On Oysterband at Ferneham Hall
It’s the beginning of the festival season. Oysterband made their first British appearance of this new season at the Gosport and Fareham Easter Festival, as the headline act on Saturday night, April 23rd. I had a ticket, having ordered it from Ferneham Hall back in January. Even then, the best they could do for me was a seat in the next-to-last row in the house: they had sold out that quickly.
I’m a relatively late comer to the Oysterband fan base. Because I live in a place where the market is so small and is dominated by commercial music radio stations, I have to rely on wonderful friends such as Brenda Prescott (of Brenda Prescott Coordinates, a creative management company) and Tommy Shea (a newspaper columnist and music aficionado) to turn me on to great music played on the edge of that market. Tommy gave me the Oysters several years ago, and he has impeccable taste. Last year I was able to attend an Oysterband concert in Sydney, Nova Scotia, a place where
the band was known but not well; this past week, when in the U.K., I was able to see them on their home turf. What a difference! The crowd at Fareham knew the band, knew the songs, and were fervently loyal. Oysterband has played Fareham on previous occasions, and it was more than obvious that there were few, if any, strangers in attendance. They were among friends.
Though my ticket was for someplace way the heck up back, during the opening act–Seven Little Sisters (new to me, but not to the Fareham natives who’d been around 14 years previously)–I went down on the floor. By the time the second act, John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett, took the stage, I had found a place nearly up to the front (I’d heard some Otway & Barrett before, but they were well worth seeing in person). Thus, when the featured attractions accompanied themselves on their march out from stage left, I was in nearly the perfect position.
The set Saturday night was heavy on selections from Meet You There (though no “Over the Water,” sadly), including “Here Comes the Flood,” a song during which John Jones and Chopper, so I’ve read, frequently come down into the audience. They did it in Sydney, and they did it at Fareham as well, this time jumping down from the stage and parting the audience like the proverbial Red Sea. This is when I realized my near perfect position: two people over from the path they’d made for themselves. At the end of the song, Chopper leapt back up onto the stage; when John thought better of it, someone over to my right kept shouting about letting the old git up the stairs. It was a friendly teasing…and was reciprocated when John introduced, later in the program, “Molly Bond” as a song from Step Outside, though the audience wouldn’t know that because so few had bought the CD. I took it as simply more evidence of how comfortable the audience and the band seemed with each other. (By the way…I bought that CD. Just not in 1986.)
The playlist for this concert was also far more political than the one in Sydney–perhaps again a function of this show being on home ground. The politics espoused by Oysterband, though, are very close to my own: they introduce themselves in advertisements as slightly left, slightly green. When John Jones prefaced songs by voicing his–their–stance, there was much murmured agreement from the audience–myself included, as the U.K. and U.S. governments have been in each other’s pockets for much of the foreign and economic policies of the past many years. Songs such as “On the Edge,” “Here Comes the Flood” and “The World Turned Upside Down” came out angry, which is a mode that (as anyone listening to CDs from the Thatcher years knows) Oysterband does well. By the same token, “The Bells of Rhymney” was belted out so furiously that, where I was standing, I was showered in Dil Davies’ sweat (ew?).
Another great aspect of the show at Fareham was the chance to see Oysterband electrified. The Sydney, Nova Scotia concert was aimed heavily toward promoting The Oxford Girl and Other Stories, and was a show where, as the advertising posters read, “Oysterband deconstruct their sound to reveal its acoustic heart.” Though there were some acoustic selections from The Oxford Girl… at Ferneham Hall, there were equally as many songs in the program that featured Alan Prosser’s electric lead and Chopper’s bass. “Blood Wedding,” for example, is an extremely rowdy piece (the original recording features much shouting in the background and raucous singing at the refrain) and the electric guitars were wailing Saturday night.
With one line-up or another, this is a band that’s been cultivating a loyal following for thirty years or so. Saturday’s concert was yet another link in the connection they’ve been forging in all that time. When the Oysters closed out the evening at Ferneham Hall, as they did last year in Sydney, by unplugging and coming down onto the floor with us to sing “Put Out the Lights,” I watched them intently, and sang along with one of the sweetest songs I know; but I watched the audience around me, too. People swayed gently…a woman across the way had her eyes closed and her hands clasped under her chin…a kind of hush fell over everyone: an attempt to prolong a wonderful evening we all knew was drawing to its inexorable close. Then the members of Oysterband parted the crowds and marched their way out of the hall through the back.
Last year I drove ten hours for an Oysterband concert. This time I drove two hours, rode in a bus for two hours, flew on a plane for seven hours, and took a train for two more hours. I may not be a fan of long standing timewise, but I will travel a long way to get to a show.
Stay tuned for more Oysterband, as Chopper was kind enough to speak to me on the afternoon before the show. And to buy me a pint of real ale, which was not supposed to be too mind-altering. Yeah. Right.