John Jones, the charismatic lead singer of award-winning Oysterband, has been an avid walker for many years. 'I had the crazy idea of walking to gigs a few years ago and somehow managed to persuade reluctant musicians and a smiling but sceptical agency to help. Rushing from gig to gig, crowded motorways, increased stress levels and time wasted staring out of tour bus windows at inviting hills rolling by just made me think: walking 20 miles, setting up in a pub, church, canalside…anywhere…was worth trying as a much-needed alternative. It caught people's imagination...'
Seven years on from that first occasion when John led a group of walkers and musicians from his home on the Welsh Borders, and, as he proudly informs us tonight, now more than 1000 miles covered, tonight's show is the culmination of three days in the northern part of the Lake District, based near Blencathra, just east of Keswick, and a return to Threlkeld, the location of the highly successful 2015 walks and concert.
Tonight, John was supported by regular Reluctant Ramblers, Al Scott guitar, mandolin & vocals, Rowan Godel guitar & vocals, Tim Cotterell fiddle & mandolin, Lindsey Oliver double bass & vocals and guest Nick Passmore bouzouki, all of whom had not only performed at Thursday evening's 'Session in The Sally' and as The Relucant Ramblers Ceildih Band the previous night but had also participated in the walking too.
The set was taken mainly from John's solo output, with the cobwebs blown off eight tracks from his September 2015 release, Never Stop Moving, four from Rising Road and two from the most recent Oysterband offering Diamonds on the Water. In keeping with tradition, Tim, Rowan and Lindsey were also given opportunities to perform separately as part of the show.
Explaining that sometimes the landscape informs the music and influences the songs, John introduced The Wanderer as being one such song, inspired by the Wiltshire Ridgeway and White Horse. It would be difficult to think of a more appropriate opening number, (although just on title alone Rambling Boys Of Pleasure might also fit the bill), and the capacity audience showed that they were clearly up for the evening, belting out the chorus with great gusto from the outset.
The two Oysterband tracks followed, with Spirit of Dust featuring some excellent fiddle playing from Tim and beautiful harmonies from Rowan. Humour is never far away at a RR gig, and the recounting by John of a tale based around walking through an ancient farmyard and studiously closing a gate, as good Ramblers are wont to do, only to be shouted at by an old woman berating him with a 'don't close that bloody gate', (noted as almost certainly the first time in recorded history of a request to keep a country gate open), served as a fine introduction to No Ordinary Girl, the girl in question being part real and part imaginery, and a reflection of John's stated interest in flawed beauty.
Due to other commitments, regular Reluctant Ramblers, Boff Whalley and Benji Kirkpatrick were unable to participate this time around, although Boff's message, complete with Enid Blyton spoof, 'The Resolute Ramblers tucked into their hot, buttered scones', meant that he was at least present in spirit, and who knows, there might indeed also be a place for 'Recreant Ramblers.'
Down By The Lake followed, a tragic tale of an incident with a gun, delivered in a gentle, lilting manner which fully allowed the poignancy of the lyrics to be fully appreciated. A fine set of tunes delivered enthusiastically by Tim, and an emotively delivered Songbird from Rowan led us into the first track from Rising Road. Harking back to the days when Radio 4 would issue messages relating to missing people, the social media of its time, Henry Martin is a haunting song written by John, 'Henry Martin, of no fixed abode, believed to be travelling with his girlfriend Maria', and tonight featuring a stunning fiddle solo from Tim.
Threlkeld lies in the shadow of Bencathra, and John would have us believe that 80% of the locals have never ventured to its summit, leaving that to the mad tourists, (and Ramblers). Bemoaning the fact that 'It's hard to live in the place where you were born….a man from the city has bought these hills where we played as kids and wander still', Ghosts Of The Village was an apposite offering, albeit with a potentially optimistic outcome, 'But maybe the time is coming when … the ghosts of the village will rise, will rise again.'
Following a well-received contribution from Lindsey, we enjoyed a fine rendition of the traditional Searching For Lambs, one of the oldest traditional English songs in the RR repertoire, which ended the first set, and gave time for both purchasing CDs and a massive amount of drinking during the break.
The second half of the gig began with the compelling Never Stop Moving, John's vocal line superbly augmented by Rowan's harmonies before giving way to Al's guitar introduction to John's Litten Tree composition, another track from Rising Road.
Rowan's fine vocal style was once more apparent as she again took centre stage, before being rejoined by the full band for the final track of the evening taken from Rising Road. Rocks Of Bawn concerns a very difficult strip of land that the farmer expects the farm worker to work, and reflects an underlying feature of the music from this CD which is rooted in a love of landscape, following pathways both ancient and modern. Rarely have the words 'soft turnips' been sung so soulfully.
A distinct change of tempo followed as the band performed the great English-Australian song about someone being transported for a trivial crime, and his subsequent wreaking of vengeance, Jim Jones. Am I the only one who thinks that Al's chugging introduction sounds like Bryan Adams? In another recent review I referred to great versions of this song by Bob Dylan, Martin Carthy and Jim Causley, tonight's rendition is definitely now the moose's antlers as far as I am concerned.
The melancholic mournful Ferry Man was greatly enhanced by some haunting bass from Lindsey, and I imagine that the British Stone Skimming Championships cannot have been name-checked too often at a live music event. John then once again gave centre-stage over to others, with first Lindsey displaying her versatility with voice and guitar and then guest Nick Passmore joining Tim for another set of tunes, which again had the feet and hands of the audience working overtime, tapping and clapping.
The final two songs of the evening, (prior to an inevitable encore), were John's arrangement of the traditional Banks of Newfoundland, before She Wrote Her Name Today, a song of hope inspired by the story of a girl coming out of a coma, the driving beat of which had, by this time, many of the assembled throng out of their seats and dancing.
As an encore Talking Heads' Road To Nowhere continued the party atmosphere. From the Hi Vista Community Hall to the Threlkeld Village Hall is a mighty long road for this song, and a fitting way to end not only the evening, but the three days of RR activity.
The enduring and distinctive nature of John's voice, the synergy of the assembled musicians delivering songs crafted by surely one of the most accomplished songsmiths of the day ensured a beautifully balanced evening, and for many, the next walking tour and associated musical offerings cannot come too soon.
David Pratt, words and pic
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