We really like covering the entire oeuvre of an artist or group when possible, which is why, in addition to covering the latest CD from the Oysterband, The Oxford Girl and Other Stories, we look at bloody near every recording they've made to date, excepting some really obscure EPs and the like that are far too elusive even for our crack team of music hunters to find, such as the Spanish-only releases of Celtic Junkies and 100 Cadena--Serie Master 2 (both 1993), not to mention the Freedom and Rain Tour '91 Sampler (1991) which as 'White Rabbit' [written by Grace Slick] and 'All Along the Watchtower' [written by Bob Dylan], which we have on the Infinite Jukebox but which was never released commercially.
Now I must strongly disagree with what The Old Man says in his rant which follows these notes about the current output of this band, as the Oysterband are still producing some truly great music, as can be heard quite well on their newest recording,The Oxford Girl and Other Stories, which Peter Massey reviewed for us -- 'On first inspection of the play list I thought this was another compilation album with the ;best of' thirty years or a systematic look back over Oysterband's past albums, although most are represented here. But I was wrong. What you have here is all new acoustic recordings of the songs with re-arrangements.'
But first, a rant on the Oysterband...
The Old Man here -- Indeed it's cold and wet outside, not 'tall good for a long walk today, so I'm mucking about the database for the Infinite Jukebox here. Now, some might think it is indeed more than a bit queer that the Infinite Jukebox contains recordings of performers beyond count -- but it is, after all, the Infinite Jukebox. I found a version of the Rolling Stones' 'Let It Bleed' with Marianne Faithfull fronting, as her boyfriend had overdosed all those years ago. I also loved the other female-fronted rock and roll I listened to this morning -- 'Hotel California' by The Eagles, with Linda Ronstadt as the lead vocalist! Cool, really cool.
However, I was searching the Infinite Jukebox because I fondly remembered an Oyster Band album called English Rock and Roll -- The Early Years (1982). Yes, Oyster Band, not Oysterband. The band started life some thirty years ago as Fiddler's Dram, later becoming the Oyster Ceilidh Band and eventually dropping the Ceilidh part of their name. As the name suggests, much of their music is bloody fine dance tunes, which I really like on days like today!
If you are a fan of the present-day Oysterband, their rather sedate earlier sound might surprise you. Especially when compared to the band's angry tone during the Thatcher years, when they would sing in 'The Shouting End of Life' that 'Hacks that want to see me shuffle off the shelf / I hand them each a bottle, I say -- Go fuck yourself!' No, this is a far quieter, more traditional band that aficionados of good electrified English folk music will love, as almost everything, unlike later albums, is traditional material -- only 'A Longport Hymn' (written by Alan Prosser) and the 'Holligrave' tune (written by Ian Kearey) are contemporary in composition. Oh, John Jones' lovely voice is here, as is the voice of the soon-to-depart Cathy Lesurf of later Albion Band fame.
Indeed it has the aspects of the later band, but it feels much different than they do a decade or so later. Listening to it play in my office as it rains outside, I'm reminded of a time before Thatcher. Bloody bitch that she was, she made folk music political as a reaction against her evil reign. Here is a more innocent, pre-Thatcher Oysterband, one where saying 'Go fuck yourself!' would have been unthinkable. I miss that time, that sense of innocence. As the years pass, I find myself less interested in electrified English folk than I was when it started out some forty years ago. I want to be cheered up, not depressed!
Now let's listen in as the ever so perfect tenor voice of John Jones sings the lyrics of 'The Prentice Boy', a Cheshire folk song about a cobbler's boy who runs away to join the Spanish army. And yes, do help yourself to a bottle or two of the rather good ale I found in the Pub this afternoon!
To paraphrase Michael M. Jones's review of This Is the Voice (below), what can be said about the Oysterband that hasn't already been said by the Green Man reviewers, who seem to surely be some of the band's most vocal and articulate fans? For example, as Debbie Skolnik relates in her review of Here I Stand (also below), 'I have to confess right up front that the Oysters (as they are familiarly known) are one of the few bands whose releases I anticipate with an eagerness usually reserved for unopened birthday presents, [and] dreams such as winning the lottery [and] being able to quit my day job.' But where many fans would stop at this profuse level of appreciation, the GMR staff are then able to follow up with why this is so, and why you should do the same.
In his review of the band's early albums (1978 - 1985), Celtic musician Ed Dale offers a concise history for the uninitiated along with a true fan's appreciation for the band's growth process. 'These LPs prove that the Oysters were always good, but have nevertheless gotten much better.'
Chuck Lipsig examines Wide Blue Yonder (1987), finding lyrics that are by turns political and obscure while the tunes 'range from out-and-out rock to American bluegrass to Irish traditional without missing a beat.' He calls it 'a worthwhile recording for all who enjoy folk-rock.'
