Crop Circle: Cropredy Festival 2014 Report

The Travelling Band004Lamb bassist Jon Thorne reports from the venerable Cropredy Festival, where he meets Dave Pegg, Danny Thompson and other legendary low-enders of the folk-rock persuasion.

Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Convention is that rare thing: a music festival run by musicians for music lovers, without a corporation in sight (or on site). It is the UK’s largest festival of its kind at 20,000 punters and is now impressively in its 35th year. It offers a uniquely friendly atmosphere that pervades every aspect of the event, from the backstage crew to the ice-cream sellers. There’s a genuine sense of family, because it remains centrally involved with the village it has grown in, through a variety of fundraising and communal efforts. With Cropredy’s focus purely on one stage and a single bar, it also allows the bass enthusiast a chance to get a pitch at the beginning of the day, sit back and enjoy the rich array of different players on display.

Central to the proceedings is Dave Pegg, Fairport Convention’s genial bassist, a colourful character whose melody-infused playing affords him an important place in the folk-rock musical canon. He came from the 1960s rock scene in Birmingham that included Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and John Bonham, the latter of whom he was in a band with. Like many musicians of the time, he started as a guitarist before moving to bass.

“The first bass I bought was a 1962 Precision from the Uglys’ bassist,” recalls Dave. “I used it on all the sessions that really stood out for me, like Nick Drake’s Bryter Later and my first Jethro Tull album. I had it signed by Leo Fender on the headstock with a wood engraver. I’ve been using Ibanez basses now for a long time: it’s currently an SDR five-string, which is the best bass I’ve ever had. It’s incredibly comfortable: I just leave the EQ flat and use the volume knob. Being an ex-guitar player I mainly use a pick. I’ve never been a flashy player, but I had a background playing jigs and reels – and on a tune like Fairport’s ‘Dirty Linen’ I took the melody on the bass. People said it was innovative, but I only did it as I couldn’t think of anything else to play. No War003

“Making the song sound good is absolutely what bass is all about,” continues Dave. He talks fondly of the drummers he has shared the stage with, including Cozy Powell, Dave Mattacks, Gerry Conway and Mark Craney. “They all worshipped Bonham: he was the best drummer I ever played with, with the sound of the kit and his attack. He was so loud: whenever we got booked, his bass drum sounded like a cannon going off!”

Dave’s son Matthew joins us. He’s a fingerstyle bassist who deputised for his father last winter when injury prevented Dave doing the Fairport tour. He currently plays with Procol Harum and Rick Wakeman. “The sound for me is all in the fingers,” he tells us. “I also play with the thumb: it blends well with shows involving orchestras and choirs, and there’s loads of sustain as well.”

Dave has a central ethos for the festival, saying: “The idea behind Cropredy is to have an eclectic choice of music where we pick the acts ourselves, for the audience: bands with an identity.” The three-day event is indeed immensely diverse, from the progressive rock of the Australian Pink Floyd and Marillion, through the wonderful folk-meets-funk mix of the Churchfitters, whose bassist plays an upright made from a saucepan, to the pure musical beauty of the Mischa Macpherson Trio, voted best newcomer at the BBC Folk Awards

2014 – the winner of which is offered a slot here every year.

Keep your bassist on a lead002Danny Thompson, legendary British double bassist, attends the event annually. “Fairport and I were always great mates,” he says. “We used to hang out on the road and I used to come to this festival with John Martyn, Ralph MacTell, Richard Thompson and others and everyone was always able to enjoy the music among genuine music lovers. I’ve sat on the top of the hill here all these years and watched my grandchildren grow every year; it’s all about friends and family coming together.”

Danny imparts some pearls of wisdom about session recording during our conversation. “Forget what you want to do: serve the piece of music in front of you. Don’t have an opinion; the only one that matters belongs to the person making the record. The songs have been living inside them for years and it’s their moment. I get immense joy from being there and serving their material, hopefully in the right way. I don’t presume to know the right way: I’m there as a tool to help them achieve what they want to achieve. You can bring your own ideas if that’s asked for, and sometimes you can add a lot, which is nice, without bringing any destructive or negative elements. If I only have to bring one note, I’ll do that, and I’ll find different ways of playing that one note. The beauty of music is in the simple things that say everything. Bass is about time, intonation and tone.”

Back on stage, Steve Hackett’s Genesis Extended features the rich bass skills of BGM contributor Nick Beggs, who negotiates some of the trickier songs from the Genesis back catalogue with aplomb and finesse. The literary-infused Celtic rock of the Waterboys benefits greatly from the low-end growl and feistiness of Mark Arciero, who anchors the entire gig with precision and swagger. Meanwhile, Chris Spencer provides flawless bass for the sonic spine of the impressive Travelling Band from Manchester. Running a Fender Precision straight into a Marshall Superbass Head, his resolutely non-demonstrative, rock solid lines add warmth and steel to the group sound, constantly elevating the songs.Dave and Matthew Pegg with 'signature' bass001

Chris is also the band’s technician, a sound engineer and a budding luthier. “For the new album The Big Defreeze, I borrowed a Rickenbacker 4001 for some tracks for that ‘bite’ – full fat! Top of my shopping list is a Guild 301. Live, it’s my job to underpin everything: I play as late as I can be without being wrong, giving the band space to express themselves.”

This is the band’s second appearance here, a rarity. “This is a one-of-a-kind festival, with proper music fans. Gigs like this make all the hard times worth it,” he says, adding that the Travelling Band’s independence and complete control over their career has been hard-won. “You just have to keep going, there’s no easy answers. Put the effort in, stick together as a band and keep on making your music.”

Dave Peacock brings his wealth of experience to Chas & Dave, driving the set with full tone and complete assurance. The rich sound of his picked 1960s Fender Precision fills all four corners of the field, while the band provides the best singalong moments of the festival. Fairport Convention round out the three days with a relaxed set imbued with the community spirit that has pervaded the entire occasion. Pegg’s penchant for melody is immediately on display, weaving lush melodic counterpoints through classic songs like ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’. Their set finishes in traditional style with one of their best-loved tunes, ‘Meet On The Ledge’. Pegg, the festival organisers and the Fairporters in the audience have forged a unique musical niche, a place where a mix of family values, friendship and passion for music provide the perfect blend for an outdoor music festival.

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