Oysterband, Northern Light (Running Man, 2006)

Sometimes your early loves remain become the source of hideous embarrassment (like an old haircut). Other times, they help to form the part of you that seems somehow reasonable as the decades advance. And so it is that I'm happy when I listen to the Oysterband; their songs still resonate with my journey, and I look forward to new releases and to the sound of John Jones' voice, curious about what new directions the lads will take. Northern Light, however, is not a release of new material, but, as the Web site tells us, a souvenir from their live shows of almost a decade ago.

Northern Light replaces Alive and Acoustic, which the band can no longer reproduce due to some sort of Byzantine contractual tangle. It's a live, acoustic recording of songs from the late 1990s, from a performance at Skraaen, Aalborg, Denmark, on 5 and 6 September 1998. This new offering can be had if you pre-order the band's new album, which we expect here in the Green Man offices any day now (hint!). It contains some of the same songs as A & A, and if you do not have any of Oysterband's acoustic albums, I highly recommend it. Old favorites like "The Oxford Girl" and "Coal not Doal" mix seamlessly with 90s gems like "Voices" and "Native Son." The production values are high for a live recording, and the band shows why they are such a reliable live draw in their live recording. One can travel far and wide, attend festival after sweltering festival, and still not find a live act of the Oysterband's musical caliber. As well, this is an outfit that knows how to take their music successfully away from their amplifiers, and back to basics. All the numbers selected for this disc translate very well, and do not seem stilted or affected in their acoustic versions -- these are the authors of the F-word, after all, and their roots enable them to do justice to the material.

But (you knew there had to be one, didn't you?), what about Northern Light's appeal for those diehard fans who already have Alive and Acoustic? This is where it gets difficult for this reviewer. Each release has different strengths, with A & A showing superior spontaneity and the feel of a live show, and Northern Light finding John in better voice, and with much better balance between musicians and John's vocals and the backing - particularly in the guitar. What Northern Light does not have is the feel of a live show provided by the spoken introductions to songs or any hint of the audience being there, until the last track, "Everywhere I Go," where we hear the audience singing and clapping and then John bidding them good night. (What, no encore? Shocking. Or perhaps encores are dreary on concert recordings and obvious evidence of self aggrandizement on the part of the band. But, "Good Night"? ) As an acoustic recording, Northern Light is superior to Alive and Acoustic, but it fails as a representation of a live Oysterband experience.