Thursday, November 10, 2011

All Tomorrow's Celidahs

June Tabor and the Oysterband
St Georges Bristol
Nov 1 2011

One reaches for words like "statuesque" and "stark" to describe June Tabor. Once one has exhausted ones like "wonderful" and "astonishing." There's often something cross in her delivery; as if the bonny bunch of roses-oh is telling off young Bonaparte for his silly idea of conquering Europe. (What. A. Great. Song. "O, son, look at your father for in St Helena his body lies low /And you may follow after, so beware /Of the Bonny bunch of roses”.) She plants herself on stage, head on one side, and then comes to life and declaims at the audience. She doesn’t do her thing of reciting poems between songs tonight, but her spiels often sound like recitations. She says that she chooses songs for their words and their imagery before their melody. Whether it's the teenage girl who wishes she’d listened to her mother (“But if I had kenned what I no ken / and taken my mummy’s bidding oh / I would no’ be sitting by our fireside / Crying hush to my babby-oh”) or the sailors saying fairwell to their Captain, she has an empathy with the characters in the songs. Even the utterly bizzarre pagan Christian thang about the Kent farmer who names his smallest bonfire after Judas Iscariot. (She’s good at different dialects.) She has great respect for the source singers, and never approaches songs ironically (in the way that Jon Boden or Jim Causely arguably do). She introduces a sentimental Easter carol about the Virgin mourning her son with the matter of fact observation: "Gypsys are very religious people; today many of them are born-again Christians".

The pairing with the Oysterband is not an obvious one; perhaps. She is minimalist, narrativist, a voice which is expressive and dramatic rather than beautiful. They are at the rocky end of folk rock, drums and guitars as well as fiddles and squeeze boxes. She wears a dramatic open buttoned long red coat and stands at the front of the stage; with aging folkies in eighties suits behind her. The one acts almost as a counter melody to the other, as if the Oysters are riffing off the meldoy of Bonny Bunch of Roses or My Captain Calls and June's stripped down singing is hovering in front of it.

There are points where it doesn't perfectly come off. The words of June's ballad about the man who pretends to be dead so that his lover, who won't answer his letters, will have to come to his funeral gets slightly lost in the arrangement (we were, admittedly, towards the back of the auditorium.) There's some cheeky non folky stuff, not all of which I get. June loves the Tradition, but she also loves Songs. On the record All Tommorrows Parties (which I understand to be by one Mr Underground) is dominated by June’s echoey voice, the instruments providing not much more than drum beat. Tonight there’s a more pointedly folkie instrumental. (“We have our own Nico, who can actually sing”). It stands as a song, not as a pastiche. I wasn't sure if the show finishing White Rabbit (by a Mr Aeroplane) merrited its inclusion, except as a joke which everyone apart from me got. But by that point in the evening, everyone, including me, was eating out of the band’s hands to the extent that they could have sung Baa Baa Black Sheep and got a standing ovation. (Chris Wood sometimes sings One Man Went To Mow, come to think of it.)

But the songs. I can be at a gig, admiring the technique and enjoying the noise it makes, and then a song comes and punches me in the solar plexus. The first half ends on a barnstorming rendition of the practically obscene Bonny Suzie Cleland. The last time I heard this song, Alisdair Roberts whispered it to his guitar and left the audience genuinely horrified. Today, if you weren’t paying attention, the sweet refrain (“there lived a lady in Scotland / oh my love, oh my love / there lived a lady in Scotland / oh my love so early oh”) could be any ballad or any love song, and you are brought up short by where it goes “there lived in a lady in Scotland / she fell in love with an Englishman / and bonny Suzie Cleland’s to be burned-ed in Dundee.” The fiddle adds a sweet diddly-dee between the stanzas. This is an almost celidah version of a song about a woman being burned alive by her own family because she’s married “out”. But angry. None of the horror is lost. It’s in the story. And the tune. 

Her father dragged her to the stake 
Oh my love, oh my love 
Her father dragged her to the stake
Oh my love so early oh 
Her father dragged her to the stake
Her brothers the fire did make
And Bonny Suzie Cleland was burn-ed in Dundee

And then in the second half, June quits the stage and leaves the Oysters to do The Bells of Rymney. Who could have guessed that this was going to be the evening’s climax? A decent enough song, Oranges and Lemons rewritten by a distinctly unjovial Welshman and set to music by Pete Seeger during his Union Sub-Comittee Agenda Blues phase? It outstays its welcome even when Robin Williamson warbles it, and my tolerance for Robin Williamson warbling is considerably greater than the next man’s. But here, the lyric, done pretty straight, competes with a raucus, twangy reggae-ish drum-led background racket. "Who made the mine owners says the black bell of Rhonda; and who killed the miners cries the grim bell of Bliamma?” Mr Seeger, being a folk singer, sang the poem, which is not exactly short, twice. Here it seems to stall or freeze on the first repeat. "Who killed the miners, say the grim bells of Blaimma. Who killed the miners. Who killed the miners.” This, rather than the second encore, was the point in the evenign where I felt like doing a spontaneous standing ovate.

And the last pre-encore number was Seven Curses; morphed from a whining lament into a rhythmical country hoe-down; with the final curses given multiple repeats. A lot like Phil Beer's fiddle cover of the same song now I come to think about it - is there, I wonder, an intermdiate version I don't know?

"So this is the Oysterband and June Tabor playing Bob Dylan, back together" said front man John Jones. "What could be better than that?" Well, quite.