That's right -- this was it. The last night of the Oysterband tour, their last live booking this millennium, and both they and the audience were determined to make it a good one.
The venue at Congleton is one I have mentioned before; it has a very high ceiling which can cause problems for the sound engineer, but on the plus side it has a great atmosphere, which always seems to get the best out of the performers. The low stage is not segregated from the main area, something that would be a security nightmare at some venues, but not here, where the lack of barriers and distance simply adds to the immediacy and intimacy of the performance. The hall was left mostly clear for standing, with some seats round the edge and on the balcony. Attendance was a healthy 300-350, not bad for a small market town on a freezing cold, icy December night.
Before getting to the Oysterband though, just a word about the support act, Nigel Stonier. I can almost hear you say -- Nigel who? Who's he then? And what does it matter? Well, for Fairport Convention fans, you have only to look at their new album, The Wood And The Wire, to see who co-wrote many of the songs. Alternately, take a look at who has been producing albums and working with Chris While and Julie Matthews recently. Strawbs and Lindisfarne fans could check the credits on their album collections. In fact, Stonier is a high quality support act, and his half-hour set contained some lively up-tempo material which won over most of the audience. This is quite an achievement for any solo act opening to a room full of Oysterband fans!
After Nigel's support slot, there was a brief bar-break while the sound was set for the Oysterband, who came on stage just before 9.30. The set started in total darkness, with a recording of swirling pipes and drums swelling in volume, until after a few moments the lights went up with the band in place on the stage, and they went straight into the first number.
John Jones held stage centre with his trademark dark glasses and a grin bigger than the Cheshire Cat's, and the band launched immediately into a loud, lively version
Every time I have seen Oysterband live, they have hit the stage and started at full throttle: the mood is set immediately, and it stays that way. The few songs that are not fast and furious enough to keep the crowd dancing are anthems, which keep the crowd involved by singing and clapping in time. Go to an Oysterband gig and you have to work, there is no chance for slacking.
The best gigs are like this one, when most of the people attending know the band's work and the back catalogue. They may not know all the words to all the verses, but most of the choruses are easy, and there is often more volume from the floor than from the stage on the classic songs. It's plain from the almost permanent grin on John Jones' face that he loves this aspect of the shows. All he has to do is stop singing, and point at the crowd, and the audience just take over the vocals. He claps his hands over his head in time with the music, and the hall becomes a sea of waving arms.
Give him an enthusiastic audience, and he is a master at controlling them, and getting them to do exactly what he wants. It helps, of course, that the audience wants the same thing, but the interplay between the band and audience is wonderful to watch and it's great fun. There are few bands that can generate this level of rapport with the crowd so quickly and easily -- they make it look totally effortless.
Of course, in reality, it's down to a lot of experience, very good stage skills and exactly the right material, and the Oysterband are top quality performers who have all of those things. Even songs which seem slower and gentler on record are not so when played live; the arrangements are often different live, and virtually every song is made to fit the pattern of either a dance-along or an anthem, keeping the audience just where John wants it. John often says a few words between songs; there is an occasional very short comment on song or venue, but mostly it's music, a couple of songs back to back, maybe a comment, maybe just a smile from John, then back to the music.
I didn't write a complete set-list, and wasn't quick enough to grab one from the stage. I have some almost indecipherable notes written in near darkness while jogging around the floor, but I'm told by a friend, who attended one of the gigs a couple of weeks earlier, that the set-list this weekend was in any case quite different to the one he heard two weeks ago -- not only
Much of the Oysterband's material when they play live is very similar in rhythm and pace; intros and instrumental breaks are often rearranged, so what starts out sounding like one song will often actually be a quite different one. With the size of their back catalogue, this presents a problem when trying to play "spot the song title" from the intros.
From my scribbles it seems their most recent album, Here I Stand, was quite well featured, as the third song into the set was "This Town," immediately followed by "This is The Voice," with "On the Edge" and "I know It's Mine" featuring later in the set.
Further on into the set we were then treated to "Native Son," followed by "Be My Luck" from the Deep Dark Ocean CD. Then things speeded back up with a set of dance tunes to get everyone bopping around again, before "Northern Light," and two more tracks from Here I Stand. The rest of the set was then full throttle with "All That Way for This," "Here's To You," and "Blood Wedding."
There may well have been a few more songs and there was at least one instrumental, which I missed making a note of, before the set ended after about an hour and 10 minutes.
Of course, being an experienced Oysterband audience, we knew we had to stamp and shout and make lots of noise to force them back on stage to play some more. And, of course, in time-honoured tradition it worked; back they came, and John was still grinning. What we gained by all our noise was a 15-20 minute encore comprising "Wait and See," "Everywhere I Go" and 'Granite Years," and more orchestrated audience chorus singing before the Oysterband left the stage again.
But inevitably we knew better and made even more noise. It took a little longer second time around, but again it worked and back the band came, and launched into a tremendous version of "We Could Leave Right Now." Next, and quite a surprise as I hadn't heard it in years, was a very upbeat and extended version of "Oxford Girl," after which they segued into an old '60s chart song. I have been wracking what's left of my brain since Saturday trying to remember who recorded it. The words are "Oh won't you stay, just a little bit longer," and I can hear the original playing in my head. Possibly it was the Hollies sometime in the mid '60s [Editor's note: the original of this song was the old doo-wop hit "Stay," by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, although it's been covered by many other artists, including The Four Seasons.]
I suppose we could have made even more noise and tried to get them back, but somehow it didn't seem right after that, so almost 2 hours after they started, it was time to let the band have a rest. Actually they looked a lot less tired than I felt -- being in a band obviously keeps you fit!
I have never heard the Oysterband do a bad gig, and this one was easily up to their usual high standard. This gig was not quite as loud and raucous as I have heard them at other times, but the energy level stayed consistently high throughout. and both band and audience had a very good evening.