by Ian Mann
February 28, 2009
Fresh from an eventful but successful tour of Canada the Oysters were in fine form for this gig in rural Shropshire
The Memorial Hall, Clun, Shropshire, 3rd May 2008
Fresh from an eventful but successful tour of Canada the Oysters were in fine form for this gig in rural Shropshire. Many seasoned (and occasionally pickled) Oyster fans were in the audience and some were making a weekend of it by camping in the beautiful surrounding countryside immortalised by A.E. Houseman (of whom more later). I?d like to think there were a few curious locals there too, perhaps checking out the band for the first time. In any event there was a great atmosphere for this predominately standing gig and the hall seemed to be pretty much full to capacity.
The Oysters started with “Over The Water”, the opening track from their latest album “Meet You There”. The sight of Chopper, his face a mask of concentration as he held his mbira in front of his face to pick out the opening notes provoked the whispered comment “you?d have thought he?d have left his play station in the dressing room”.
This was followed by “If You Can?t Be Good” and then by Alan Prosser?s tune “Walking Down The Road With You”. The latter is one of several songs from the new record that has taken on something of a life of it?s own after being comprehensively road tested. “Where The World Divides” also falls into this category and was next up. A characteristic of these opening numbers appeared to be minor adjustments to the arrangements to allow violinist Ian Telfer to show his skill to the full on a series of brief but incisive solos.
Telfer was to the fore again on “Street Of Dreams” from the album “Here I Stand”. This tune incorporates a major violin solo that soars away from the main body of the song. For me the best ever versions of this piece were those featuring the duelling fiddles of Telfer and one time Oyster collaborator James O?Grady. It?s a shame that O?Grady has moved on, his contribution on uillean pipes, particularly to the album “Rise Above”, added a whole new dimension and sense of drama to the already impressive Oyster sound. The present arrangement of “Street” cross references “Jump Through The Fire” and sees Chopper switch from cello to electric bass.
For “Here Comes The Flood” Chopper and lead vocalist John Jones descended from the stage to sing the song from within the crowd. An environmental wake up call is concealed within this raucous stomp along. Chopper?s mouth harp added to the fun as he and Jones belted out the lyric, all the time pointing manically skyward. Great fun but disturbingly pertinent at the same time. The song is a prime example of the Oysters? ability to make people dance and think simultaneously. It?s a rare ability and may seem contradictory to some, but for me it?s the band?s greatest strength. The audience can engage with these songs and sing them with total conviction.
A strategically placed chair by the side of the stage allowed the pair to rejoin their colleagues. I heard a rumour that JJ had trouble getting back up on stage at a recent gig in Bromsgrove, but we?ll say no more about that. Our man then took up the melodeon as the band romped through a set of polkas with Chopper?s cello solo featuring strongly.
“Someone, Somewhere” was next, the first time I?d seen this performed live. The arrangement incorporated electric bass, sawing and indeed soaring violin, and cut throat acoustic guitar. I can?t pretend that I find it one of the most convincing items on “Meet You There” but it seemed to work well enough in a live context.
“Native Son” by contrast is a genuine Oyster classic as is “By Northern Light”. Ian Telfer?s solo introduction on violin hinted at the recent acoustic version of this song. However we got the full electric version, which was predictably well received by the mosh pit.
“Uncommercial Song” was followed by a pared down and very acoustic version of “The Oxford Girl”. This new version of an old Oyster favourite featured acoustic guitar, Telfer on concertina and the harmony vocals of Prosser and Chopper. The crowd listened attentively to this and gave it an overwhelmingly positive reception. An album of new acoustic arrangements of classic Oyster tunes is due for release later in the year to commemorate the band?s thirtieth anniversary. The working title for the record is “Drifter”, a reference to the classic 1991 album “Trawler” which also updated previously recorded material, but this time in full on electric mode.
Jones described “Be My Luck” as a “bar room song” and although enjoyable enough this proved to be only the curtain raiser for the ultimate song about beer-“John Barleycorn”. Introducing the song Jones paraphrased A.E. Houseman “Clunton and Clunbury, Clungunford and Clun are the drunkenest places under the sun”.
I think Houseman originally wrote “quietest” but there is nothing quiet about the Oyster?s rumbustious version of this most English of folk songs. Chopper and Prosser took the lead vocal for a verse each and the crowd sang along suitably fortified by pints of the excellent “Green Man Festival Ale”, brewed at the Six Bells in nearby Bishops Castle by the legendary “Big Nev”.
The stirring “Just One Life” was followed by a pause for breath in the form “Dancing As Fast As I Can”. Originally recorded with a choir this slow burner of a tune has become a surprisingly effective live number.
Then it was into the home strait with some real crowd favourites to finish. “When I?m Up” segued into the classic “Granite Years”. “The World Turned Upside Down” swiftly followed, veritably surging along and throwing in quotes from Lennon?s “Give Peace A Chance” plus the band?s own anti Iraq war sentiments.
With May Day just passed and with the Green Man being a symbol of fertility it was only fitting that the Oysters chose to welcome in the May-o with a rare airing of the classic “Hal An Tow”. As the band charged through the song a giant figure in a Green Man costume made his way unsteadily through the crowd from the back of the hall. As he approached the front JJ beckoned him on to the stage and led him to the centre as the peels of Alan Prosser?s guitar rang out. The Green Man towered over the band (it must have been a giant of a man within the costume-maybe it was Big Nev himself) and seemed to be about seven feet tall. It?s not very often that John Jones gets upstaged but here he seemed to positively welcome it. “Look out for this on youtube” he said.
Indeed the video has since appeared and is of good audio and visual quality. It?s essential viewing for Oysterband fans whether you were there or not and captures a unique moment in the band?s long history.
It was a unique conclusion to a typically brilliant Oyster show. The Canadian gigs had honed the band?s chops and they were as tight as the proverbial shite.
Special mention should be made of “new” drummer Dil Davies. Already he has racked up in excess of fifty gigs and he is clearly the right man to drive the Oyster juggernaut forward from the back. His style is subtly different to Lee?s; arguably more orthodox and making greater use of cymbals but the necessary power is there in abundance. Lee?s departure was a shock to the fans but the Oysters have chosen wisely and have found the perfect replacement.
Davies had his moment in the spotlight bringing his snare drum to the front of the stage for the encore, an acoustic version of “Put Out The Lights” sung entirely without microphones. The song is likely to be delivered in this form for some time to come and shows off the power of the Oysters? unamplified voices. Prosser and Chopper are both accomplished singers and Jones just gets better with age. Great stuff. Given the location the only thing missing was a version of “One Green Hill”
After the gig all five band members mingled with the crowd. This is very much a “people?s band” with plenty of respect between the band and their audience. It gives the Oysters a human dimension and strengthens the bond between them and their followers.
The next UK show for the Oysters will be their signature Big Session Festival in Leicester, quite a contrast to a village hall gig in darkest Shropshire. But the Oysters never compromise, they play every show as if their lives depend on it and their approach with it?s blend of honesty, passion and professionalism gets across every time, regardless of the environment in which they find themselves.
It?s these qualities that make them a great band even after all these years. To paraphrase themselves “The best band most people have never heard of”.
Critic Rating 5 Stars
Yet another great gig from the self styled “best band most people have never heard of.blog comments powered by Disqus