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One night when I was 14, I was doing my homework at the desk in the downstairs basement of my parents’ house. My transistor radio was playing, but I wasn’t paying close attention. The radio station was playing far too much Chicago and Elton John, for my liking, and not nearly enough Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan.

Suddenly, guitars kicked in, and a woman started singing, her voice mildly eerie and like no vocal performance I had ever heard, “True Thomas sat on Huntleigh bank / When he espied a lady may.” I strained for the words for a few stanzas, and then a rock beat struck up in utter contrast, “Harp and carp, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer…”

At the time, I had never heard of Thomas of Ercildoune, aka Thomas the Rhymer, the Scottish prophet who met the Queen of Elfland and was carried off to her realm for seven years. I hadn’t even heard of Steeleye Span. But the arrangement and the words haunted me, and eventually – this being pre-Internet – I realized what I was hearing was a modern version of a seven hundred year old song.

This continuity of culture fascinated me. Folk purists claimed to be outraged by Steeleye Span’s efforts in this direction, but as am adolescent raised on stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood who was trying to reconcile these interests with modern politics, I was entranced. I became a lifelong fan of Steeleye Span, and to this day, songs that modernize old songs are among my favorites.

I remember, for example, just before twilight at the Vancouver Folk Festival hearing Oysterband doing a rocked up version of “Hal-an-tow,” the centuries old Morris dance. I played it for Paul Zimmer, one of the SCA founders, a few weeks later, and I remember him doubling over, his laughter ringing out like a cannon shot when he heard the refrain, “Summer is a-coming in / And winter’s gone away.” A harpist from Denver condemned it as sacrilege and an affront to her ears, which only made Paul and I laugh harder.

Years later, Oysterband, in its “Ragged Kingdom” collaboration with June Tabor, would do much the same with “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” converting the conversation between Napoleon’s son and widow about the dangers of England from a slow harp arrangementd into a magic altogether quicker and more electrified. Again it was condemned by the purists, and overwhelmed the open-minded.

Over the years, there have been other updated songs that have enticed me, among them: Pete Morton’s acapella, punk-tinged version of “Tam Lin,” Tom Lewis’s setting of Rudyard Kipling poems to music, and Loreena McKennitt’s similar treatments of “The Lady of Shallot,” “The Stolen Child” and “The Highwayman.” There was even the Corries’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of how they were restoring “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to its original Scottish form – which was really the story of a modern bar fight described as a Western brawl.

What all these songs have in common is the idea that the past is still alive, and still worth knowing. I am very far from a conservative, but in our era of throwaway culture, something pleases me about this assumption.

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In these days of iTunes, albums are probably obsolete. However, I still prefer to listen by albums, knowing how much care many musicians take to arrange material.

I have some thousand albums, all of which I’m slowly digitalizing while hardware like USB cassette players still exist to make the task easy. Choosing one over another is in many ways meaningless, since my favorites can differ depending on my mood and whatever song is running through my head when I wake up in the morning. However, if I had to choose my general favorites, in no particular order, the list would look something like this:

