave Pegg

Fairport's Cropredy Convention remains the favourite summer music festival for many – and not just for the folk-rock fanatics for whom this is the ultimate annual event. Somehow there's a uniquely warm and welcoming atmosphere which even residents of the nearby North Oxfordshire village of Cropredy appreciate. And the range of music is wide – though the quality is never less than excellent. After the sensation of last year's Alice Cooper performance - Alice later enthused that Cropredy was the most enjoyable gig he'd done in years - the challenge for 2014 was to follow up with a bill that would be equally popular. With the inclusion of Chas'n'Dave, Australian Pink Floyd, Marillion, Steve Hackett's Genesis Extended, Al Stewart, the Waterboys, Ireland's Cara Dillon and many more talented performers, hosts Fairport Convention seem set for another major success with this year's Cropredy. I talked to members of Fairport about their festival which runs from Thursday 7th August until Saturday 9th August. But first I spoke to Chas Hodges and Cara Dillon who eagerly anticipate their first appearances at Cropredy. When I caught up with him, Chas Hodges - the one with the bushy beard and round face who plays guitar and piano in the Chas'n'Dave 'rockney' duo - was tending the vegetable garden at his Hertfordshire village home. “I do enjoy my country lifestyle these days,” Chas, who will be 71 this year, told me, almost conspiratorially. “Though I would never want to live more than half an hour's train ride from London,” he continued in that familiar cockney voice. “You know, Dave (Peacock) and me, we're really enthusiastic about playing our first Cropredy which is a proper rural festival, by all accounts. I like that it only has the one stage, too. We've performed at a lot of festivals. One of our best Chas'n'Dave moments was in 2005 at Glastonbury. It was fantastic, incredible. Great crowd reaction. And they asked us back in 2007. But Cropredy is something special for us and we've known the Fairport boys for ages.” In fact Chas Hodges has known just about everybody in the British music business for years! Chas was performing professionally before he was 16, having been encouraged from a very young age to play piano and then guitar by his mother who was a talented pub pianist. “My mum had to raise my brother and me on her own,” Chas explains. “My dad had committed suicide just before my fourth birthday. There wasn't the same welfare support back then so, just to put food on our table, my mum played piano in all the pubs and clubs she could around our home in Edmonton, North London. I still associate Mondays - after my mum had worked the weekend - with having good things to eat! And hearing music on a piano means a lot to me; it always makes people happy. After my dad died there was a lot of sadness at home. But then our relations would come round, my mum would play the piano and everybody seemed to be cheerful again. I've never forgotten that and the piano is my favourite instrument by far." "Though when I was about twelve I did get heavily into guitar playing. It was Lonnie Donegan and skiffle that influenced me – as it did so many more of my generation...like Eric Clapton, the Beatles, Joe Brown and Albert Lee. Lonnie's record 'Bring a Little Water, Sylvie' was the one that persuaded me to play guitar. I can hear it now!” Chas quickly progressed to playing bass guitar – he saved hard and bought a Hofner bass that, fifty-five years on, he still uses on recordings – and he was soon performing with a rock band called the Outlaws and singer Mike Berry. Another Outlaws guitarist was Ritchie Blackmore who was later in Deep Purple...a band with which Chas once played bass guitar – for one night only in Aberdeen on 8 March 1971! The Outlaws made a series of recordings with legendary sixties producer Joe Meek and Chas performed at sessions with many of the top names in UK music at the time. “I learned so much about recording techniques, especially editing and miking up instruments properly, from working with Joe Meek,” Chas recalls. “He was years ahead of his time technically and really innovative, always experimenting. He produced unique sounds years before digital recording made it all easier and his output was tremendous...he'd be recording night and day, almost all the time. No wonder his business affairs were a mess. He treated me well, though and I worked almost full time with Joe until around 1964, playing on bucket loads of hits for all kinds of artists." "Though I did fit in tours with Jerry Lee Lewis and then with Gene Vincent, including at Hamburg's Star Club where the Beatles had played. The agent for both those American stars was Don Arden, Sharon Osbourne's dad. When I was playing bass guitar and touring with Jerry Lee Lewis I used to study his piano technique each night. By the end of that tour I'd mastered quite a bit of what he did. Then I joined Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers who were managed by Brian Epstein. Paul McCartney produced us recording the Beatles' 'Got to Get You into My Life' at Abbey Road, and that was a Top Ten UK hit for us.” Years later, after John Lennon's death, Chas actually played on stage with the three remaining Beatles. “That was at Eric Clapton's wedding in 1983,” Chas recalled. “I had been touring with Eric and he invited my wife and me to the wedding at his house. There was a marquee with a stage and instruments, all miked up – just in case any of the guests fancied playing. Dave Peacock and I had just had a few hits and some of the celebs' kids were running about when one spotted me and said, 'Hey, Chas, come and play 'Gertcha' for us.' So, I jumped on the piano and started banging out 'Gertcha'. Then they wanted more. So, I did a bit of rock'n'roll - a Chuck Berry number, 'Roll Over Beethoven' I think it was, hammering away on the piano with my head down. Then I heard the drums start and I looked up and saw Ringo was playing and winking at me. Next I heard a bass going and I turned and