Oyster Band is one of those groups that seem to have gone forever. Starting as Fiddler`s Dram with the novelty hit "The Day Trip to Bangor" they became the folk group Oyster Band, fronted by Cathy LeSurf, who later turned up in the Albion Band and as a frequent guest at Fairport Convention´s Cropredy Festival. In the 80s the Oysters left the folk behind and turned electric, following in the wake of bands like the Pogues. They have been rocking ever since, sometimes with strong folk influences.
Holy Bandits, circa 1993, predates their wonderful The Shouting End of Life by two years. The line up is the same with original members John Jones, vocals and melodeons, Alan Prosser, various plucked string instruments and vocals, and Ian Telfer, strings, joined by Chopper on bass and cello and Lee on drums and percussion.
The opening tracks present the group at its very best, loud, boisterous and rocking. "When I´m Up I Can´t Get Down" is one of my favourite Oysters-songs - later covered by Great Big Sea, who took it to the top 20 in Canada. It is followed by "The Road to Santiago", another gem that's a little calmer with a nice whistle included, played by Sarah Allen.
Maybe those two songs are too strong an opening because then the album pales and we are treated to some quite nice songs, but they are just nice, nothing more. There is the usual Oyster wall of sound to back them but Jones´ voice fails to lift them.
But when just when you have lost hope and reflect on the opportunity to change records it lifts again. Suddenly you get the variation that has been lacking for four tracks.
"Here´s to You" is half traditional, as opposed to all the earlier songs that are all credited to Jones/Prosser/Telfer. The Oysters turn into a ceilidh band, stomping and sounding like they have a lot of fun. But have you ever heard a cello playing solo in a ceilidh band before?
"Moving On", another Jones/Telfer/Prosser-song, starts in a familiar way with a plucked electric guitar with a chorus effect. It is a smoother song than the earlier tracks on the album and the change is welcome.
"Rambling Irishman" is another traditional song, a tale of emigration. It opens with viola and cello, but when the voice comes is there is only an acoustic guitar to back it up at the start. After a few verses Jones is joined by Jackie Sheridan whose fine voice lifts the track considerably. Being the most acoustic track on the CD it stands out from the rest, not being better than the first two, but different from the rest.
"A Fire Is Burning" is carried by a rhythmic electric guitar and bodhran. There is some lovely bell work in it and the tracks strength lies more in the sound than in the song itself.
The closing "Blood Wedding" is back to the shouting, stomping, rocking Oyster Band, ending the same way they started, with Jones stating "This is the last time I get married".
Oyster Band has created their own little niche on the borders between folk and rock. They have their own distinctive sound and are easily recognized, which is both a strength and a weakness. Sometimes they sound a bit too much of the same. And I am not sure that Jones´ has the strength as a vocalist to carry a whole album on his own. He is good at the rockier tunes but has not really got the voice to lift the slower songs.
As a whole I would say Holy Bandits is a rather good disc, a must for all fans. It is not quite as good as The Shouting End of Life, which in my mind is terrific, but it is better than some of the other albums by the band. Highly recommended to fans and recommended to people like myself who are not die-hard fans but don´t mind listening to the group now and then.