Iain Nicholas Mackenzie continues to explore the early works of what is now known as the Oysterband -- 'Not surprisingly, the band at this point reminds me strongly of Chumbawamba, a British punk band that uses folk motifs as well. (John Jones; James O'Grady, the Uilleann Piper with the Oysterband on Rise Above, Big Session -- Volume 1,and the 25 EP; and Ian Telfer provided vocals and instrumentation on Chumbawamba's album A Singsong and a Scrap, and somebody from the band provided vocals for the song 'Hull or Hell' on The Boy Bands Have Won, not to forget the Tubthumper recording and the 'She's Got All The Friends That Money Can Buy' single. Jones also provides vocals on 'Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire'.) So it's a band evolving fast but still firmly rooted in its past -- Step Outside is a exceedingly strong album from a band that is always is spot on!'
Iain also says that Ride (1989) is 'without doubt one of my favourite Oyster albums, with nothing but strong tracks from beginning to end on it. Originally released as an a LP in the UK and Germany (as were most of The Men They Couldn't Hang recordings of this period), it is unusual in that there are no guest musicians 'tall on it -- just John Jones (vocals, melodeon); Ian Telfer (fiddle, alto saxophone, organ); Alan Prosser (guitars, vocals, bones); Russell Lax (drums); and Chopper (bass guitar, electric cello, vocals)! Thus it has a more stripped down sound, a clarity of presentation which I must note sometimes gets lost on their later recordings.'
Iain also likes Little Rock to Leipzig (1990) even if its composition is a bit queer -- 'Little Rock to Leipzig is, to my knowledge, the only Oysters album that has a split between studio and live work. Now they've done a number of all live recordings (Alive & Shouting (1996), Alive & Acoustic (1998), the 25th Anniversary Concert DVD (2004), and Northern Light (2006) to be precise), and not to forget the Oysterband and friends on The Big Session -- Volume 1 taken from their first venture into festival organizing. So indeed Little Rock to Leipzig is a rather unique creature!
June Tabor and the Oysterband's Freedom and Rain (1990) got accolades from Lahri Bond -- 'Freedom and Rain in 1990 saw a woefully short-lived collaboration between Tabor and England's mighty and very electric Oysterband. Perhaps inspired by her guest spot with Fairport Convention during one of their annual Cropredy reunion shows in 1987, Tabor takes on folk rock with a vengeance and is backed on this album by the world's best band to play it.'
Rowan Inish writes that Deserters (1992), and especially its title track, 'announces a new sort of Oysterband sound, one dependent on full-blown, meticulously arranged songs' and that it begins 'the finest period in the Oysterband's long and illustrious history', which includes the next two albums.
The next year saw the release of Holy Bandits (1993), which Lars Nilsson recommends 'to fans and... to people like myself who are not die-hard fans' as it begins and ends strongly but does not reach the heights of the band's 1995 album.
'With The Shouting End of Life (1995),' proclaims Richard Dansky, 'the Oysterband has put its collective foot down firmly on the rock side of the folk-rock equation,' citing its 'incredible rage' combined with 'gleefully flippant word play' and the violin work of Ian Telfer as particular high points. Sounds like a classic.
Cat Eldridge covers two live releases, calling Alive and Shouting (1996) 'a very, very lively selection' that 'capture[s] their live energy' but is missing 'any tunes that are not part of songs.' Alive and Acoustic (1998) is an excellent companion, 'a quieter... album [where] John Jones' amazingly good voice is on full display.... [And it] does have the tunes missing on the previous album.... Bliss!'
Robert M. Tilendis had this to say about his first exposure to a GMR institution -- 'I have now had a chance to sit down and listen to [Granite Years -- Best of. . . 1986-97,] a mid-career retrospective, as it were, of a group that, while more or less firmly rooted in the traditions of English folk music, is lively enough, and raucous enough, to keep me interested. I can readily see why their early incarnation included "Ceilidh" in the name -- it's hard to sit still while this music is playing. . . . It's at the point where the idea of "folk" becomes pretty much irrelevant here -- it's just their music, and wherever it came from, it's damned good.'
Iain Nicholas Mackenzie says that 'Deep Dark Ocean therefore comes as something of a rather pleasant surprise to me in the way it sounded when I first heard it. I'd say it's quite a bit more mellow and definitely more melodic than usual. I know that the 'Net has legions of hardcore OB fans were less than thrilled by this recording but I like it a lot as it shows a quieter, more thoughtful side of this band.'
Gary Whitheouse goes diving into Pearls from the Oysters (1998), a '30-track, two-CD set that covers the Oysterband's middle years' and finds 'a frustratingly mixed bag on which the band shows its potential but often fails to live up to the promise. If you are a longtime fan, you probably have all four of the albums from which the songs on this set are drawn. If you're not, I doubt this set will convert you.'
Debbie Skolnik observes that Here I Stand (1999), the Oysterband's next studio venture, 'has a more pop-oriented feel' and is 'also more introspective in nature... one of those albums that doesn't give up all its secrets in the first few listenings.'
