Oysterband, Richards on Richards Street,
Vancouver, BC, Canada (August 1, 2001)  
 

If you had to classify the Oysterband, "England's premier political roots rock band" would be a fitting place to start. Their large repertoire, mostly written by the band's members, has healthy doses of left-wing sensibility, humour and the joys of rebellion and revelry.

The Oysterband's trips to our hemisphere are all too rare and short. This year they were in North America for about two weeks for a series of gigs in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada and a single concert in Seattle. So I tinkered a bit with a planned vacation in western Canada in order to see their Wednesday night show in Vancouver. They were well worth the 6,000-mile trip.

The concert was produced by Vancouver's Rogue Folk Society -- aptly enough, since it's hard to imagine a more roguish folk band. The Society has no fixed home, and this event was held at Richards on Richards Street, an appropriate venue in what might well be called a "transition" part of downtown Vancouver. The "no jeans" restriction posted on the door was fortunately unenforced, and the 2 ID requirement was largely superfluous given the advancing age of most of the audience. A very nice bar for a concert: good sized dance floor, two levels of staggered height seating so everyone had a reasonable view of the stage, several bars, good and plentiful draught, and a decent sound system. The crowd was far less than capacity, but made up for size with enthusiasm. The vast majority were well acquainted with the band.

The performance was outstanding: a long single set offering a full range of Oyster standards played with energy, commitment and passion, followed much to the band's surprise and delight with three ovations and encores. Banter between tunes was minimal to nonexistent; music was the order of the day. The band and the crowd were equally pumped with nothing held back.

The instrumentation included lead vocalist John Jones on melodeon, Ian Telfer on fiddle, Alan Prosser on guitar and mandolin, Chopper on cello and electric bass and Lee on the drums. They played largely acoustically, although certainly amplified, with Chopper predominately playing cello, standing and often while carrying it about the stage, and Alan on acoustic guitar about half the time. The whole band sang.

The band was somewhat more subdued than I'd expected from their recordings, but then they are getting up in years (they have been in the current line-up for nine years now). John Jones was wearing his standard sunglasses, and Lee was got up in a stylish kilt and sleeveless jacket with stripes that glowed quite nicely in the black light. Otherwise they looked like normal middle-aged humans.

"Coal Note Dole," an ode to displaced miners, opened with John accompanied only by cello: "they'll always be a happy hour/ for those with money jobs and power./ They'll never realize the hurt/ they cause to those they treat like dirt." Then the whole band joined in for "Bells of Rhymney." And the lads really do rock on, driven by the highly energetic Lee and Chopper.

Politics is always central to the Oysterband. Commenting on the last British election, John noted that even when you get what you want you can still be very disappointed before launching into "All That Way For This" with outstanding fiddle work by Teffler. The fiddle was also the highly effective lead on "In My Time."

Other songs this night included mostly vintage Oysters with a few songs off the more recent albums: "Love Vigilantes," "This is the Voice," "Everywhere I Go," On the Edge," "One Green Hill," "Native Son." "Molly Bond," introduced as a new song (i.e., only in the repertoire for 5 years) was done very slowly and understanded, featuring a delicate finger-styled guitar part.

When not singing about things politic, a major theme is debauchery and excess. This eve they played two. "Here's to You" -- subdued compared to their *Holy Bandits* version except for Lee's impassioned backing vocals -- and concluding with a depraved instrumental version of the reel "Miss McCloud's." This was followed by "When I'm Up I Can't Get Down" -- a bit off tempo from the album version -- but with Lee literally and figuratively smashing on the cymbals. Played back-to-back, these undoubtedly increased sales at the bar. "We Could Leave Right Now" with an extended and twisted fiddle solo ended the show.

But the crowd was in no mood to let them leave any time soon. "The World Turned Upside Down" started the first of three encores. This Leon Rosselson composition, an ode to agrarian communism, is a perfect match for the political sensibilities of the Oysterband. To slow things down a bit, they did "Put Out the Lights," though this was up tempo version with Lee marching about with just a snare drum, Teffler playing concertina and tasty guitar supplied by Prosser.

Following a second ovation, the boys played "Another Country" with a blazing fiddle and Chopper and Lee playing full tilt. The third encore ended the show with "Granite Years" and a short, full band a capella hymn: "Bright Morning Star."

With well over a dozen superlative albums to draw from, the diehard fan, including this one, was bound to be disappointed by the many songs left unsung. But after close to two hours of near nonstop music, it's hard to complain. A brilliant concert and band, not to be missed, on CD or in person, regardless of how far you might have to travel.

[Ed Dale]