  • Breakfast in Bedlam by Malcolm’s Interview: Also known as “God’s Little Monkeys,” Malcolm’s Interview was a short-lived punk band in England during the 1980s. Hard-driving lyrics, strong song-writing, and the occasional reinterpretation of folk standards make this first album worth hunting down if you weren’t around when it was released.
  • Celtic Hotel by Battlefield Band: Anything by Battlefield Band in its innumerable incarnations is worth hear. But in this album, the lineup included songwriter Brian McNeill, and the group soars above its usual lofty standards. Standouts include “The Roving Dies Hard,” a romantic overview of Scottish history,“Seacoalers,” a bitterly defiant soliloquy about an independent beachcomber, and a cover of Sting’s “We Work the Black Seam.”
  • Titanic Days by Kirsty MacColl: Dubbed MacColl’s divorce album, this album is full of breakup angst, defiance, female fantasy, and even a chilling look into the mind of a serial killer, all backed up by MacColl’s characteristic wall of sound. Listen to this album, and you’ll understand why she was once described as “the Dorothy Parker of pop.”
  • Waiting for Bonaparte by The Men They Couldn’t Hang: Using a name that The Pogues discarded, TMTCH sound in this album like a Mersey-side rock band with a historical perspective and a political conscience. Especially strong numbers include “The Crest,” a father’s last words to his son about the family tradition, and “The Colors,” an account of the great English naval mutiny at the turn of the 19th century.
  • Hat Trick by the Mollys: Tex-Mex punk folk sounds like it should be a disaster. Somehow, the Mollys made the combination work, combining original songs that sound like their lyrics were written by a female Sean McGowan with cheeky re-working of folk standards like “All Around My Hat” and “Myrshkin Derkin.”
  • Small Rebellions by James Keelaghan: James Keelaghan is one of Canada’s major song writers. This album is a mixture of unionism (“Hillcrest Mine” and “Small Rebellions,” Canadian history (“Red River Rising,” and “Rebecca’s Song” local patriotism (“Gladys Ridge”), humor (“Departure Bay”) and quiet lyricism (“Country Fair”) – something for anyone who prefers intelligent lyrics with their music.
  • Love, Loneliness and Laundry by Leon Rosselson and Roy Bailey: England’s answer to Tom Lehrer, Leon Rosselson also has a quieter, if no less satirical side. He is joined here by the rich voice of Roy Bailey, and occasionally feminist folk singer Frankie Armstrong. Warning: “Standup for Judas” should not be played if you have invited Christian friends over. The same goes for “Abezier Coppe.”
  • Mothers, Daughters, Wives by Judy Small. Australian’s premier feminist folk singer in the 1990s, Small has one of the most expressive voices I have ever heard. The title song is a description of the lives of her mother’s generation and the roles available to them, so moving that it could probably reduce the most confirmed misogynist in the world into tears at the waste.
  • Angel Tiger by June Tabor: June Tabor’s voice sounds like that of a survivor, sad and depressed, but still struggling, with one of the most expressive voices ever to come out of England. This album includes her gut-wrenching version of “Hard Love,” a story of hard-won maturity, and “All This Wasted Beauty,” the song that Elvis Costello wrote for her voice. Expect to be literally moved to tears.
  • Elemental by Loreena McKennitt: With her harp and an expressive voice that can glide effortlessly up and down the octaves, Loreena McKennit is not heard so much as experienced. This is her first album, a collection of folk standards plus an arrangement of W. B. Yeat’s “Stolen Child” that has to be heard to be believed.
  • The Shouting End of Life by OysterBand: This album catches OysterBand in its electric rock phase. Opening with the pro-environmental “We’ll Be There,” the album waxes lyrical in “By Northern Light” and “Long Dark Street,” switches into comedy with “Don’t Slit Your Wrists for Me,” and ends a rock version of Leon Rosselson’s anthem, “The World Turned Upside Down.”
  • Frivolous Love by Pete Morton: With a punk voice but a quiet sound, Morton specializes in enigmatic but moving lyrics, such as “The Sloth and the Greed” and “The Backward King.” The album also includes one of the best ever recordings of “Tamlyn.”
  • Memento: The Best of Maddy Prior by Maddy Prior: Frequently the lead singer for Steeleye Span and the occasional collaborator of June Tabor, Prior is one of folk rock’s best-known vocalists. This album covers a few folk standards, as well as Prior’s own considerable song-writing skills, which are on display in such numbers as “Commit the Crime” and “Face to Face,” as well as “Rose” and “Alex,” her odes to her children. But by far the most interesting song on the album is “The Sovereign Prince,” which contrasts Elizabeth I with the frivolous English girls who live in the world that she created.
  • The Texas Campfire Takes by Michelle Shocked: While I’m dismayed by Shock’s recent anti-gay sentiments, I have to admit she still writes effective music. This album is her version of the bootleg album that launched her career without her permision, The Texas Campfire Tapes, after she had regained the rights. It contains both the originally released songs and the unedited versions she rightly prefers.
  • Growl by Ray Wylie Hubbard: To his frequent regret, Hubbard is best-known for the outlaw country hit, “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers.” However, this album shows Hubbard is more complicated than that old hit would suggest, offering a unique combination of blues and rock, and songs that are vignettes of the American South that could have come from the pages of a William Faulkner novel.
  • Red Roses for Me by the Pogues: This early album shows The Pogues at their best. Their musicianship is displayed in instrumentals like “The Battle of Brisbane” and “Dingle Regatta,” and the strength of their lyrics in “Boys from County Hell” and “Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go.” The Pogues even take the time to cover Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilida” and fellow Irish rakehell Brendan Behan’s “The Old Triangle.”
  • From Fresh Water by Stan Rogers: Stan Rogers never released an album that was uninteresting, but this is by far his strongest. Part of his Canadian region recordings, it focuses on songs about Ontario. As might be expected from Rogers, many of the songs are about ships on the Great Lakes, including “White Squall” and “Lock Keeper.” Others are about Canadian history, such as “McDonnel on the Heights” and “The Nancy.” Still others are about the dreams of ordinary Canadians, including “Flying,” which is probably the only memorable song ever written by hockey.
  • Amnesia by Richard Thompson: The English guitar legend has dozens of albums to his credit, but Amnesia has a claim to being the best of them all, with all ten songs being winners. Its ballads include “Gypsy Love Song” and “Waltzing’s for Dreamers,” its had-edge material, “Yankee Go Home” and “Jerusalem on the Jukebox. It ends with“Pharoah,” a metaphorical social commentary unlike any you’re likely to have heard.
  • Singing of the Times by Tommy Sands:A peace activist in Irelands, Sands starts this album with, “There Were Roses” about The Troubles. Other songs like “Children of the Dole” and “Your Daughters and Your Sons” sound like activist anthems. However, some of his works, like “Humpty Dumpty” and “I’m Going Back on the Bicycle” display a sly sense of humor, and “Peter’s Song,” an elegy for a fiddler, is simply beautiful.
  • All Used Up by Utah Phillips: Nobody ever went to a Utah Phillips concert for his guitar playing. But if you like story telling or want to hear about the Wobblies and the great North American labor movements through their songs, this album is a great place to start.
  • Restless by Sam Weis: With her twelve string guitar and husky voice, Weis was a standard on the folk circuits of the Pacific Northwest in the early 1990s before she retired to small town Washington to paint abstracts. Restless show her ability to write moving, original love songs, such as “Rubicon” and “Moment to Moment,” as well as her outstanding guitar work in songs like “Train to Big Sur” and her cover of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot.”

