It may have taken them over two decades to get around to recording a follow-up to their 1990 album Freedom and Rain, but June Tabor and Oysterband have intermittently reunited for live shows in the intervening years, "never losing touch" with each other’s music, as Tabor noted in a recent interview. This deep rapport and connection was clearly evident last night in Tabor and the band’s superb show at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, the first in a tour in support of that long-awaited new album, Ragged Kingdom [reviewed below]. The show served as a launch of sorts for the new record, with Oysters front-man John Jones confessing rather sheepishly that this was the first time that they had performed many of these songs for an audience.
No signs of anxiety showed through in the performances, however. For, from the galloping, powerhouse opener “Bonny Bunch of Roses” to the impeccably elegant closing lullaby “Put Out the Lights,” Tabor and the band delivered a thrilling show that was controlled and polished yet wonderfully loose and spontaneous.
The set-list combined tracks from Ragged Kingdom and Freedom and Rain, with a couple of Oysters originals added to the mix. Avoiding Dad-rock stolidity, the band played with vigour and passion throughout, Dil Davies’s sturdy drumming, Ian Telfer’s outstanding, soulful violin-playing, Alan Prosser and Al Scott’s guitar-work and the efforts of the multi-tasking Ray Cooper (cello, mandolin, bass) giving the material an exciting mixture of folk grace and rock grit, and beautifully complementing Tabor’s magnificent vocal performances. Jones’s singing matched Tabor’s in drama and intensity, especially his stunning, keening solo on “Molly Bond,” while, backed by Cooper’s mournful cello and Prosser’s delicate guitar, the pair’s duet on Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” proved predictably emotive. Cooper, Prosser and Telfer provided chants and harmony vocals for several songs, including an ambient “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” a reeling “Susie Clelland” and a heart-rending “(When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen,” their contributions adding deep hymnal textures to the already rich material.
The force of the performances succeeded in rendering the diverse song selections - from broadside ballads to late-’60s psych-rock - cohesive, with epoch-spanning tales of war, loss and Love Gone Wrong presented as a seamless story. The most daring transition was between the Oysters’ thunderous, percussive take on “The Bells of Rhymney” and Tabor and Prosser’s timelessly restrained and haunting rendition of “The Hills of Shiloh,” while other highlights included a deft, jangly “If My Love Loves Me” and an ineffably sultry “Mississippi Summer.” And I doubt that there’s been a cooler spectacle on the QEH stage this year than that of Tabor and the band tearing into Jefferson Airplane’s immortal Alice/LSD classic “White Rabbit” at the encore, which she introduced with a hilarious anecdote about performing the song in San Francisco in the early ’90s.
Indeed, throughout the night the bleakness of much of the songs’ subject matter was off-set by the warmth and affection of the band’s interplay, and by Tabor’s wonderfully wry gallows humour. (A story involving a “Goth baby” definitely deserves another outing.) The result was a richly enjoyable concert that held the audience in thrall from beginning to end. “Every place that I have been/Leaves its message on the skin,” sang Tabor on the closing “Put Out the Lights.” The same might be said of all of the indelible songs sung on this spell-binding evening, by some of Britain’s finest. Don’t miss the chance to catch these guys if they’re performing round your way.
Bonny Bunch of Roses
All Tomorrow’s Parties
Love Will Tear Us Apart
If My Love Loves Me
That Was My Veil
(When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen
Judas (Was A Red-Headed Man)
Bells of Rhymney
The Hills of Shiloh
The Leaves of Life
Where the World Divides
Dark End of the Street
Put Out the Lights
Details of tour dates and venues here.