Oysterband at Congleton Town Hall, December 8th 2001
Almost exactly 2 years ago I returned home, awash with adrenalin, and sat late into the night at my keyboard to write a review of Oysterband at Congleton, which was the last night of their 1999 tour and their last public gig of the millennium. That review can still be accessed here. It turned out that not just the audience but the band also thought the venue and atmosphere was something special and they asked Biddulph Folk Club (the promoters of the gig) if they could return to the same venue during the next year's tour . This was organised, and an excellent gig it was, but I didn't write a review because it was so similar in atmosphere and set list to the year before.
Now the wheel has turned again, and December 2001 saw Oysterband's return to Congleton Town Hall during their winter tour for the third year running. I had no intention of writing a review this year either, and turned up without even a pencil, but it soon became obvious that this wasn't a repeat of the previous years. Having gone there totally unprepared, and having been unable to stay behind and get details from the band, I have to apologise in advance that this will be one of the vaguest live reviews ever. I hope I can at least give a flavour.
Over the past couple of years Oysterband have not introduced much new material to their set. Indeed last year their newest album was the *Granite Years* collection. The reliance on back catalogue material is not altogether a bad thing as they have enough crowd favourites that they could play all day without repeats. But it has tended to make many of the gigs over recent years quite similar. This time around however there was a noticeable quantity of new material and some rather different arrangements. First, the band had two guests onstage. One, whose name I am ashamed to admit I could not hear clearly when he was introduced, was playing stringed instruments: guitar and what looked like a mandocello. I think this might have been Benji Kirkpatrick, but as yet I can't confirm that. The other guest, James O'Grady (better known from Sin É), played various whistles and pipes, and occasionally a second fiddle to Ian Telfer's. The pipes made a very obvious difference to the sound, adding a new dimension to some old favourites. The extra strings freed Alan Prosser to use a synth-type arrangement on his guitar at times, which also changed and augmented the sound on some numbers. Quite confusing at one point to try and work out how I could hear keyboards when there weren't any around, and it was seriously noisy hearing the material played by a seven-piece band.
The set started at about 9.30 with a string of half a dozen well-known songs, a typical Oysters set. But then they slipped in an instrumental which I hadn't heard before.
Unfortunately I haven't a clue what the title was. Oysterband don't stop playing long enough or often enough to do anything boring like intros or giving titles. John usually says hello at some point, 'Hello Congleton' on this occasion and they usually stop briefly for John's political rant but that's about as much talking as you get. They did also stop playing long enough to introduce the guest musicians, but I couldn't hear the names clearly! Consequently I am not sure of the guest names and I don't have a single title for any of the new material.
The first new song in the set, just after John's political bit sounded like 'A Non-Commercial song', or at least had that line in the chorus. This was a mainstream Oysterband rock number/singalong 'crowd-pleaser' and about as commercial as Oysterband get. The next new song was a slight shift, a less strident but very powerful and atmospheric number; I haven't a clue what the words were. By now my ears were buzzing, the volume was bouncing off the walls and I really couldn't understand a coherent complete line of words anywhere in the song. The subject of the third new song was equally a mystery. A line that could have been 'Did You Get it Together', or it might just have a line with that many syllables. It was definitely another high-energy number which fit well into their live set, even though on this occasion vocal clarity did suffer from a lot of competition from all the instruments onstage! A few more songs from the back catalogue, and then a complete surprise with the song "Blackwaterside." I know this as a very gentle fingerpicked guitar accompanied song from Bert Jansch's rendition. Given a full Oysterband treatment it must have taken me half way through before I fully identified the song and its more usual style. Shortly after this came another new instrumental set. This one very Irish Celtic sounding with James on pipes and the Oysters also giving it a Celtic flavour rather than a rock or English dance rhythm, more like a bit of electrified folk rock Irish pub session.
The set ended just before 11pm. But an hour and a half is clearly not enough so they had to be shouted back on stage. It was part way through the first number before I realised the song being sung, "Road to Nowhere," is most definitely not typical Oysterband material. It's quite amazing that they can take a song like this and make it sound completely their own. Within one verse the crowd was singing along, bopping around and waving their arms as though it had been in the set list for years. A couple more well-known Oyster's back numbers then they went into a high powered version of 'The Star of County Down'. The encore included "the Holly and the Ivy," an a capella carol, which has been featured at the end of the set for the last two years. I find it startling that a band, and John Jones in particular, can have such total control over the audience. One minute the floor is heaving and the noise level unbelievable, with everyone waving and singing along, then just seconds later you could have heard the proverbial pin drop, everyone in the room giving full attention as the band sing a capella and unamplified. This would normally have been the end of the show but sufficient noise was created by the crowd to bring them back for another couple of numbers, the show finally ending at 11.30.
The inclusion of new material inevitably meant that some favourites were left off the set. However all the new tunes and songs were strong material which fit into the Oyster's existing style. There was no sense whatsoever of anyone putting up with the new stuff then back to the favourites. In this respect the new songs and tunes were spot on, and the band judged where to place them in the set extremely well. Oysterband have to be one of the most accomplished and professional folk rock bands around in the UK, yet at the same time they can play a live set with a level of energy and enthusiasm that would shame many younger bands.
The audience was a complete mixture of ages from six to sixty, and as wide a range of clothing styles. This is also testimony to Oysterband's professionalism and talent. They have kept many of the folk orientated fans they made years ago, and they can also get through to the less conventional younger element. A few older members of the audience might have been a bit surprised by what appeared to be a plain blue-grey kilt worn by Lee, but that to me neatly sums up the juxtaposition of tradition and unconventionality that Oysterband represent.
I am hoping much of the new material will be on the new album due for release in the spring. If this material is any guide it has the makings of a great album. I shall also enjoy hearing some of this new material with a bit more clarity than the hall acoustics permitted and finding out what the words really were!