You probably haven’t heard of most of these performers, especially if you live outside of Canada or the United Kingdom, and maybe not even then. But that’s why I list them – because if you do take the trouble to track them down, you’re unlikely to regret the effort.

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For the past two years, I’ve been digitalizing my music collection. Considering I still have music I bought in high school, it’s a staggering assortment of LPs, EPs, cassettes, and CDs, and I have at least another year before I finish. Probably the only reason I haven’t abandoned the project is the certain knowledge that, if I do, in the near future I’ll be unable to play some irreplaceable music. But the project has led me to rediscover music that I haven’t listened to in years, and taught me something about my musical tastes.

In particular, among the 7200 tracks I’ve digitalized so far, there are some artists to whom I listen far more than others. Putting aside classical favorites for another blog, most of the ones I keep returning to fall into the category of folk rock. Most, too, either have intelligent lyrics, a strong beat, a sense of showmanship (in the sense of how to build excitement in a show or on an album), or all three. Many are English or Scottish.

My fifteen favorite are:

Battlefield Band

One of the two classic Scottish folk groups (the other is Silly Wizard), Battlefield Band has released dozens of albums, and a constantly changing lineup over several decades. Its music always includes a large number of instrumentals, and original lyrics about contemporary or historical Scotland. My favorite album from the group is Celtic Hotel, whose memorable cuts include “The Roving Dies Hard,”a look at the restlessness of Scots over the centuries and “Seacoalers,” a hard, unsentimental look at the bottom of the mining industry.

The Mollys

A Tex-Mex band whose heyday was the Nineties, The Mollys were the front for song-writer Nancy McCallion, whose persona might be described as a milder, female version of Shane McGowan. They did comical updates of standards like “Mershkin Dirkin” and “All Around My Hat,” but also strikingly original songs like “Don’t Wanna Go to Bed,” “Cash for Gold,” and “Yer Drunk Again / Polka Diablo.” And who else would dare to entitle a live album “Wankin’ Out West”?