saw it was Paul McCartney - he was playing a right-handed bass left-handed...and was note perfect! The next moment, out of the corner of my eye, I saw George plugging in the guitar and then he was away too. And I thought to myself, 'Blimey, Chas, you're the fourth Beatle'. We carried on playing a lot of Beatles numbers after that. What a moment!" "There were photos of it all too - by Ringo's wife Maureen. But later that evening she was told she must keep those pictures to herself...nobody must see them. Which was the power the Beatles' people had back then. Maybe one day those photos will turn up at an auction. But it was a great moment for me and I'll never forget it.” The birth of Chas'n'Dave's trademark “rockney” style - rock'n'roll sung in a cockney accent - came about after Chas had been touring the USA with Albert Lee in Heads, Hands and Feet. “Suddenly I started to get this feeling that singing Jerry Lee take-offs to Americans in a pseudo American accent just wasn't right. It was fakery. I thought I should be writing my own songs and singing them in my own London accent. Dave Peacock had just come back from touring America with another band, and told me he felt the same way. We'd known each other years, but both being bass players we hadn't worked together much. So, we agreed to give it a go. It was the early seventies and that was the start of Chas'n'Dave." "From the beginning it was a success with live audiences, though it took a while to grow record sales. But by the end of the seventies we'd had a hit with 'Gertcha' and it went on from there. 'Ain't No Pleasin' You' was our biggest one. We kept our overheads low but when we played somewhere like the Albert Hall we'd call in a few of our old mates on brass to help out. Chas'n'Dave was a money-spinner from the off, really. And, more than that, we really enjoyed ourselves doing it too. The audience reaction was just incredible...people really having a great time which is always good to see. For me, that's what it's all about.” In 2009 Dave decided to retire from the duo, following the death of his wife, Sue. “I just didn't go out anywhere and I felt I didn't want to play another note. You never know till it happens how you're going to cope - or not cope - with something like that,” Dave has said since. But gradually he started playing again. First in a pub with a fiddler and a banjo player. And then with Chas for a few nights with the small band Chas had put together after Dave stopped performing. “After I'd done a few gigs, I realised what good fun it was. I enjoyed being back far more than I ever thought I would,” Dave says now. In 2013 Chas'n'Dave performed their Back By Demand tour to sell-out venue,s and they've now recorded their first new album for 18 years, 'That's What Happens'. Their long-standing drummer Mick Burt has retired, but his place has been taken by Chas's musician son Nik Hodges who is also a successful record producer and composer. “I've enjoyed all of my music career, every bit of the journey,” Chas reflected. Then he paused and added, “My only regret is that I didn't take better care of my teeth! Dental work is costing me a fortune these days! Other than that, life is good. And we have never enjoyed playing more than we do now. The crowd at Cropredy should have a ball. Our audiences sing along to our songs more than they've ever done...it's getting even better all the time! Come August, we're really looking forward to being out in those Oxfordshire fields, giving it everything we've got!” Irish folk-singer Cara Dillon is also playing her first Cropredy this year. Like Chas, Cara, 39, and originally from Dungiven, County Derry, has been performing as long as she can remember. But in her case it was singing traditional Irish songs. There's a long history of making music in Dungiven and Cara's grandmother and older sister were both celebrated performers. “There would always be big gatherings of people in different homes in Dungiven, singing the old songs and dancing - it's something I miss now I live here in England,” Cara tells me. “Though when I was a teenager I liked contemporary music too. I was the youngest of six and my older sisters would be listening to Kate Bush, Mike Oldfield and Fleetwood Mac which I enjoyed. Plus I loved retro seventies music like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. So, I did have a broad musical background. I have tended to stick to performing more traditional music just because that's what I feel comfortable with. Nobody would take me seriously if I started singing something too slushy...it just isn't me. My husband Sam (Lakeman) and I do mix our own compositions with traditional songs though. That formula has worked quite well.” In fact each of the five albums Cara has recorded since 2001 has won a series of awards and accolades in Ireland, the UK and overseas. In 2010 her fourth album, 'Hill of Thieves', was BBC Radio 2's Folk Album of the Year and Cara's recent release, 'A Thousand Hearts', has elicited very positive reactions from the music press. Sam and Cara's innovative arrangements, the quality of their writing and musicianship and the 'crystalline clarity' of Cara's vocal delivery have all earned high praise. And Cara is now gaining a big international following too with regular visits to America, Europe and Asia – including China where Cara will be touring again this Autumn. “When we first went to China, we weren't sure what to expect,” Cara recalls. “We thought there'd be maybe 50 or so people at each venue. But there were 2,500 plus at every concert hall. We were blown away by that, amazed. And then we learned that our first two albums had been made part of the national curriculum for English in China which nobody had told us about. That's how the young people in the audience - they all seemed under 25 and with iPads - knew us. Their reaction to our concerts was great though. Really rewarding for us.” Later this year Cara will be touring again in Europe and she has several dates in Belfast, Derry, Gateshead