Forget Mick Jagger and Super Heavy. If you’re interested in British folk rock — or even aging musicians who still have their creativity intact — then the team-up of the year isn’t Jagger and associates. It’s Ragged Kingdom, the first collaborative album between diva June Tabor and Oysterband since Freedom and Rain in 1990.
That 1990 album remains a cult item, one of those rare collaborations in which the result is something that none of the participants could have managed on their own. You could hear Tabor and Oysterband lead singer John Jones inspiring one another, while the rest of Oysterband transcended their usual versatile excellence to allow Tabor to do arrangements she could never have done by herself, or even with her usual arrangement of a single supporting musician.
Freedom and Rain was also responsible for one of my most memorable concert experiences ever. It was 1991 at the night club at what was then Vancouver’s Plaza of Nations. There, Trish and I listened to two memorable sets that kept cranking the excitement higher and higher. By the encore – a deliberately campy “White Rabbit” complete with dry ice and Tabor in a leather mini-skirt – the only people that weren’t blissfully sated were the waiters, who were sulky about a crowd that had come to listen instead of drink.
Since then, Tabor and Oysterband had played together informally, most notably at Oysterband’s Big Session festivals, and done several covers of rock classics on Tabor’s On Air album. But a studio album was something else altogether, and I have to admit that I first played Ragged Kingdom expecting to be disappointed. After twenty years, how could the magic possibly be repeated?
Well, it can’t be, not in exactly the same way, even though both albums are a similar mix of contemporary and traditional pieces. However, a dozen bars into the first cut, a hard driving version of “Bonny Bunch of Roses,” I knew that I was experiencing something just as extraordinary in its own way. Ragged Kingdom has a harder sound than “Freedom and Rain” – possibly, I would say after listening to his solo album, due to Ray “Chopper” Cooper’s growing involvement in Oysterband’s arrangements – but I haven’t heard a sound with such authority since I first heard Stan Rogers at sunset at the Vancouver Folk Festival or heard Steeleye Span’s “Thomas the Rhymer” coming out of my portable radio when I was in high school.
Or in case you have different touchstones, let me put it this way: right away, I knew I was listening to something original and compelling – something that I had to sit down and listen to, not just have playing in the background as I went about my day.
All the musicians sound like they are enjoying themselves on Ragged Kingdom too much to care much about billing. However, so far as selection is concerned, the album is more June Tabor’s than Oysterband’s. None of their original songs are included. Instead, as on most of Tabor’s releases, the album has an eclectic mix of traditional and new.
Among the traditional pieces, standouts include “Bonny Bunch of Roses,” and “Judas (Was A Red-Headed Man),” two songs I believe that I have heard mentioned in passing, but whose lyrics I’ve never read, and that I have never before heard performed. Both suggest how much potential remains untapped in traditional song, “Bonny Bunch of Roses” being a dialog between Napoleon’s son and his mother about the British Empire, and “Judas” slipping in pious Christianity with decidedly pagan elements and popular tradition. Another piece, “Son David,” belongs to a well-known tradition of a dialog between a fleeing murderer and his mother, but with enough of a new slant in the arrangement to make it interesting.
The contemporary selections are equally varied, ranging from Bob Dylan’s “Seven Curses” to Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is especially transformed, being transmuted from Joy Divison’s quick and monotonic delivery to a slow, heart-wrenching duet between Tabor and Jones.
Ragged Kingdom has only two minor faults. First, the hard rhythm of most of the cuts could do with a little more variation. Second, “The Dark Side of the Street” seems a slightly weak ending to the album. However, I expect that these faults would disappear in live performance, and I only hope that Tabor and the Oysterband do a tour for the album in North America in the coming months. I suspect that the experience would be as memorable as the Freedom and Rain concert whose memory I still value.