On Oysterband at the Algonquin Theatre
The Algonquin Theatre in Huntsville, Ontario, was the final stop on Oysterband’s 3-week autumn tour of central and western Canada. It’s 13 hours away from home, trekking by car through Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Quebec, and finally, Ontario. Michael Schneider, a long-time Oyster fan who made the journey from Santa Fe, New Mexico, asked: Was is worth the drive there and back?
This is music that matters to me, written and performed from a sensibility which I share. I’m still distressed when I think of all those years Oysterband had been in existence and I didn’t know. Now I envision myself as a proselytizer, a voice crying out in the relative wilderness of my friends and acquaintances: you need to hear this! You need to pay attention! Oysterband delivers musicianship without equal (watch Alan Prosser’s fast and confident fingerings on that guitar; listen to Dil Davies’ drumming support and enhance the others’ playing–then listen to him afterwards discuss how he works to play more musically in terms of dynamics and intensity). Their lyrics move from the traditional ballads, with all those haunting stories (“Molly Bond,” for instance, where the ghost of the fiancée young Jimmy accidentally shoots while hunting pleads his case before the judge), to the heartbreaking (“After Rain”: I saw your eyes grow dark/the color a cloudy sky goes/when it changes), to the slightly leftist (John Jones introduced “Here Comes the Flood” to Huntsville by explaining that the band does well in hard economic times, because they sing depressing and angry lyrics to happy tunes). Their range is extraordinary, which is not surprising when you consider that they’ve been honing their playing for thirty years. This is a band that matters.
Which is why, when I decided, back in July, that 13 hours driving would be no obstacle and bought that ticket, I thanked the box office attendant for booking the band. I only wish, as John Jones wished, that more people in the Huntsville area knew what I knew, and had come out for them. However, all the people in the theatre last Thursday night were fans by the end: it is impossible to see these men live and not have your breath taken away. That’s why I–and Michael from Santa Fe, and the couple he introduced me to from Wisconsin–keep coming back, no matter how far we have to go. That’s why we keep spreading the word. Pay attention!
What a show. The Algonquin Theatre, part of the Huntsville town offices complex, was wonderful, though there were a few moments of weird acoustics where the sound didn’t quite blend properly (perhaps that was just where I was sitting). However, when the lights rose, and Oysterband opened with the warm strange sound of Ray Cooper on the thumb piano leading into my favorite song from Meet You There, “Over the Water”–the show, as far as I was concerned, was off to the best possible start. The woman in the seat beside me told me she didn’t mind if I danced, as long as I didn’t mind if she sang–but I was the one singing. Loudly. Through the traditional pieces (“Blackwaterside,” “Molly Bond”), through the occasional cover (“The World Turned Upside Down,” “The Bells of Rhymney–oh, they make both of those so rousing, especially with Dil’s building and building and building crescendo on “Bells”), through all the originals (“Granite Years,” “Native Son” complete with John’s first verse in Welsh): that poor woman probably wished her ticket was for a seat far away from me. “Here Comes the Flood” is the song during which Ray and John have, in recent years, come down into the audience to do a sort of meet-and-greet while singing; unfortunately, the mic cords and the height of the stage and the positioning of stairs at stage right and left all made that impossible at the Algonquin. While I adore “Street of Dreams,” especially Ian Telfer’s spirited fiddling, in my head, I always hear Rowan Godel’s voice navigating that river of sound (listen to the version from Holy Bandits if you have no idea what I mean). “Walking Down the Road with You” is a song written by Alan Prosser that my son claims is “disturbing”; well, yeah. The perennial fan favorite in Canada appears to be “When I’m Up, I Can’t Get Down,” though sadly, that’s primarily because of the cover version by Canadian band Great Big Sea–Oysterband’s version (I think I actually have four or five different Oyster versions around here) will always be the version I prefer. It was also fun to hear “Not Like Jordan”–I’ve not heard that live–after seeing a video Oysterband had made of that song while crossing to Salt Spring Island during the far western leg of this tour.
The final song of the program of two sets was, as it has been for a while, “Put Out the Lights.” The five unplugged, came out onto the proscenium, and performed the song to a hushed and breathless house. This is always a magic moment: the very moment when it’s obvious that Oysterband has once again captured a houseful. Because it’s the last song, it makes me terrifically sad, though, because the show is done. Once again the magic is over, until I can figure out a way to get hooked up to this, my addiction, once again.
I stayed in Huntsville with a couple I had never met until that night, Marg and Jeremy, who are friends of Lesley, another rabid Oysterband fan I met this summer on John Jones’s White Horses Walk. What a couple of days of controlled hilarity! I am so glad we met. Marg and I are already planning some further adventures, involving attempting to speak French while driving around the heartland of Canada with a Newfie in the back seat of the car.
The after-show hilarity in the dressing room was also perfect in every way. I’m in love with those men’s brains.
I know nothing of Dil Davies’ Porter & Davies Bum Chum, save what he explained to me Thursday night about how it allows the bass drum’s vibrations to travel up the spine and into the inner ear, so the drummer feels the sound he is unable to hear. I think I know what that means. However, though I am a trumpeter and not a drummer, if, as Dil says, this is a piece of percussion equipment which helps a drummer play more musically, you may consider this my unqualified endorsement.