I have a confession to make. With the exception of Jethro Tull, I have more Oysterband in my personal CD library than any other group. Really. Truly.Way back in ’96, I sold seventy or so copies of the Alive and Shouting CD to members of the Oysterband list. Really. Truly. Keep in mind that was before the Internet really took off, so it was no mean feat as I had to get the cooperation of Drew Miller at Northside, at the time the legal importer of the CD in the States. (And still — Rise Above, the latest Oyster CD, is available from them right now!) I repeated that with the follow-up live CD, Alive and Acoustic, two years later. Now I have not been fortunate enough to see the Oysters live, so my experience of them as a band is solely based on their recorded work. And that, my dear readers, is why I’m reviewing two of their CDs that will be somewhat difficult for you to locate, but which will be well-worth the trouble. Now let’s grab a pint of Dragon’s Breath Stout in the Green Man Pub as this is a tale worth hearing!
The Oysterband began life as The Whitstable Oyster Co. Ceilidh Band in 1975; it was a damn fine dance band. The name was shortened over the years, eventually shucking even the odd space between Oyster and Band in the early ’90s. The core of the membership as well as the sound have remained largely constant over the years — despite the belief of some band members that the early material was merde. The core group of the band throughout the last twenty-five years has been John Jones (melodeon, lead vocals), Alan Prosser (acoustic and electric guitars, fiddle, and vocals) and Ian Telfer (fiddle, viola, English concertina, and vocals). What you get with these lads is a near perfect mix of vocals and instruments. I’ve never heard a bad outing from them, nor do I ever expect to.
I’m not the only one who likes them more than just about any other band playing these days; many of this staff are likewise of the same opinion. Just note Vonnie’s intro to her Rise Above review: ‘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.’ I’m tempted to say that they are the best English rock ‘n’ reel group ever, but — for now — I’ll resist that temptation! I’ll just note that if these CDs are any indication, they are a truly superb live act; the equal, say, of Jethro Tull or early Fairport. The largest difference between those groups and the Oysters is, as one critic noted, ‘ if rock can be politically radical, the music of the Oyster Band and the Levellers are good candidates.’ Yes, I know that both of those groups can be political at times, but the Oysters are political as, like Midnight Oil, their music is at its very core an ‘angry shout’ against social injustices. That it is damn fine dance music too is an added bonus!
(Don’t send me email asking why I don’t like the current Fairport sound. I simply don’t find it as good as earlier incarnations of the band were. Now go away if you don’t like that opinion! The rest of you who are staying can have another pint of Dragon’s Breath Stout on me!)
Alive and Shouting was released just after their studio CD, The Shouting End of Life. Richard said of that CD that with ‘The Shouting End of Life, the Oysterband has put its collective foot down firmly on the rock side of the folk-rock equation.’ This CD was released, I kid you not, as an ‘official bootleg’ in attempt to capture their live energy. (I know — an official bootleg is a crock of shite. This is no more bootlegged than are the Cats Laughing CD-Rs that I sell.) What it is is a very, very lively selection of what they were playing during that period. The band by the time of this CD is a quartet as Chopper (cello, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and vocals) has joined the lads. All of the cuts here were ‘[r]ecorded live on tour with absolutely no overdubs’ according to the liner notes. I can’t tell where the cuts were recorded as a dozen or so venues, both English and Swedish, are noted! The new Oysterband Web site that the good folks at the now defunct Musikfolk maintained allowed us to find out that all of the cuts were recorded at Huset, Aarhus, Denmark (1 Feb 96) and Stockholm, Sweden (15 Nov 955). Not that the listener will be able to tell any difference in the tracks.
After a fairly sedate intro piece, Alive and Shouting literally kicks ass with a superb version of ‘The Shouting End Of Life’ off the album of the same name. This rumination by the band on what will have us shuffling off this mortal coil — and resisting that fate — has some of their best lyrics: Gunpowder, whisky, falling off the wire, anything could put me in that ever-after choir Hacks that want to see me shuffle off the shelf, I hand them each a bottle, I say: Go fuck yourself and the ever-so-danceable sound that I’ve found in no other band. (One of the reasons I like them better than Fairport is they’ve never forgotten the old adage that one should ‘shut up and dance’. Unlike Fairport, they have not aged gracefully or quietly!)
Other cuts that are particularly good to hear performed live are ‘One Green Hill’ and ’20th Of April’, both of which amply demonstrate the political nature of the Oysters. Interestingly enough, I don’t like the version of ‘Don’t Slit Your Wrists For Me’ as it lacks the female vocalist, Linda Duggan, who does the part of the, errr, lady on The Shouting End of Lifeversion. What’s also lacking on Alive and Shouting is any tunes that are not part of songs! One odd oversight on the part of a band that revels in dance tunes!
All in all, this is an album that any Oysterband fan will want. Now finding it may be difficult, as I think it was done in a fairly small lot. Neither Musikfolk nor Amazon UK have copies, but Rockinworld had a copy listed at $40 as I (originally) wrote this in late May, 2003.
The next CD can be found somewhere as the fine folks at Omnium have it in stock. Yea! Indeed their online catalog noted of Alive and Acoustic, ‘We’ve obtained a few copies of this limited-edition live release on the band’s Running Man label from 1998. Alive and Acoustic captures a selection of their stirring late-1990s songs, as well as some early gems and instrumental sets, all without electric guitars or amps.’
Alive and Acoustic does have the tunes missing on the previous album — just listen to the Polkas found in the ‘Scartaglen / Johnny Leary’s / The Humours Of Ballydesmond’ set, or the lovely reels in the ‘McMahon’s / The Sailor’s Bonnet’ set. Bliss! Nobody beats the Oysters when they kick into dance mode. Now there are groups almost as good, but no one matches them for sheer energy and for sounding just plain fun. This is a quieter, more acoustic album which perhaps could have used a little more energy. Now the tradeoff here is that John Jones’ amazingly good voice is on full display — something that often times gets lost in many of the later-day Oyster CDs where the loudness of the instruments can overwhelm his voice. Just listen to Deep Dark Ocean to see what I mean. Though it lacks the female vocalist (Christine Collister) on the Wide Blue Yonder version, ‘The Oxford Girl’ version here shows the voice of John Jones to its very best. (They like this song a lot as From Little Rock to Leipzig has yet another version, and it shows up often on their collections. There’s even a Ryko sample that is taken from the Freedom and Rain tour they did with June Tabor. (June’s an interesting one — I once booked her here. But that is another story for a different time. One with multiple pints of Dragon’s Breath Stout!) What you get here is a kinder, gentler Oysterband — not a bad thing ‘tall. I know — I contradicted myself but, as Walt Whitman said, ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.’ Quiet Oysters are good; noisy Oysters are good too. Oysters are always good!
I could go on at length about this CD, but I won’t. It’s every bit as essential for the Oysterband fan as is everything else they’ve done. Go buy it now from Omnium before it goes out of stock. If you wait, you know you’ll regret it later. Certainly I heard no complaints ‘tall from those lucky folks who bought these CDs from me!
( Running Man, 1996 and 1998)