June Tabor & the Oysterband @ Tønder Festival, 24 August 2012.
It seemed to me that there wasn't much of a chance to see the fruitful collaboration of traditional English singer June Tabor with the folk-rocking Oysterband on the European mainland.
However, it came as a pleasant surprise that both were playing the Tønder Festival's main marquee on Friday afternoon with Iain Matthews's and Julian Dawson's Plainsong as support. While the latter played some run-of-the-mill Americana, June and the Oysters explored much darker musical territory. It's British, is it?
English folk singer June Tabor had been inspired to turn her attention to traditional music and song after listening to Anne Briggs and Belle Stewart in the mid 1960s. June developed her own unique vocal style. First she was singing purely traditional unaccompanied ballads, before her collaboration with Maddy Prior and a full backing band in 1976 propelled her into stardom.
June released a series of folk, jazz and art music albums, mostly collaborating with guitarist Martin Simpson and pianist Huw Warren. While her solo releases generally have a melancholic timbre, she did a lavish and much celebrated folk rock album with the Oysterband in 1990, titled "Freedom and Rain."
In 2004 she sang an adaptation of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" with the Oysterband's singer John Jones as part of "The Big Session." The whole lot returned to the studio in 2011 to record the award-winning "Ragged Kingdom": June Tabor and Oysterband won Best Traditional Song, Best Album and Best Group at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards for the album, with Tabor also winning Folk Singer of the Year.
The Oysterband, formed in Canterbury in 1976, started out as a ceilidh dance band. Later on they included reworkings of traditional standards into their repertoire, turned into a full electric band and eventually performed almost entirely self-penned songs. During the 1990s the quintet became one of the leading groups of the British folk rock scene, publishing a series of critically acclaimed albums, with John Jones and bass and cello player Ray 'Chopper' Cooper recording equally successful solo albums.
Tonight's line-up also includes fiddler Ian Telfer, guitar player Alan Prosser and drummer Dilwyn 'Dil' Davies, furthermore supported on bass and guitar by Al Scott, who also produced the "Ragged Kingdom" album.
The driving but gloomily arranged (no contradiction!) "Bonny Bunch of Roses" kicks off the proceedings. This - presumably Irish, because the Irish had high hopes for anyone liberating them from the English - broadside ballad (Roud #664) is a conversation between Napoleon's son and his mother Marie Louise. The sentiment is pro-Napoleon. The song is frequently sung and recorded (e.g. by Bert Lloyd), though never before with that much panache.
June Tabor's equally weathered and regal voice blends perfectly with the Oysterband's groove. Don't know who's the next Bonaparte! she muses afterwards. Angela Merkel? Right size, wrong sex!
"Fountains Flowing" is a traditional English ballad, the tune is commonly known as "The Blacksmith." June Tabor sang the same song as "Our Captain Cried All Hands" unaccompanied and with somewhat different verses in the 1980s. This here is the opulent, full band rendition.
Though a melancholic song as well, it represents the musical cheerfulness of the group. Same goes for "If My Love Loves Me" (aka "Willie's Lyke-wake," Child ballad #25) which has a surprisingly happy ending for a traditional British ballad.
"My Son David" on the other hand introduces mindless violence, fratricide and exile. I recall several versions of this narrative ballad (Child #13, also known as "Edward," "Lucy Wan," "Who Put the Blood" ...) from Hedy West to Siobhan Miller and Tim Eriksen. The mother/son conversation, as delivered by John Jones and June Tabor, is one of the most passionate.
The late 1970s pop song, Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" has been part of their repertoire for some time. Their version is stripped to the bone and reduced to the two, perfectly matched, voices of June and John, a beautifully picked acoustic guitar and some poignant fiddle and cello.
"The Hills of Shiloh" is even more sparse. Tabor's vocals and some solitary guitar chords emphasize the loneliness in Shel Silverstein's American Civil War song about the ones that stayed behind while the men went off to the battlefield. Written way back in 1963, the song was taken into June's and the Oyster's repertoire when they were touring their first album in the US during the Gulf War in 1990.
"When I Was No but Sweet Sixteen," learned from the singing of the great Jeannie Robertson, introduces the whole band back again, though only as singers. The a capella chorale has some great harmonies.
With the latter two pieces one disadvantage of the new festival concept (see box on the left) comes to light. Everybody can attend the marquee, and I'm probably not the only one who feels disturbed by the laughter and chatter of the indifferent ones.
We are also treated during the afternoon concert with the traditional song "Molly Bond," one of the first folk songs the Oysterband recorded, and their original songs "Native Son" and "Dance as Fast as I Can". Furthermore, Lou Reed's "All Tomorrow's Parties" about the Andy Warhol clique from Velvet Underground's 1967 debut album, Si Khan's depressing blue-collar working song "Mississippi Summer," recorded on the Tabor-Oysterband album 20 years ago, giving the album title Lord, send us freedom and rain!, and finally Jefferson Airplane's psychedelic drug anthem "White Rabbit" with its imagery taken from Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland".
Bob Dylan's "Seven Curses" finishes off a fantastic set. Thunderous applause brings them back for the Oysterband's original song "Put Out The Lights". Ah well, this is much too early, so to speak. It's only late in the afternoon. The dark isn't close yet, the festival has just begun, and there hopefully will be many festivals to come. Both - June Tabor and the Oysters - are likely to return!
Photo Credits: (1) Tønder Logo (by Tønder Festival); (2) June Tabor, (3)-(4) Tønder Festival area, (6) Sorten Muld (by Walkin' Tom); (5) Heidi Talbot (by Klaus Brünenkamp).