Off to Cape Breton for Oysterband
I have just returned from a whirlwind trip to Sydney, Nova Scotia–a trip in which I spent 21 of 36 hours driving–to see a concert by the Oysterband.
I’ve been telling everyone that this is my all-time-favorite band no one has ever heard of. Which, of course, is not quite right, as they have been busily playing in Europe and Canada for more than thirty years, and have released that many albums and CDs in that time. Sadly, though, here in the U.S., they have been flying under most people’s radar since the late ’70s. In fact, when I crossed the U. S./Canadian border at Houlton early on Friday morning, two hours into my ten-hour drive, I had to explain my business in Canada to the agent as “attending an Oysterband concert in Sydney, Nova Scotia.”
“Blue Oyster Cult?” he asked. I told him no, the Oysterband. “Never heard of them,” he said, then cocked his head. “All the way to Sydney, Nova Scotia for a group nobody knows.” And he laughed. But then, so did I, because the joke was on him, after all.
When I first heard the Oysterband–thanks to sportswriter and music aficionado Tommy Shea, who introduced me to their songs after hearing a piece I wrote about my friend Lowell Oyster attempting to teach me to play ukulele (very long story there)–I was horrified to realize they’d been playing for all those years and I had been ignorant of them for most of that time. However, I’ve done my best to make up for that ignorance. Tommy sent me a CD of songs he’d downloaded from iTunes, which he’d labeled “The Best of/Sort of the Oysterband.” He’d included nineteen pieces he thought I’d need to hear in order to understand the ethos and evolution of the band. These included “The Oxford Girl” with its wonderful bass line; “The Curragh of Kildare” which has become my internal springtime soundtrack; “When I’m Up,” which has got to be one of the most fun songs to sing ever; and one which has become my personal favorite, as I’m always a sucker for a good ballad, “The Story,” which opens with an absolutely beautiful acoustic guitar. I fell immediately in love with the instrumentation–acoustic guitar, electric guitar, cello, violin, mandolin, melodeon, harmonica, drums–but John Jones’ voice, lovely, full and tenorish–my belting range exactly!–was what really hooked me. How could I not love a voice that invited me to sing along? How could I not love this band?
And so, my love affair with the Oysterband. Since Tommy Shea’s gift, I have purchased many more of their CD’s, and pored over their website, hoping that someday they’d perform at a venue near me. It seemed wishful thinking, as most of their North American tours seemed to concentrate on western Canada. Then I stumbled upon the Nova Scotia dates. I scored a ticket for the Membertou venue in Sydney, where there would be cabaret seating. I could not find anyone else who a) had a passport; b) could get off work; c) had ever heard of these guys; or d) any combination of the three. Thus I was forced to screw my courage to the sticking place and take off at 4 a.m. Friday by myself. The advice of my great friends Brenda and Becky rang in my ears: sit in the front. Talk to the band members. Buy the merchandise and use it as an intro. (Brenda, as Brenda Prescott Coordinates LLC, works with performing artists; Becky has had stints with the Maine Arts Commission, the Portland Concert Association, and Maine Arts, Inc. These are women who know how to schmooze.)
Doors open at 7 for 8:30 show.
I was there in plenty of time to join the small group at the door of the Membertou Trade and Convention Center. In fact, I was there in time for the sound check, which was easy to hear from the Kluskap Room. I fell into conversation with one woman, Terri, who lived in Sydney and had never heard of the Oysterband until someone had given her a ticket, and we decided to sit together–front table center. I grabbed the chair nearest the stage and turned it right around: cabaret? Who cares? I’m afraid by this time I was a raving lunatic, telling her far more than she wanted to hear about my favorite band that she knew nothing about, until finally we ordered drinks; she got onion rings, I’m sure in the hope that food would shut me up. We were joined at the table by six more strangers, none of whom had heard of the band until they bought tickets, though the youngest of them had looked up one song on YouTube (he couldn’t remember which one, but he rather liked it).
