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February 13, 2003

Dancing in the Pews

Long-time readers will know that my favourite venue for live music is the Union Chapel at Highbury Corner. And that my favourite live band is the Oysterband.

On Saturday we went to see the Oysters at the Union Chapel. Obviously, what with the pews and stuff, it's not the sort of venue they normally play. But this wasn't an ordinary gig; the Big Session, with Eliza Carthy and a host of up-and-coming young talent, is intended to evoke the feeling of energy and cross-fertilisation of a fine pub session. The large audience appeared to be mixed between Oysterband fans, and Eliza Carthy fans, but with a noticable contingent of traditional folkies; presumably Waterson: Carthy fans.

The Oysterband opened with a couple of songs from Rise Above. But they quickly made clear the purpose of the night, changing the line-up between every song and showcasing the younger performers in turn. It's clear, both from what they said between songs and what they say on the website, that not all their fans are keen on this. But we thought it was great.

We've seen Rose Kemp before, of course; I think the first time we saw her live on stage must be getting on for five years ago now. I remember thinking then that her singing was somewhat immature; as she's 17 now, that's not surprising. She's singing well, and performing her own stuff; and she's confident and outgoing; one to watch.

But the person who startled us was Jim Moray, who'd been playing various instruments on earlier tracks. But to open his own section, he chose to perform "Lemady", sampling his voice as he went to provide an accompaniment on sampler and powerbook. "How superfluous!" said Flick, bouncing up and down. By the end of the song we were committed fans. He has an EP available, and the website has mp3 samples and a link to streaming video of his BBC Young Folk Award performance. (He lost out to a batch of cute toddlers who play their instruments nicely).

James O'Grady is a young piper who played with the Oysters when we saw them at the Marquee last autumn. He and Benji Kirkpatrick (guitar, bouzouki) both struck me as competent and energetic, and added greatly to the liveliness of the set; but neither look like stars in their own right.

The Oysters finished the first half with "Moon Over Milford Haven" ('we thought it was time to romanticise some British place names').

The first part of the second half showcased Eliza Carthy (who didn't appear at all in the first set), playing material from Anglicana, which feels like a mature return to traditional music, and which I'll buy. She also did "Fuse", backed by most of the band. "I also write my own songs; and I've read the rule book -- they're all miserable." Then everyone came on for a loud stompy song. A measure of how exciting this section was is that at the end, when most people retired, leaving the Oysterband on stage to do a couple of their songs, I was a bit disappointed.

After a couple more from Rise Above, everyone came back for the (first) finale; the expected anti-war rallying cry -- "Er, I suppose there must be some people in this country who are in favour of this war. Except that I don't know any of them. Everyone go to the march on the 15th. Or, that is, everyone who's not going to be coming to see The Big Session in Salisbury, go to the march" and a stomping version of 'All Along the Watchtower'. Encores were 'The World Turned Upside Down' and, er, something else. I have the second half of the set list, which says 'Put Out the Lights'. We do often get that as an encore in London, but not this time. And everyone finished with 'Bright Morning Star'.

It was terrific, from start to finish. If asked why I listen to traditional music, I could do no better than to point to this gig. Great singers, great musicians, terrific material, and a real sense that the event was being created right there in front of us. Thanks to the auspices of the Arts Council, tickets were 12. Cheap as chips, as they say on daytime telly.

Posted by Alison Scott at February 13, 2003 09:52 PM

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