Richard Thompson

Whether with his ex-wife Linda Thompson, Fairport Convention, or solo, Richard Thompson seems unstoppable, putting out album after album of memorable lyrics backed by equally memorable guitar work. I can’t begin to list the number of classic songs he wrote, but they include, “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” “I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight,” “Pharaoh,” “When I Get to the Border,” and others far too numerous to list. Amnesia is his most memorable album.

The Corries

The Corries were Roy Williamson and Ronnie Browne. Starting in the mid-1960s, The Corries showed a new generation that folk music didn’t have to be stiff and boring. For many people, especially in The Society for Creative Anachronism, they were the first introduction to Scottish standards like “Johnny Cope” and “PrestonPans.” In-between such set pieces, they were also known to write parodies of Top 40 favorites. Ronnie Browne also wrote “Flower of Scotland,” which many people believe should be Scotland’s national anthem.

Maddy Prior

Best-known for her work with Steeleye Span, Prior is one of England’s leading folk singers, writing and performing modern songs and even reviving ballads and hymns from the eighteen century, as well as medieval religious ballads. Her original compositions include “The Sovereign Prince,” which compares Elizabeth I to jet-setting modern young women, “Commit the Crime,” “After the Death” and countless others. The Momento retrospective is probably the best sampling of her range, although her Silly Sisters albums with June Tabor are also worth tracking down.

Michelle Shocked

Michelle Shocked was introduced as a naif singer with The Texas Campfire Tapes. Then, shortly after her third album, she disappeared in a decade-long struggle to gain control of her own recordings. Recently, however, she has re-emerged, in control of her own music, releasing it the way she always wanted it to be heard, and proving herself as versatile, sly, and politically engaged as ever. Her best-known song is “Anchorage,” which was a minor hit, but almost anything she does is worth listening to. In one of her more recent songs, “I Think We Should See Other People,” she likens her relationship to the United States to that of a woman with an abusive husband. Short Sharp Shocked, Captain Swing, and her most recent album, Soul of My Soul, are among her most memorable albums.

Garnet Rogers

The younger brother of the better-known Stan Rogers (see below), in the years since his brother’s death, Garnet Rogers has carved out his own niche as a singer-songwriter. Although self-described as a Hulk Hogan lookalike, Rogers is known for intelligent, often heart-wrenching songs like “The Beauty Game,” “Small Victory,” “Frankie and Johnny,”and “Sleeping Buffalo,” many of which are chunks of life reminiscent of his brother’s best work without being in any way derivative. Unfortunately, none of his albums capture his on-stage banter, but Summer Lightning and Night Drive are good places to start.

Steeleye Span

Someone once compared Steeleye Span to a bus that people are constantly getting on and off. But whichever of its half dozen incarnations you happen across, it’s worth hearing – especially if Maddy Prior happens to be with them. Years ago, Steeleye Span showed that traditional songs were compatible with modern pop with songs like “Thomas the Rhymer,” and, if recent versions of the band are less well-known, they are equally worth listening to. You can start anywhere, but Live at Last and Storm Force Ten are typical of the group’s early days, while The Journey is a capsule history.

June Tabor

Nobody can compress a sense of suppressed melancholy and anger into a song like June Tabor. Now she is in her sixties, she has lost some of the range you can hear on the early Airs and Graces, but her ability to put across a song is stronger than ever on Ragged Kingdom, her newly-released collaboration with Oysterband. Listening to her, you get a sense of someone who has suffered emotionally and emerged stronger from the ordeal, leaving an undefinable sense of sadness and anger. Tabor doesn’t write her own material, but shows her exquisite taste in such pieces as “The King of Rome,” a song about a racing pigeon; “Aqaba,” which concerns the last moments of Lawrence of Arabia, and “Hard Love,” a love song about not expressing what you are feeling. Tabor isn’t always easy to listen to, but she’s always unforgettable. “Aqaba” and “Angel Tiger” are two of her strongest albums.