All this anticipation: how can a person bear such a thing? Obviously, by raving about the upcoming performers to a table full of strangers. When the band was at last introduced, and launched into their first song, “Walking Down the Road with You,” I knew indeed that Cape Breton was heaven on earth. The seat was perfect, the acoustics great, the lighting intimate, the dry ice machines to the back of the stage adding just that bit of mystery. The Oysterband: John Jones, in his customary black clothes and dark glasses, Chopper in a dark suit, Dil in a trademark camo tee-shirt, Alan Prosser comfortable in jeans…and Ian Telfer, perched on a high stool, right leg in a soft cast as a result of rupturing an achilles tendon in Denmark, we were informed. The first several songs were ones I knew by heart, and I will be the first to tell you that I sang with wild abandon. By the time they played “Here Comes the Flood,” from Meet You There, I could see Terri out of the corner of my eye, bopping along, tapping her feet. When John invited everyone to sing along to the chorus, the atmosphere in the entire room was changed and charged: these people, who had not known the Oysterband at all, were won over. When both John and Chopper left the stage and came down onto the floor to shake hands (mine first–I’d picked the right seat, Brenda), it was electric.
They played two sets. In the break between, my new friend Terri went to the merch table for a CD. “They’re really good,” she told me. The young man at our table bought a concert DVD. His aunt asked me the name of “that song about socialism,” and what CD that was on. I suggested a bunch of videos that have recently shown up on YouTube of a concert at Union Chapel in London. I had already bought my CD, The Oxford Girl and Other Stories, and had my sharpie for autographs, should the occasion arise.
The second set began with my new favorite, “Over the Water,” from Meet You There. This was a faster set, with one song frequently segueing into another, and less patter in between. It was over far too soon, and when they left the stage, it was to a standing ovation. Of course, they had to come back, as they had left Ian Telfer onstage, since he was unable to get to his crutches. John Jones claimed they weren’t in fact coming back for an encore, but only to collect one of their band members, whom they had forgotten–but they played three more songs. For the last (which John introduced by telling the audience it would be the last, after which they’d come out and have beers with us all), everyone save Ian, still stuck on his stool, came down offstage into the darkened auditorium. They unplugged their amplification, brought no microphones–were simply themselves: Alan with his acoustic guitar, Dil with a snare and brushes, Chopper with the cello. The song was the lovely “Put Out the Lights,” done quietly and sweetly, to end an evening in which, in their first time playing in Cape Breton, the Oysterband, my all-time-favorite band no one has ever heard of, came away with a new crowd of devoted fans. None quite as devoted as I am, however.
The members of the Oysterband did come down to us when the concert was done, and perhaps half of the attendees stayed to talk and have a beer. I took my merchandise, as Brenda had instructed, and used it to pave my way to conversation. It also helped, I think, that I was able to speak to each of them by name and throw out the ten-hour drive as proof of my fandom. In fact, when John signed my copy of The Oxford Girl and Other Stories, he wrote “What a journey!” on the cover.
True, in so many ways. Dil Davies was so impressed by my devotion that he had to shake my hand straight away. It was at this point I suggested I’d be a stalker if only it wasn’t so long a drive, and if only, as a person visiting Canada solo for 24 hours, I wouldn’t be getting my car stripped and searched on the way back into the U.S. John concurred with me that getting into the U.S. was more difficult than getting into Canada, as he’d had his belongings tossed by U.S. Customs before as well. Nevertheless, he suggested vaguely, perhaps at some point they’d play a show closer to my home than ten hours away. Somehow I fell into conversation with Ian Telfer about crutches, as I had only got off my own two weeks previously: he agreed that it was rather like doing push-ups all day. With Chopper and Alan Prosser, I was able to express my gratitude for their inclusion of “Over the Water” in their playlist; Chopper begins and ends that song with the haunting playing of an African instrument, a kind of thumb drum. Not bad for a shy person meeting her favorite group for the first time.
As I left, they told me to drive carefully. For some reason, people seemed to think that was funny.
And the good news is that when I recrossed the U.S. border on Saturday, this time at Calais, the Customs officer asked me if I had any purchases to declare…so I flashed her my autographed CD from the concert.
“What band is that?” she asked.
“The Oysterband,” I replied deliriously. “They’re British and never play around here.”
“Blue Oyster Cult?”
“No, the Oysterband.”
“Never heard of them.”
Her loss. Her very great loss.
And then she waved me through.