Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry
Having repeatedly told myself that the last time was the last, usually following some phoned in and lacklustre concert, here I was back in front of the Oysterband eating my words. OK, this was with the added wonder of June Tabor, whom, apart from a Big Session Tour aeons ago, and amongst many other guests, I had never caught in the full majesty of a joint concert. And this was fully majesterial. Her presence seems to have kicked a renewed sense of purpose into the band, their playing up a several few notches from the increasingly limpid back-patting of recent gigs, drenched in semi-acoustic easy listening. (OK, that’s harsh, but, possibly having seen the band more than any other, RT perhaps apart, I know the difference between them on fire and them on a low simmer.) Hell, Alan Prosser even played some guitar solos, something I have never knowingly witnessed in near 40 years, as well as plugging in on choppy electric more often than has been the case for a while. And when Prosser was on his acoustic, adding his hypnotic metronome, head ever a’bobbing, the chances were that Al Scott, usually on bass, was giving it some electric six string counterplay. Adrian Oxaal, cellist, would then pick up the bass, or play his cello like a stand-up bass. Ian Telfer was just Ian Telfer, a caustic voice between songs and a swooping intuition on fiddle. New drummer, Pete Flood, ex-Bellowhead, seems to have bedded in better, thumping a little more than his polite fills of a year ago. So that leaves the two vocalists. John Jones has to use his higher end more frequently when he sings in harmony, and had clearly been steaming his voicebox hard, his vocals purer than I recall. Plus, given the greater preponderance of trad.arr. in the set, a whole lot more melodeon was evident, and he is a fine player. Finally, the reason I (mainly) was here, Ms. Tabor. So where was the haughty and austere ice-maiden of yore? Her voice was certainly there, a magnificent instrument, unsullied by advancing years; she is at least 71. But, despite being an ever so slightly stooped figure, still wearing the velvet coat of many colours she reserves for this band, q.v. Jools a few years back, she was witty, cracking jokes, punching the air as she reached the finale of songs. Jings, she even said ‘shagging’, akin to hearing the Queen say ‘fucking’, and equally shocking. She is on record as saying she enjoys the opportunity to let down her hair with this band and clearly she tells the truth.
So, what did they play? Kicking off with ‘Bonny Bunch of Roses’, opener to ‘Ragged Kingdom’, from 2011, this was a set with 5 component parts: songs from ‘Freedom & Rain’, songs from ‘Ragged Kingdom’, some new(ish), many made available on a tour only disc, ‘Fire & Fleet’, and some on none of these, with a scraping of Oysterband staples for when Tabor left the stage, which became increasingly infrequent, especially as they hit the 2nd half. Highlights, of many, were, in no particular order, VU staple, ‘All Tomorrows Parties’, ‘Missisippi Summer’, ‘Night Comes In’ and ‘Suzy Clelland’ all from that first shared album from 1990. Of course we got ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, an astonishing version on record anyway, but added to in spades by the live setting. Second half opener, ’All Along the Watchtower’, showed these old boys were still capable of blowing some fresh air into this old chestnut, hints of Hendrix in Prossers savage chops. A version of ‘John Barleycorn’ found the middle ground between the Fairport version and the better known one by Traffic, reflecting neither, complementing both. The new songs, many of which were on the tour disc, were mainly songs Tabor has collected from the travellers song tradition, ‘Sweet Sixteen’, not that one, working especially well, the band members providing an exemplary 6 piece choral harmony. The band only segments were memorable for a coruscating ‘Bells of Rhymney’ and a marvellous reprise of ‘Molly Bond’, from mid 80s album ‘Step Outside’, Jones’ voice soaring . The closer was Dylan’s ‘Seven Curses’, working far better live than on record, but was really only a teaser for the encore,’White Rabbit’, a song they performed together, way back at that earlier Big Session tour, in, actually, the same arena. This was an altogether gutsier version, full of full-on SF psychedelic flourishes, a wonderful end to proceeding, needing only the ephemeral endpiece of all recent Oyster gigs, ‘Put Out the Lights’ to send this audience happy home to their beds.
A sitting down audience at an Arts centre, dear boy? Sunday night? Well heeled oldsters, many sporting elderly Oyster Ts with their expensive slacks. Having said, appreciative, if not necessarily demonstrative. Nearly full.
It made me think..
I doubt there is a lot of this sort of touring longevity in June, I fear, but, against any expected, she rawks! Blimey, I might even look out Quercus. Will I bother with the band in their usual habitat? Well, I’ve said no before…….