Pizza On The Park, London 23 April 2007
“A cause for national rejoicing,” exclaims the Oysterband’s front man John Jones whilst setting the scene for a rare Oysterband acoustic event. It’s St. George’s Day. What could be more celebratory than an (a) to (d) where
(a) is toasting England’s patron saint;
(b) is England’s national bard, Wm. Shakespeare’s birthday;
(c) is Boris Yeltsin’s exit from the Russian stage; and
(d) is an Oysterband unplugged bash at an upmarket pizza parlour on the wrong side of a Royal Park?
Over the course of their set, the Oysters conjure a little token religion, some socialism, the spirit of New Jerusalem and a buzz-saw cross-cut of culture, ancient of modern. Over the course of the evening, they really hit the parts that needing hitting.
For me, over 25 years, several incarnations and in many lands, the Oysters have revealed themselves as capable and incapable of many things. As my silver-backed friend Mike Kamp of Germany’s guerrilla folk magazine Folker! has observed of things that will not happen, the Oysterband will never land a great big hit. Mind you, that is so far off their agenda to be risible. Kamp’s point hinges more on the psychology and motivation of their music-making. If this gig had been designed as a promotional device to sell their 2007 album, Meet You There, one must say that the Pizza On The Park would have been shite. (Pardon quaint English vulgarity.) What they did was promote Meet You There’s songs. And there is a big difference.
What this gig revealed was the Oysters’ horse in the locomotive. As ever, the Oysterband was John Jones (lead vocals, squeeze box), Chopper (cello, guitar, harmonica), Lee Partis (percussion box etc), Alan Prosser (guitar) and Ian Telfer (violin). Everyone sings. “Horse in the locomotive” is a piquant expression (here with added mollusc Dada), appropriated from a book by George Ryle. Mind you, Arthur Koestler appropriated Ryle’s “ghost in the machine” (though we never mentioned that shite Koestler’s name again in the house after that midwife toad business erupted). Here it refers to the Oysterband’s inherent power not being reliant on technology or amplification. That is, to this mind, the hard selling point of Meet You There. Here Comes The Flood, Bury Me Standing (an image of Roma persecution and burial derived from Isabel Fonseca and turned into song) and, most especially, Where The World Divides with its harmonies revealed the horse in particular.
Stripping away the crunch of full-tilt power can also reveal what is lacking. Chopper’s English Civil War drama, The Puritan - a song that didn’t make Meet You There - came across as a demo or a work-in-progress. The lyric is in search of a paring; its arrangement needs sharper focusing. Singling it out is no especial criticism. Songs need essaying and try-outs in public before shape and confidence synchronise. Most of the new songs emerged as really sturdy. The song that really flew for me was Bells of Rhymney. It figures, Jones confided, in an upcoming BBC Radio 4 documentary about that song [Note: Huw Williams’ The Sad Bells of Rhymney was first broadcast on Tuesday, 12 June 2007]. As they played the song made so familiar by, amongst others, Pete Seeger and the Byrds, a lateral thinking process kicked in. As they performed the song, as clear as anything, a three-movement Hindustani version ran in my head in teentāl (16-beat rhythm cycle) which moved through a sequence of tempi from vilambit (slow) to madhyalay (medium) to drut (fast). Just free-fall associating, but a sign that what the Oysters were doing was lubricating and stimulating the mental juices.
This next thing may sound like a backhanded compliment. It isn’t intended to be. For decades I have tried to crack the Oyster Band/Oysterband code, never quite completely succeeding, but staying intrigued enough to continually return to experience what is going on and to partake of the experience through drought and plenty. I don’t want the mysteries to dry up and with Meet You There they have entered a fresh green period. Check out Meet You There: it is the self-inflicted kick up the arse they were long capable and incapable of.
PS By the way, I lied about Nikolayevich Yeltsin (1931-2007). Nobody mentioned him all night.
For Oysterish updates go to http://www.oysterband.co.uk/
Pictures by Judith Burrows.
For more information about Judith Burrows visit www.flarefilms.co.uk