Ray Wylie Hubbard

Ray Wylie Hubbard is best-known as a Country and Western outlaw, due mainly to his early song, “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers.” The fact is, he is considerably more complex, mixing rock, the blues, and country into something strikingly unique. Who else would do a song like “Stolen Horses” about reincarnation and horse-stealing? Or a Southern Gothic like “This River Runs Red”? His other songs include slices of life like “Dallas After Midnight” and “Mississippi Flush.” Some of his most complex work was produced by Gurf Morlix, including the albums Growl and Eternal and Lowdown.

The Pogues

This is as close I get to popular music. The Pogues are Irish folk gone punk, with dozens of original songs, ranging from the upbeat “The Sick Bed of Cuchulain” to the surprisingly sentimental “A Rainy Night in Soho.” Much of their magic was due to the song-writing genius of Shane McGowan, but, sadly, his lapse into incoherence on stage also spelled the end of the group as a creative force; these days, they tour, but reocrd nothing new. Red Roses for Me, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and If I Should Fall from Grace with God are among their standout albums.

Stan Rogers

Frequently considered the greatest of Canadian folk singers, Stan Rogers became an instant legend when he died prematurely in a plane crash, apparently while trying to help other passengers. His songs are slices of Canadian life, explored region by region, boomed out in his strong baritone and – thanks largely to his brother Garnet – wonderfully arranged. His “Northwest Passage” is almost an unofficial Canadian anthem, while his “Barrett’s Privateers” is believed by many to be traditional. “Live in Halifax” gives a sense of what his concerts were like, while some of his best work can be found on From Fresh Water, Northwest Passage, and Fogarty’s Cove.

Utah Phillips

If you are interested in labor history as expressed through songs, you don’t need to look any further than Utah Phillips. Without him, songs like “We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years” and “Where the Fraser River Flows” would be all but lost. His own songs, like “All Used Up,” “Eddy’s Song,” and “Enola Gay” are equally powerful. A strong voice in telling the forgotten labor history of North America, Phillips was also an unparalleled story-teller, as collections like The Moscow Hold and The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, his collaboration with Ani DiFranco, clearly show. The four CD collection, Starlight on the Rails is the perfect place to become acquainted with his work.

Leon Rosselson

Imagine Flanders and Swan with leftist political beliefs, and you have a dim idea of what Leon Rosselson is like. With anti-monarchist songs like “On Her Silver Jublilee” and the anti-Christian “Standup for Judas,” Rosselson constantly expressed views that were far from mainstream, attacking hypocrisy with comic exaggeration and a strong sense of the ridiculous. Songs of his like “That’s Not the Way It’s Got to Be” and “The World Turned Upside Down” have become activist anthems (in fact, you can hear them being sung by the Occupy supporters). Much of his best work was done with Roy Bailey, and can be found on his just-released retrospective, The World Turned Upside Down.

OysterBand

Originally a dance band, Oysterband are known today for their consummate live performances and strong song-writing abilities. Their sensibility is definitely left wing, but their music comes first. Having recently celebrated their thirtieth anniversary together, Oysterband has over thirty albums to their credit, ranging from the hard rock sound of The Shouting Edge of Life to the acoustic sound of Deep Dark Ocean. Their collaborations with June Tabor, Freedom and Rain and Ragged Kingdom, are memorable as collaborations that are more than the sum of their extraordinary parts.

If I expanded this group to thirty, I could include many other artists to whom I frequently listen – to name a few, Attila the Stockbroker, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Pete Morton, Kirsty MacColl, Lorenna McKennitt, Sileas, and Tommy Sands.

But the fifteen I mention here are the ones I return to most often. Over the years, they have relaxed and sustained me, relaxed and entertained and moved me. Without them I wouldn’t be who I was, and, looking at them, you can get a sense of exactly who I am, should you happen to care.

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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.

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Do you get the sense of history repeating,
Have you made the same mistakes again?
Can’t you see me smiling in the bathroom mirror?
It’s a greeting from the beast within.
– Oysterband, “Walking Down the Road with You”

Over the years, Oysterband has provided some of my more memorable concert experiences. A few days after hearing their rocked-up version of an old Morris song, I heard them in a pack-to-the-limits concert at the Savoy. I’ve heard them shake the mirrors at the Commodore, and, on one especially memorable occasion with June Tabor at the Plaza of Nations, where they ended by covering the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” complete with dry ice. Having missed them last year when they were in town, I wasn’t about to miss them this year.