Meanwhile, Michael M. Jones recommends the This Is the Voice EP (1999) for the uninitiated, calling it 'a sampler, containing a mere four tracks, two of which can also be found on Here I Stand,' and proclaiming '[I] loved every minute of it.... These guys are good.'
Ways of Holding On (Waiting for the Sun) (2000) gets high marks from Kim Bates -- 'This EP shows that the political can give way to the personal, and offers up the valley that inevitably follows the mountain top using some of their better original material from Here I Stand.'
With a dearth of releases across the turn of the century, it seems a good time to focus on the band's live performances for a tick. Vonnie Carts-Powel I saw them at Leadmill in Sheffield, UK in February 1999, and her review begins very simply with 'Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.' Later she waxes poetic on the experience -- '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 come down dancing.'
Chris Woods reviewed two concerts at the Congleton Town Hall, one on December 4, 1999 (The Last Oysterband Gig of the Millennium), and another on December 8, 2001. Of the 1999 show, he says, 'The best gigs are like this one, when most of the people attending know the band's work.... They may not know all the words... but most of the choruses are easy, and there is often more volume from the floor than from the stage on the classic songs. All [John Jones] has to do is stop singing … and the audience just take over the vocals.'
At the same venue, two years later, Chris writes, 'Over the past couple of years Oysterband have not introduced much new material to their set.... This time around however there was a noticeable quantity of new material and some rather different arrangements.' Unfortunately, the titles of this new material eluded him, since the 'Oysterband don't stop playing long enough or often enough to do anything boring like intros or giving titles.... However all the new tunes and songs were strong material which fit into the Oyster's existing style.'
Ed Dale notes somewhat mournfully that '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. Read his look at their concert at Richards on Richards Street in Vancouver, BC, Canada on August 1, 2001 for why he loves this band!
A few years later we finally saw a new studio album, Rise Above (2002). Vonnie says, 'In the past, the Oysterband has given me everything I want from music -- a sinewy strength; musical roots and simplicity; sheer skill with instruments and words; a beat that I can dance and stomp and rejoice with; and idealism based on a lot of love for people -- without getting pretentious. This album continues in the same vein.' In addition, 'the songs resonate with the riffs and themes and lyrics of so many previous works that Rise Above feels like a "Best Of" album -- of all new songs.'
Oyster Origins 2 -- Twenty Golden Tie-Slackeners Plus (2003) is a compilation of some of the band's early instrumentals, and Kim Bates offers 'a word of caution here -- because it doesn't have the Oysters' early selection of traditional songs or their fledgling efforts at original songs, some fans may find it more difficult to parse for clues as to what the band later became [but] I just like the music.'
25 (2003) is yet another EP, this one celebrating the band's 25th anniversary. As Kim notes, 'This EP of four new tracks and three previously unreleased tracks... shows the Oysterband in a thoughtful, yet defiant, mood.... It's also a mature work in the best sense of the word -- there is depth here that is difficult to achieve until you've lived a while.'
Perhaps the most faithful of the Oysterband fans that are among us, Vonnie Carts-Powell has a review for us of the lads in the early days of a better nation -- 'A quick Google search tells me that the average life span of a pearl-farmed oyster is six years, while the life span of a freshwater oyster can be as long as 80. The individual ages of the Oysters -- members of our own, darling Oysterband -- lie someplace between the two, while the Oysterband as a whole marked its 25th anniversary several years ago. If you've followed the Oysterband for only the past 20 years, Before the Flood (a.k.a. Oyster Origins) (2004) will surprise.'
Fiddler and general troublemaker Jack Merry raves over the film of Oysterband -- The 25th Anniversary Concert (2004), calling it 'a fine mix of songs and tunes... done with the intelligence, energy, and sense of fun... on everything else the Oysters have done.... If you haven't seen the finest folk rock band in Britain, this is your chance to do so.'
Vonnie Carts-Powell, a very long time fan of the Oysterband, found The Big Session, Vol. 1 (2004), which features the Oysters with various guests, to be rather excellent -- '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.' Having heard this recording, I can only agree that she is indeed spot on!
Kim Bates compares live release Northern Light (2006) with one of its predecessors, Alive & Acoustic, and finds that 'each release has different strengths.' In the end, however, 'As an acoustic recording, Northern Lights is superior to Alive & Acoustic, but it fails as a representation of a live Oysterband experience.'
Kim opines that Meet You There (2007), which is the Oysterband's first studio album since Rise Above, 'finds the band grayer, more pensive, and, I'm relieved to report, still angry.... They may be long in the tooth, but those teeth are still sharp.'
And Kim concludes with a hopeful message that will do just as well to close out this section -- 'The Oysterband's visions remain relevant and inspiring; they are a creative force whose power to delight and challenge is only growing with time.'
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