Alban Arena – St Albans, 29 November 2012
It wasn’t just because I was out in the provinces that last night felt more like Middle Earth than a Ragged Kingdom (the title of June Tabor and Oysterband’s latest album).
First there was the audience of white-haired, grey bearded, beer bellied folk in a modern civic ensemble of buildings, which felt a long way from the youthful cosmopolitan concert halls of the capital.
Then there was June’s wonderful velvet curtain-like overcoat, complete with tassels, which made her look like some wise woman from the dark ages.
And then there was nothing ragged about this performance. This was polished impeccable playing of traditional songs and inspired modern covers by a totally professional outfit.
The Oysterband look like a bunch of ordinary middle-aged blokes in a village pub. Playing folk and folk-rock also since the mid seventies they are a great bunch of musicians.
But June Tabor and the Oysterband together are something very special. They have made two albums together, Freedom and Rain in 1990 and last year’s Ragged Kingdom which won Best Album at the Radio 2 Folk awards.
The majority of their set at St Alban’s came from these two albums, including the opening song of the night, Mississippi Summer, the opener of Freedom and Rain. While that album almost sounds a bit dated now, the songs from it played here sounded much sharper and more biting.
Second up was the great Fountains Flowing from Ragged Kingdom with its rousing violin melody and gently strummed chorus. These two songs, one about cotton pickers in Mississippi, the other an oh so British folk traditional, based on the hymn To be a Pilgrim, set the standard of variety that was to follow.
This is a band that between British and US traditional numbers comfortably took on the sixties psychedelia of the Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow Parties and Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, soul classic the Dark End of the Street, and a really rocking version of Pete Seeger’s Bells of Rhymney. The musicians, playing cello, violin, drums, bass, acoustic and electric guitars and accordion were impressive.
The gig though perhaps faltered when one or other of the two lead vocalists was off stage.
Because it is June’s voice, with its crystal clear diction delivered in an austere tone that really bites on certain lines or phrases, combined with the superb harmonies of the Oysterband’s lead singer John Jones that is the key to their collaborative success.
Whether singing to each other on alternate verses, or melding their voices together and finding that mythical third voice in the choruses, June and John’s voices compliment each other superbly.
And then there is their inspired cover of Joy Division’s Love Will Tear us Apart, with June and John taking turns on each verse until singing the final one together. This, combined with the sparse acoustic arrangement, gives the song a whole new power and emotion and it must now rate as one of the best covers ever.
A cappella songs, with the whole band contributing choral vocals on hymn like songs and the traditional Scottish (When I was No But) Sweet Sixteen were also real highlights.
Nothing ragged then, but some real magical moments in the shire. British folk music as good as it gets.