OYSTERS3 – Roots Unearthed, Lefel 3 Lounge, St David’s Hall: February 26, 2015
Aberystwyth-born John Jones, lead vocalist and melodeon player of the mighty and well-loved Oysterband, described the stripped-down acoustic trio of core members and founders Ian Telfer and Alan Prosser as “Our voyage of discovery” – and judging by the whoops, rapturous applause and shouts for more from the crowded audience, they structured the bold experiment completely right. This was the second Oysters3 ten-date tour; it should have been an 11-date, but serious floods in Cumbria caused a gig to be cancelled. However, half of those dates were completely sold out as the word spread.
The idea of Oysters3 was born when Sidmouth and Shrewsbury Festivals asked John and the other band members if they could come up with a different presentation, as well as the regular Oysterband style of concert. They were offered the songwriting heart of the band, the trio of John, fiddler and Scotsman Ian and guitarist Alan, playing an evening of acoustic performance peppered with not-entirely-discreet stories, with memorable songs from every period of a pretty unusual career. Ian said: “We improvised the show at Sidmouth, and to our genuine astonishment it went down a storm. We wondered how on earth we’d never thought of doing this before.”
The Lefel 3 audience were anticipating a thrilling show, and they were proved right. Right from the start, Oysters3 launched into the barn dance tune ‘Morpeth Rant’ – strikingly similar to the Welsh tune ‘Rhif Wyth’ – followed by John’s fabulous rendition of the grand ballad ‘Molly Bawn’, with Ian’s sweeping fiddle and Alan’s adventurous acoustic guitar painting rapturous and vivid pictures. ‘Molly Bawn’ must have stirred a few memories in the Cardiff audience; I went to Catford Folk Club in South-East London to see an up-and-coming band called Fiddler’s Dram, made up of Canterbury University students with the lovely Cathy Lesurf on vocals, afro-shock-haired bespectacled Alan on lead guitar and Ian on fiddle. Writer and friend Debbie Cook was inspired by a day out to Rhyl, but it didn’t scan; so she wrote ‘Day Trip To Bangor’ instead. Fiddler’s Dram took Debbie’s song to Number One, with new member John (an English teacher and a year-head at Canterbury’s only comprehensive school) playing melodeon, and there it stayed for six weeks. The rest is history…
Fiddler’s Dram morphed into The Oyster Ceilidh Band (which John says was “the best ceilidh band, anywhere, ever”), then The Oyster Band. Today, the supercool Oysterband plays to fans in 37 countries and has released no less than 23 albums. Oysters3, plus their drummer Dil Davies, bass guitarist Al Scott and cellist Adrian Oxaal, intend to blaze on and on.
The ‘Bangor’ shockwaves continued to reverberate; Ian told the story of how Debbie, now a scriptwriter for The Archers, invited himself and Alan as Eddie Grundy’s country-and-western backing band, with all the bizarre circumstances that entailed. Ian’s stories, stoked up over Oysterband’s long years, were certainly entertaining; how, after dining on an Indian meal, he suddenly rushed out of the BBC Birmingham studios in the middle of a Janice Long interview and threw up down the stairs, which a long-suffering African gentleman had just taken time and trouble to clean; and what it was like to work and record with the stunning June Tabor (“The public think she’s a duchess of doom, but really she’s a very funny person.”)
The flow of strong material never faltered; John made up for June’s absence by singing the title track of their album, ‘Freedom And Rain’, and the title track of Oysterband’s latest album, ‘Diamonds On The Water’; the well-known ‘Bury Me Standing’, the wandering musicians’ anthem ‘Spirit Of Dust’, the stately, beautiful shanty ‘Bold Riley’ and the barn dance ‘Glorishears’ – to quote John: “Once a ceilidh band, always a ceilidh band.”
John, Ian and Alan write left-of-centre, edgy intelligent songs that always question and prod the selfish, self-centred right-wing philosophy. “Another Quiet Night In England” shows typical Oyster well-structured writing. Kent had its coalfield, too; we heard stories of how Oysterband supported the 84/85 miners’ strike and now Billy Bragg came down to Betteshanger, Snowdown and Tilmanstone colleries, all now closed and demolished. John sang miners’ wife Kay Sutcliffe’s famous lament, ‘Coal Not Dole’, and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife; absolutely magnificent.
Oysters3 did the inevitable encore, with one brilliant twist; They left the microphones behind and performed ‘Like A Swimmer On The Ocean’, completely unamplified. John’s parting shot, “I leave these songs with you”, was left hanging in the air. Oysters3 possess so much power, energy, jaw-dropping harmony and total commitment; may they go on storming for ever.