I guess I pretty much rank as the GMR staff newbie as far as the Oysterband is concerned. Mind you, that’s not really surprising: my musical background is pretty much evenly split between the romantic repertoire and post-everything metal/electronica, preferably loud and raucous. (Hmm — I guess that’s part of the definition, isn’t it?) But I try to keep an open mind.
Well, as it happened, while checking out my mail cubby at the GMR offices, I ran across Oysterband’s Granite Years: Best of. . . 1986-97 with a scribbled note from the Chief that I eventually translated as “Check this out. Let us know what you think.” I took that to be a request for a review.
Rule 1: Never try to get a first impression of a new band during a busy day at the office.
My first take is better left unspoken, considering that I have now had a chance to sit down and listen to 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. “The Road to Santiago,” from Holy Bandits (1993), for example, starts off disguised as, perhaps, something that might have accompanied a troop of grenadiers as they marched toward battle. That doesn’t last long: it starts bouncing as the tempo gets faster and the sound gets richer and the mood gets livelier — it gets downright jiggy, if you know what I mean. And a note here about John Jones, lead vocals and a few other things: watch out for this guy — he’s tricky, starting off all sweet and innocent like some normal folk singer, then cutting loose and displaying a range of effects that would do justice to my favorite rock stars. Even in something as seemingly low-key as “Native Son” (Deep Dark Ocean, 1997), Jones is a little beyond what we expect — course, the song doesn’t stay all that low-key for long, as the complex rhythms that quietly insinuate themselves under the melody should have warned us: this one picks up some nice momentum.
The momentum stays, even through a ballad like “Rambling Irishman” (Holy Bandits), which somehow manages to combine poignancy with a lilting rhythm. It’s hard to describe — the song is almost gentle, but there’s a pulse under it that moves it along.
The band has been accused of getting a little political during the 1990s. Well, didn’t we all? I would have been surprised if a “folk” band hadn’t had a message: it seems to go with the territory, as those of us who remember the protest songs of the ’60s can well recall. A song like “We’ll be There” (The Shouting End of Life, 1997), with its refrain of “Leave this land alone!” makes the point, on a number of levels.
One last song, one that stuck out in a group of very remarkable songs: “Mississippi Summer,” from Freedom and Rain (1990), with a guest vocal by June Tabor. I can only compare it to my own experience of similar things (yes, from the ’60s, thank you for asking). The passion of Odetta, the intensity of Joan Baez, the sheer musicality of Peter, Paul & Mary, and the lessons of R&B firmly assimilated (the first thing that popped into my head when I heard that rhythm pattern was “Heard it Through the Grape Vine”) in a song that is one of the most evocative “folk songs” I’ve ever heard. (And just so you know, I’m not setting too much store by the “folk” designation: those kinds of labels have their uses, but are best taken with a grain of salt.)
I can’t do this collection justice without writing a lot more than you want to read. It’s a two-CD set with fifteen selections on each disc, and each is worthy of comment. Oysterband has a better than thirty year history, and it’s a rich one. Their music reflects that. 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.
Oysterband during this period was: John Jones (lead vocals, melodeon, accordion, piano); Alan Prosser (guitars, mandolin, banjo, violin, vocals); Chopper (bass, cello, vocals); Lee (drums, vocals); Ian Telfer (violin, concertina).
(K-tel International, 2000)