I remember several memorable musical moments in my life. There was the Vancouver Folk Festival where I first heard Stan Rogers singing “The Witch of the Westmoreland” against the reflection of the sunset on the eastern clouds, and the first time Spirit of the West played the Commodore, when our table on the sprung dance floor was bouncing up and down. I remember, too, hearing Loreena McKennitt at the Mythopoeic Conference I helped organized, her voice floating through the hall while the crowd was open-mouthed and silent. But so far the greatest was hearing June Tabor and OysterBand doing their sendup cover of The Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit.
The venue was the pub on the old Expo 86 grounds. I forget what it was being called at the time; several incarnations came and went before the fact that the space wasn’t commercially viable became obvious. It was a big space, and too far from the beaten path to attract many people.
The exception was the night that OysterBand and June Tabor performed, and you could see that the waiters were not happy with the crowd. It was a crowd that had come to listen, not to buy drinks, no matter how hard the waiters tried. I don’t know about anyone else, but after about the eighth invitation to buy another drink, Trish and I took to ignoring the waiters’ unsubtle persistence, except to turn away and face the stage more squarely.
If you have heard OysterBand live, it goes without saying that the set started fast and continued with almost perfect orchestration, the slow and softer numbers coming at exactly the right places to provide a change from the faster and harder ones. If you have heard June Tabor in any medium, it also goes without saying that her voice could make you world-weary or arouse tears just by the way she emphasized the right word. As usual, her voice with its faintly Northern accent sounded like that of a survivor, tough and proud and knowing everything there is to know about suffering.
We wished the set would never end, but eventually it did end. A long pause followed, and just as the last chances of an encore seemed to disappear, the lights turned psychedelic. Clouds of dry-ice started to obscure the stage, and June Tabor could be seen in a leather mini-skirt, striking a pose like the young Grace Slick, although she was forty-five at the time. She looked stunning – not just beautiful or sexy, although she had something of both, but someone both totally in command of the audience, yet simultaneously camping it up and not wanting anyone to take her completely seriously.
A few people in the audience took up her unspoken invitation and laughed. A few of us recognized the opening strains of “White Rabbit.” Like me, most of them probably expected a few notes, a reference like other bands at the time might make to “Stairway to Heaven” before segueing into another song altogether.
But after a few bars, the members of OysterBand appear to one side of Tabor, and the light show began to imitate that of the video in which The Airplane performed “White Rabbit” on The Smothers Brothers’ show. Slowly, Tabor began singing the first two lines of the song, “One pill makes you smaller / And one pill makes you small.” At the end of the lines, you could hear her accent.
By the third line, Tabor was no longer camping, but singing with exactly the suppressed passion of Grace Slick, almost sounding like Slick except for the burr in her voice.
The difference was that, while Slick sounds ambiguous on “White Rabbit,” Tabor sounded angry. Simply by emphasizing “ones,” she made the line, “And the ones that mother gives you” sound angry and contemptuous. In a single word, she seemed to dismiss convention
The contempt continued in the next line. Under Tabor’s phrasing, “go ask Alice” became bitterly sarcastic and so did the very idea that Alice could tell anyone anything “when she’s ten feet tall.” Just by emphasizing “chasing,” she conveyed the idea that “chasing rabbits” was a ludicrous pastime. Listening, I felt she was giving me personally an extensive tongue-lashing, listing my shortcomings one by one, but I was fascinated and could only lean forward to listen more closely.
The men on the chessboard and the white queen were sung about with a voice of someone who had seen them and knew they were inevitable and tiresome. In these verses, her phrasing sounded much like Slick’s. But when Tabor reached what for Slick was the end of the song – the repetition of the Dormouse’s advice to “Feed your head” – Tabor did not invite the listeners to turn on, as Slick did. Instead, she seemed to be advising us to get smart and learn from the experience.
This impression was reinforced by the fact that she didn’t end the song there. Rather, after an instrumental, she returned to the first verse, singing the words in a flat voice and letting the pause at the end of the last line trail off into silence.
I suppose you could interpret Tabor’s treatment of the song as anti-drug. However, it didn’t come across as so specific. Instead, she sounded like someone who had rushed into foolish things of all sorts warning others neither to imitate her nor expect anything help from the orthodox.
But however you interpret Tabor’s phrasing, it struck the audience like a fist to the solar plexus. When it ended, the audience was silence for a beat. Then everyone spontaneously leaped to their feet in one of the few non-calculated standing ovations I have seen, and you couldn’t talk for the applause.
Personally, I was glad to fall back into my seat. After listening to that one song, I felt as though I had run a marathon with a deflated lung. Like many other members of the audience, I lingered, playing with my drink until we felt strong enough to leave. Neither of us could express what we had seen with more than a half-articulate, “Wow!” express what we had seen, but we knew it had been something profound and memorable — something that we felt privileged to witness.