Oysterband With Various Artists, The Big Session, Vol. 1(Westpark music, 2004)

Music sounds best live. And even live, the best music often doesn't happen on stage in front of an audience. It happens when the musicians are relaxed, and pleased with their company, and having fun. This is a recording of concerts that try to reproduce the feel of an informal session, with the likes of the Oysterband, Show of Hands, The Handsome Family, Eliza Carthy, Ben Ivitsky, Jim Moray, and James O'Grady. Rose Kemp also supplied backing vocals.

It's an intriguing idea for the audience because it breaks down the formality of a concert. For the 14 musicans, it means less focus on rehearsal. In the hands of less proficient musicians, this experiment could have been a mess. During a session, a song that ends in discordant chords provokes no more than a shrug and a call for another round, but during a paid gig the audience won't happily accept more than an occasional trainwreck. And on a CD, where the enthusiasm of the live show is already muted by the medium, it's not acceptable at all.

The concept is a risky one, but they pull it off well, perhaps because the musicians involved have so much performing experience. (The members of the Oysterband alone have played a terrifying number of gigs in the band's 25-year history.) Although I like some songs far more than others, this is a satisfying and substantial album -- not just a compilation, but a chance to hear favorite performers backed up by other favorite musicians -- and it provides an excellent introduction to new performers. The lead vocals sound polished and the arrangements show taste as well as enthusiasm. As a whole, it's gorgeous.

The album opens with "John Barleycorn." The full band plays this old chestnut with restraint -- they avoid blaring like a pickup band at the local contradance. The performers have a nice range of voices, with lead vocals shared between John Jones, Steve Knightly, and June Tabor. It's well arranged, and moves along at a good but not frenetic pace.

It's a good indication of what is to come. Different lead singers are backed by some or all of the other musicians, and perform a range of songs. My favorite of the lot is "Ten Thousand Miles/Hungarian March" with Eliza Carthy on lead vocals for the first part. The tune set moves along at an easy canter with a lovely transition in the middle into the Hungarian March (which, with a time signature like this, was never a military march unless the Hungarian army cut capers as it went). The fiddles shine here. This is the best of the album, buried smack in the middle.

Another favorite, "Country Life", written by Steve Knightly, sounds bitter when sung and played by Show of Hands (Knightly and Phil Beer), but the tone transmutes into powerful protest when backed up by a full band and added vocals. It also benefits from the added string parts. Gosh, but there are a lot of fiddles on this album with nearly half of the musicians contributing to the string section: Beer, Eliza Carthy, Chopper (on cello), Ben Ivitsky, James O'Grady, and Ian Telfer.

The second track, "Whitehaven," has sloping rhythm and gentle instrumentation don't quite hide the horror and madness of the lyrics. It's an interesting song, with some of the same incomprehensibility that traditional songs get after a few hundred versions and a few generations. But this song was written by the Handsome Family.

The Handsome Family (Brett and Rennie Sparks) are the lone Americans in this group, and bring apocalyptic hillbilly music to the mix in this track as well as "House Carpenter" and "When the Helicopter Comes". (I use the word hillbilly as someone who learned to dance by clogging in a barn in Appalachia.) The darkness, the implied misery, the repetitive chords, and the nasal twang of the mountains are up front and center. If you like that sort of thing, you'll love it. I have a limited appreciation for it. Brett's voice is strong and deep. Rennie's singing voice is so nasal that she makes Iris Dement's voice sound mellow. It's an acquired taste, but it jars amid this company of musicians with particularly lovely voices. Putting Rennie Sparks and June Tabor on the same stage does no service to either of them.

For example, June Tabor sings "Lowlands" with only the very barest pipe drone from James O'Grady for accompaniment. Tabor is one of the few singers with a voice and presence sufficient to keep such a slow song compelling. Every sound is neat, gleaming in its place.

While not as mesmerizing as Tabor, Jim Moray, who sings "Cuckoo's Nest," has another one of the lovely voices on the album. No suprise that he won a 2004 BBC Radio 2 Folk Award as best newcomer. He's the happy discovery of this album for me.

Given the number of fiddles, one might think that this album is all about fiddling, but it isn't. It's a tribute to the musicians that it is, instead, all about singing. The shapenote tune "The New Jerusalem" is performed a capella, with robust harmonies and strength, but without the strident shouting that I'm used to at shapenote sessions. What a relief. I don't quite like the tune or lyrics, but the quality of the singers make it a pleasure to listen to. (I'm also tickled by the liner note for this: "lead vocals: everyone.")

The Oysterband, who masterminded the Big Session, play several standards, including "We Shall Come Home" and "Factory Girl" (with June Tabor). Lead singer John Jones also sings with Tabor on the lovely "Love Will Tear Us Apart" -- one of several disappointed love songs. It's gentle, regretful, and the combination of the voices and Chopper's cello is beautiful.

The album ends with the whole crew on the traditional "Country Life" (a much more cheerful song than Knightly's) and "The Cornish Farewell Chanty," which highlights these fine voices.

The liner notes fold out into a collage and credits on one side, and a group poster on the other. The musicians' expressions make this look like a grim business, except for guitarist Alan Prosser, who looks tolerably pleased to be crammed onto the couch, and drummer Lee Partis, who instead of looking toward the camera appears to be communing with an improbable goat. What a talented but idiosyncratic bunch -- and what a pleasure to hear them together!

[Vonnie Carts-Powell]