Once the bad boys of folk and rock, Oysterband have grown over
the past five years into the role of musical custodians and godfathers
of folk. Collaborative tours with rising young stars under the banner
of The Big Session; a Big Session "live" album with June
Tabor, Eliza Carthy, The Handsome Family, Show Of Hands and more;
and finally a Big Session festival, now in its third year, which
hasn't yet failed to sell out. And there have been gongs, awards,
The 'house band' role Oysterband played for part of these years
drew on the group's formidable musical skills, rather as The Last
Waltz did once upon a time for The Band. And it made them re-evaluate
themselves. "We had to go back to the essential impulse that's
kept the band kicking for almost 30 years - making new songs for
ourselves," says Ian Telfer. "We put a PA system in a
village hall on the Welsh border and got down to some serious playing.
It's the doing it together that unlocks it for us," he insists.
"It's the only way the songs can grow and breathe, of course.
But also, we've always believed that creativity is a collective
thing, and that's helped shape the band's politics. Not that we
agree about everything, by a long chalk...but hey, that's the spark."
Once new song structures were licked into shape, Oysterband took
the best ideas to The Premises in Hackney ("Europe's first
solar-powered studio") to work on the voices and acoustic instruments.
Some late ideas were added in Brighton and at cellist Chopper's
house in Sweden.
"I think the long, sustained preparation has enhanced Meet
You There enormously," says Telfer. "The singing - everybody's
singing - is better than it's ever been. The raw rush that used
to take us out on tour with The Pogues etc has evolved into something
more measured, more powerful. We listened to it all back when we'd
finished and we all thought: 'Yes! Strong. Rooted.' (And then: 'Cop
that!') Literally, it's been refreshing - it's renewed our self-belief."
Meet You There certainly delivers a fresh perspective on
'folk'. Check out the lovely mbira introduction by Chopper to the
opening song Over The Water, and the stinging rockabilly
guitar beat of Someone Somewhere for contrast. For the singing,
check out Over The Water again, Where The World Divides,
The Boy's Still Running, the dreamy anthemic Dancing As Fast
As I Can. For the politics, the acid, knowing take on globalisation
(over a cheery jugband backing) on Here Comes The Flood.
"Meet You There is the most consistent thing we've done as
a grown-up band," says Telfer. "It has what I like to think of as
Oyster trademarks - a folk ear for a great vocal tune; strong lyrics;
wry politics; and a sort of deep-down musicality that can afford
to take itself fairly lightly. It's essentially acoustic, essentially
folk-based I suppose. But we try to put it over with big dynamics
and a sense of musical theatre." - 30 years' experience really shows.
The 25th Anniversary DVD: A remarkable film of a remarkable
event, Oysterband the 25th Anniversary Concert was recorded in December
2003 as the culmination of the band's 25th Anniversary Tour. It
captures all the excitement of the UK's premier folk rock outfit
OYSTERBAND in the company of English folk diva JUNE TABOR, reluctant
chart heroes (with the hit Tubthumping) CHUMBAWAMBA (here in their
stunning acoustic incarnation) and piper/fiddler, whistle player
and singer JAMES O'GRADY.
It was a magic night with thousands of fans queuing outside in
light rain even before the venue opened its doors. Once inside,
the crowd quickly filled up the London ballroom and rocked its walls
from the opening ceilidh to the stunning acapella finale. The rapport
between band and fans is nowhere more evident than on the song "Everywhere
I Go", as the crowd picks up the lyric and the vocal intensity
transmits from stage to audience. "No other folk rock band
has the magneticism and verve of the Oysters live" wrote Colin
Randall in the DAILY TELEGRAPH: and he was right.
The Big Session: One day, after performing thousands of concerts
for audiences and playing in scores of sessions just to entertain
themselves and friends (in the pub, in the kitchen, backstage ...),
Oysterband had a simple but actually quite subversive idea: take the
informal, all-pitch-in spirit of the session, put it on the big stage
- and see what happens.
were used to performing with guests in the conventional way, but this would be
different. Everyone would pick what they wanted to sing and play, and if you
know it you join in. (And to hell with the production polish.) Hence: the Big
Session - a fresh attitude to performance? They hoped so.
after a couple of try-out (but increasingly confident) tours that this could
work on record too, they hired a small London venue, Bush Hall, for three days
and nights earlier this year, organised an audience, parked a mobile studio on
the street outside, and got down to work.
the cream of younger British folk/roots artists from the last Big Session tour
(Eliza, Ben, Jim, James) they added some friends of longer standing, Steve
Knightley and Phil Beer (Show of Hands) and June Tabor; and then to throw
something unpredictable into the mix, recruited the
original-to-the-point-of-eccentricity American gothic of Brett and Rennie
Sparks (The Handsome Family).
The Handsome Family are usually classified as
stars of alt.country; what they have in common with everyone else on this
project, though, is a root in the rich dark earth of traditional music and
story, and THE BIG SESSION shows the strangeness and diversity of the flowers
you can grow from that. The
recording process was complex: arrangements evolved all day then changed again
at night during the shows; voices and instruments came and went; people found
themselves making music with people they had long respected but perhaps never
met. It was scary but exhilarating. One song suggested another, hence some
intriguing contrasts (or head-on collisions) - two songs about the wildwood,
two about apocalypse, two wildly different visions of country life, a whole
crowd of happy and unhappy lovers ...
The net result is a recording of rare presence and of passionate and
hair-raisingly committed singing. Some of itís dark, some of itís fiercely
joyous. Itís not at all what youíd do given modern studio resources; despite
(or because of) which, itís rivetting. Maybe this is what happens when gifted
musicians allow themselves to be forced to be simple.