June Tabor and the Oysterband at the Nightstage

On a cold winter night, friends dragged me, protesting, into Cambridge to see a show that I had no interest in seeing. When we walked into the (late, not terribly lamented) Nightstage, there was an odd mix of people: older folkies already monopolizing the cabaret-style tables, surrounded by younger folks who could be mistaken for punk rockers if only they had more piercings and deeper scowls. Spam (short for “Spam-For-Brains”), one of my insistent friends, looked at the seated India-cotton group and said mildly, “Boy, are they in for a surprise.”

In the hour or so that followed — the starting time was an obvious fiction — more and more people packed into the club, increasing the audience from “respectable” to “crowded” to “this must be a sellout” to “what do you think is the fire-code maximum occupancy?” My group was squeezed into standing-room-only at the back of the balcony.

The musicians walked on and started playing with no fanfare at all, and wow, it was painfully loud, and wow, the drummer was pounding out a fast beat, and I could barely make out the lyrics (although I’m sure I heard, “Hell is full of mice” at some point), and the guys on stage were wearing black leather jackets in spite of the room being a sweatbox at this point, and where the heck was the supposed woman lead singer?

And then all that ceased to matter at all, because I noticed the music. They were playing my music, our music, folk music, in a way I’d never heard before, and in a way I’d been looking for since first realizing that folk rock existed. Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention had gotten close, but had still felt too stilted to be part of a living tradition. These guys were playing rock about contemporary life — except using the instruments and conventions and tunes of popular music from the past 300 or 400 years. And they were playing traditional tunes like “Susie Clelland,” except using the fury and nihilist sensibilities of punk-ish rock. This music was alive, and tough, and glorious.

It was also so loud that, not only was the bass thumping in my chest, but I could feel the fiddle setting up sympathetic vibrations in my head, as though the unfamiliar tune was humming me, rather than the other way around. The crowd around me was moving with the music — there wasn’t room to dance, really, but on one song the pogo-ing got so intense that the balcony was moving inches up and down with each beat. I held onto the wall and sweated buckets and prayed for structural strength in the old building and kept listening.

By the time June Tabor came on, glowering ferociously the entire time, to sing “Mississippi” I wasn’t too worried about surviving — I was simultaneously ecstatic to have discovered something so new and so good, and also deeply comforted to have found the music that I’d always needed to hear. If the gig had been a church revival, I’d have been saved. As it was, I was converted.

(Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A., (circa 1990)


Vonnie was an ardent supporter of all things English folk music in nature. Sadly she died after a long struggle with cancer in 2015.