and London with special guest DanTyminski, the American bluegrass singer and banjoist (with Alison Krauss and Union Station). Cara and Sam have twin sons aged seven and a younger daughter so these days touring is logistically more of a challenge. “We do have to forward plan very carefully now,” Cara says. “Being able to work, travel and share experiences together is wonderful for Sam and me – a real bonus. But as the children get older we have to make clear choices about what we will and won't do. Of course the children are our priority – always. It is good that Cropredy is quite local to our home in Somerset. We are really looking forward to being at Cropredy. From all I hear it is my kind of festival. We have done Glastonbury three times now, and this year we are playing Cambridge and some other festivals. But Cropredy is a special one – and Sam and I have always admired Fairport Convention. I think there will be six of us there. Sam who plays piano and keyboard, Niall Murphy who is a Northern Ireland champion fiddle player from County Armagh - he is amazing - plus Luke Daniels on squeeze box, James Fagan on bouzouki, Ed Boyd on guitar and me. It should be great. I can't wait!” Dave Pegg, Fairport's bassist, has been involved in every Cropredy. Indeed he and his former wife Christine were the driving force behind the festival when it began almost forty years ago. “We lived in Cropredy village back then,” Dave, now 66, explained to me. “And we were asked to help raise funds for the village hall so Fairport performed a few numbers in a field on a local farm and invited some friends to join us. It was a great success to the extent the village asked us to do more." "The next three summers we played just down the road at Prescote Manor near Banbury. Then, on 4 August 1979, when the band had decided to break up, Fairport held their 'final' concert at a bigger site back in Cropredy in front of 4,500 fans. But that end turned out to be a big beginning - and the band started to reunite each year just for Cropredy – we called it the Reunion Event back then - until we reformed again in 1985. And the Fairport Cropredy Convention as we now know it has evolved from that.” “Cropredy remains for all of us in Fairport the central event in our musical year. We still generate funds for the village, and it is a wonderful occasion with an eclectic mix of quality music and with different generations of families coming year after year. In fact there are quite a few attending now who were actually conceived at past Cropredys! There have been so many magical moments for me. One year that stands out was when Roy Wood and his Rock & Roll Band came. They performed 'Heard It Through the Grapevine' with Richard Thompson singing. It was fantastic with the brass playing – wonderful." “Last year we had Alice Cooper who was just brilliant, and this year we've got a bit of a prog rock thing going with Australian Pink Floyd - whose musicianship and visual production are breathtaking, Steve Hackett and his Genesis Extended plus Marillion - all of them superb. Other acts include Al Stewart - who I've known since the late sixties, Cara Dillon who sings beautifully, Scotland's Capercaillie for those who love traditional Gaelic music and Chas'n'Dave who in their different incarnations have been Fairport's heroes for almost fifty years. Richard Digance will be back as usual. Richard has been kind enough to adopt Cropredy as his festival and he returns each year to take the Noon slot on Saturday, which can be challenging. His command of the field is such that he'll have 15,000 people Morris dancing and waving their hankies in the air even before lunch time on the last day. Quite an incredible feat that, but Richard manages it year after year. He is a genius." “So, I think it should be a really good Cropredy – and there will be a special surprise at the end of Fairport's opening set on the first day of the festival though I can say no more about that!” Fairport founder Simon Nicol is equally enthusiastic about this year's line-up. “We certainly didn't disappoint too many people in 2013 and getting an exclusive UK appearance by an A-lister like Alice was a big coup for us,” Simon said, speaking to me 47 years to the day after the birth of Fairport in 1967 when Simon was just sixteen. “Of course you can't always pull a rabbit out of the hat like that! But we offer a huge variety of music at Cropredy and every act that ever appears is at the top of their game. This year we have a really great mix and tickets are selling very well, which is good news." “I am looking forward to Al Stewart. I played on two of his early albums and toured with him in the early seventies. The Waterboys will be popular as will Chas'n'Dave who I've been wanting to get to Cropredy for years. Cara Dillon is an exciting addition too. Her husband Sam will be the third of the Lakeman brothers to play Cropredy. Sean performed here in 2013 with Kathryn Roberts and Seth Lakeman has been at Cropredy several times." “Also this year, to celebrate the local Compton Verney fine art gallery's tenth anniversary, we are helping them bid for the world record for an unbroken string of bunting. We have hand-crafted some pennants and will invite the thousands of fans as well as musicians and crew at Cropredy to help by decorating flags which will be incorporated in a seven mile-long string of uniquely-styled bunting. “There will be a big double screen this year in the festival field which should prove popular. And we are sticking to having just the one stage so nobody ever needs miss anything. As ever, there will be a lot to enjoy for everybody who comes and I am delighted that advance tickets are selling very well. I am really looking forward to those three days in August. It is the pinnacle, the absolute linchpin, of the year for me.” For tickets and more on Fairport's Cropredy Convention visit:- www.fairportconvention.com. The photographs of Chas 'n' Dave were taken by Matt Kent,

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