THIS Saturday night, tens of thousands of festival-goers will gather in a north Oxfordshire field, joining together in voice as they sing-along to folk-rock legends Fairport Convention.

The annual Fairport’s Cropredy Convention is more than a festival ¬– it’s a musical institution, attracting fans of the band from around the world to an ordinarily peaceful corner of the county, just beyond Banbury. Many come back year after year, to soak up sets by their musical heroes

While Fairport’s closing headline set is a high point, it is by no means the only attraction, with shows by rock and folk veterans, new acts and, one of the all time greats of music – Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The Californian icon arrives at Cropredy tonight to perform songs from his classic album Pet Sounds – one of the most influential records of all time.

And the man responsible for pulling the whole show together is chatty Yorkshireman, and festival director Gareth Williams.

“It’s non-stop from now until the end of the festival,” he says, taking a break from setting up the site, home to the largest music festival in the county.

“It’s looking good though. The ground has been hard this year. We’ve had some rain which made it soft for about five minutes – but I’d rather have it this way

than the alternative. Of course anything can happen, and we know that. You can’t gamble on wind – that’s what did for the festivals a couple of weeks ago. You can plan as hard as you like but you are always at the mercy of the weather. Who’d be an outdoor festival organiser?! But, anyway, we are hoping for the best.”

Despite helping to bring some of greatest musical figures on Earth to the tiny village – Alice Cooper, Richard Thompson, Cat Stevens, Robert Plant and Bonnie Raitt have all played Cropredy – Gareth admits he rarely catches any of the acts, being busy behind the scenes ensuring it all goes without a hitch. But this year he plans to make an exception.

“I rarely see much,” he laughs. “I never see Fairport and am the only man to bring Alice Cooper to a show and then not see him because I had to stay in the office. Though I don’t want to miss Brian Wilson doing Pet Sounds.”

Famed for its ambition and sophistication, Pet Sounds is not only a beautiful collection of songs, it is a masterpiece of technical production and was way ahead of its time when released in 1966. The album is ranked second in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list, only beaten to the top spot by The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper – though some believe it tops even that.

“It’s a real ‘wow factor’,” says Gareth. “He’s ideal for our crowd – and he’ll be bringing a 14-piece band

“I’ve been a massive Beach Boys fan all my life. I believe you should listen to them every morning.”

He goes on: “You always have a wish list of artists, and I have been trying to get him here for four or five years. This time we got lucky. He is doing a couple of other gigs in the UK but we are first. Thursday is the big day for Cropredy which suits big bands as they can be anywhere in Europe on the Friday, Saturday or Sunday. It’s a midweek gig for him but is well paid – and better than staying in a hotel or doing a theatre gig.”

It is 15 years since Gareth took the helm of the festival but his connection goes back much longer.

“I have actually been working here since 1986,” he says. “Though back then I was a lowly sound engineer mixing the monitors for Fairport.”

Was he a fan? “Not at first,” he grins. “My mate Maartin Allcock got a job with the band so I started driving their van, but then a sound engineer went missing and I got to do it. I didn’t know what I was doing but got stuck in and then learned how to do it properly.”

The experience stood him in good stead and he went on to work with the biggest band of the 90s.

“In 1995 I got a job with a young band of upstarts called Oasis. A year later I was working at one of the biggest concerts ever – 180,000 people at Knebworth for two nights. Apparently 12 per cent of the population applied for tickets. I also did two shows with them at Main Road then Glastonbury in 2004. Of course, I was old enough to be their dad.”

It must have been a rock & roll experience compared to working for veteran folkies Fairport, I suggest. “You’d be surprised,” he grins. “If I told you half the things Fairport Convention get up to you wouldn’t believe me. Old Men Behaving Badly!”

“But that goes back to the early days in Los Angeles, where their tab for the bar would exceed their fees by hundreds of dollars by the end of the week.”

Every year seems to be a milestone for Fairport and their festival. Last year was the band’s 50th anniversary, while this weekend’s event will commemorate the 40th anniversary of former vocalist Sandy Denny’s death. The band will mark the occasion by performing a medley of her songs in the middle of the set, with vocals by guest artist Iain Matthews – of Matthews Southern Comfort fame.

“Iain has a high voice and will be perfect for Sandy’s parts,” says Gareth.

The rest of the line-up shimmers with great names (see Highlights, left). But Gareth admits that’s not what brings the faithful back to this scenic hillside year after year.

“It’s loyalty,” he says proudly. “We have a very loyal fanbase. If I could bottle it and sell it I’d be a very rich man.

“The festival has grown organically, from a Fairport gig on a village lawn in 1979 – which they did after opening for Led Zeppelin at Knebworth that morning – to the festival we have now, which attracts 20,000 people.

“We are survivors,” he adds. “We have the same set up with one stage every year and people like it, the village likes it and the bands like it. When you play at Cropredy, even if you are a young band, you are playing to at least 10,000 people – so you know you’d better be good. But everyone grabs the nettle and no one disappoints.

“It’s a wonderful festival, but yes, I am glad when it’s all over and I can finally breathe out!”