Individually, June Tabor and Oysterband have been two of the most important artists in British folk music of the last half century. The two first came together in 1990 with Freedom and Rain, an album which combined Oysterband’s folk-rock stylings with Tabor’s distinctive vocals on a set covering everyone from American singer-songwriter Si Khan, to The Pogues, to the Velvet Underground, along with a number of traditional tunes. What looked for many years to be a one-off release was finally followed in 2011 with Ragged Kingdom, a record which continued the mix of traditional folk songs with covers like Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Bob Dylan’s “Seven Curses.” They reunited again this year for a tour of the UK, the penultimate night of which brought them to a sold out show at the atmospheric Union Chapel in London.
Tabor and Oysterband opened the show strongly with a rocking version of “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” a traditional song about the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo. From there, the show continued with many of the highlights of the albums, including “Fountains Flowing” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” as well as several songs new to the group’s repertoire, “False True Love,” “I’ll Show You Wonders,” and “John Barleycorn.” At 71, Tabor’s voice is as strong as ever, and though her solo recordings often show a preference toward sparser arrangements, she proved equally at home with the six-piece band behind her. Oysterband singer and melodeon player John Jones dueted with her at times and provided backing vocals at others, occasionally taking the lead with an Oysterband song while Tabor took a break from the stage.
After an intermission, Oysterband returned to the stage with “Uncommercial Song” from their 2002 album Rise Above before being rejoined by Tabor for Richard Thompson’s “Night Comes In.” Highlights of the second set included covers of Si Khan’s “Mississippi Summer” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and an a cappella cover by Tabor of Les Barker’s irreverent version of Bill Staines’ “Roseville Fair” (featuring banjo-on-cranium violence that was missing from the original – no one can say that folkies don’t have a sense of humor). The band returned for a final encore of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Oysterband’s own “Put Out the Lights.”
In all, the show was an all-too-rare delight, and one that is unfortunately unlikely to be repeated. While there are currently no plans for another recorded collaboration, a “tour memento” CD featuring several of the new songs, titled Fire & Fleet, is available from Oysterband’s website.
June Tabor & Oysterband setlist
The Bonny Bunch of Roses Fountains Flowing False True Love A River Runs All Tomorrow’s Parties I’ll Show You Wonders Coal Not Dole/Bells of Rhymney (When I Was No But) Sweet Sixteen John Barleycorn
Uncommercial Song Night Comes In Son David Molly Bond Mississippi Summer Love Will Tear Us Apart Roseville Fair Walking Down the Road With You Susie Cleland Seven Curses