Saints are drawn to the desert,
Moths to the candle flame,
You know there’s going to be trouble,
But you go there just the same.
– Oysterband, “Meet you there”

Rock (so far as the term has any meaning any more) is supposed to be a young person’s music, but you wouldn’t know that by the band or the crowd. Bass player Chopper (who I persist in thinking of as the new member of the band although he has been playing in it for decades) is solidly into middle-age, and drummer Dil Davies, the real newcomer, is hardly into middle-age at all, but the three originals band members must each be hovering a year or two on either side of sixty. Guitar player Alan Prosser looks leaner than in earlier years, violinist Ian Telfer more like a bearded Scottish sailor than the Presbyterian elder or aging punk of previous visits, while John Jones looked like he dyes his hair, but all of them looked immensely fit and focused. As for the crowd, it varied from ten to seventy year olds, with the median age somewhere in the mid-fifties.

The spirit of a troubled life
Is all I have to give to you,
The simple curse of a wayward life
Is all that I can bring to you.
-Oysterband, “Over the Water”

The first half of the night was dedicated to recent albums. In fact, the first three or four songs songs were the opening tracks of Meet You There, the band’s latest album of new material, which is some of the strongest twenty minutes of folk rock I’ve heard in years. Starting with “Over the Water,” the band quickly moved on to “Meet You There,” “Walking Down the Road with You,” and “Here Comes the Flood,” which I’ve always thought was an apt summary of the band members’ generation of Brits, as well as their free-thinking leftist politics.

I haven’t prayed since God knows when,
My teeth are unAmerican,
Socialism’s orphan child,
Unimpressed, unreconciled,
Some people think I’m crazy, but I’m not:
Here comes the Flood.

– Oysterband, “Here Comes The Flood”

The rest of the fifty minutes was filled out with material from other recent albums, as well as John Jones’ signature song, “Native Son.”

For I was born to tell the truth and run,
Remember me, remember me,
It was all for love, the crazy things I’ve done,
Remember me, I’m still your native son.
-Oysterband, “Native Son”

People were dancing by the third song, and nine out of ten bands (if not ninety-nine of one hundred) would have counted the first set as a success. Oysterband never seems to have forgot that it started thirty years ago as a dance band, because it never fails to orchestrate its playlist, building the energy and alternating fast numbers with just the right number of slow ones, while encouraging the audience to sing the choruses (although, with last night’s partisan crowd, I suspect that the audience could have song all the songs with the band if given the chance).

Maybe we don’t know right from wrong,
Maybe we don’t know what we’re here for,
Maybe it’s time to sing along:
This is an uncommercial song.
-Oysterband, “Uncommercial Song”

However, the first set didn’t quite reach the highest level of energy that the Oysters are capable of, and I suspect that the band was aware of it and spent the interval overhauling its playlist. When the band took over the stage for the second set, its members had plainly come prepared to do battle with their own expectations of themselves. Without waiting to be announced, they launched into Meet You There’s “Dancing as Fast as I Can.”

You can trust in the power of music,
You can trust in the power of prayer,
But it’s only the white of your knuckles
That’s keeping this plane in the air.”
– Oysterband, “Dancing as Fast as I Can”

Then, barely leaving room for applause between songs, it dove into a history of its own career – one inspired, I suspect, by the recent re-recordings of some of its past songs to commemorate its thirtieth anniversary. Much of the material was political and social commentary, and all of it hard-driving musically. Audience participation, already high, rose even higher, orchestrated by a grinning John Jones.

In the middle of a good time,
Truth gave me her icy kiss,
Look around, you must be joking,
All that way for this?
-Oysterband, “All That Way for This”

I seem to remember the energy at previous Oysterband concerts rising even higher than it did last night. But if the first set was more than most groups could aspire to, the second set was one that most couldn’t imagine. By the time the band returned for an acoustic version of “Put Out the Lights,” both the musicians and the crowd were happily exhausted, and more than content to call it a night.

Everywhere that I have been,
Leaves its message on my skin,
So many prophecies and signs,
So little time, so little time.
– Oysterband, “Put Out the Lights”

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