Oysterband, Leadmill in Sheffield, UK (28 Feb. 1999)

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

The Oysterband is touring again, after five months off the road, and the music is wonderful. Loud, too. The drums and bass guitar rattle your rib cage and shock your feet off the ground, while the fiddle, Strat, and squeezebox provide the tune that ensures you comedown dancing. Meanwhile, whatever higher facilities remain to you are absorbed by the lyrics. The Oysters have the art of enthralling an audience, and they used it on Sunday night.

At the Leadmill, the band appeared to enjoy themselves, playing to a friendly and enthusiastic crowd. The crowd got jumping to "Native Son" and "Be My Luck" and swaying to "By Northern Light." Ian Telfer's glorious fiddling on "Salmon Tails Up the Water" moved the evening into the realm of ecstasy. By the time the perennial favorite "Oxford Girl" came up on the set list, the full house was singing, clapping, grinning madly, hopping. By the time the band left the stage after a rousing "Granite Years," I was sharing hugs with my neighbors in the crowd.

Luckily, Oysterband encores resemble second sets, giving us a generous dose of what we crave. A high point of the evening came at the beginning of the very last song: Chopper's beautiful cello introduction to "Put Out the Lights," which is itself the most seductive song into which I've had the pleasure to melt.

The set was a mix of electric and some acoustic tunes, the progeny of last year's "Stripped and Polished" tour. That acoustic tour appears to have influenced the three new songs on the set list. A ballad of lost love, "A Time of Her Own," shows off lead singer John Jones' voice, while the considerably more energetic "This is the Voice" featured lovely vocal harmonies and an addictive chorus. (I know it's addictive -- two weeks later, not only am I still singing it, but my housemates are, too. I expect our version to be completely unrecognizable by the time the album comes out.)

The new songs will be on the upcoming album, scheduled for release in May '99 on the Running Man label. John Jones promises that the upcoming album is both brilliant and "a return to noise." The third new song, "On the Edge," certainly qualifies. At first hearing, this millennial rant appears to be a throwback to the raucous days of the band's early '90s albums, with a wall of sound and biting lyrics -- what I could hear of them. To rip off Gary C.'s 1995 review of the band, it's a knees-up head-down time-to-get-your-nana's-out tune.

But that's not all of it. There's something different going on, musically, that I didn't quite get. The only distinct difference in "On the Edge" that I could figure was that guitar player Alan Prosser plays mandolin on this one, and very well. It's good, it's beyond me, I have no idea where the band is going with this. I'll take it on faith, because in ten years of listening to the band evolve, I haven't been disappointed yet.

I'll look forward to listening to the tune on the CD, as well as reading the lyrics. Man, I can't wait.

PS. Yesterday, while wearing an Oysterband T-shirt, a large stranger came up to me, stared at my chest, and pronounced, "The best band, ever, is ... the Beatles. The second best band is the Oysterband." And with that, I made the acquaintance of Mr. Sheldon Brown. He's mistaken, though -- for sound, for intelligence, for sheer joy, the Oysterband comes first.