Highbury’s Union Chapel has a history steeped in radical thought. The first people to use the site as a place of worship were nonconformists along with more conventional Anglican dissidents at the turn of the 18th Century. Over two hundred years on, the magnificent venue is still utilised in a similar fashion, utilising traditional means to express social dissatisfaction. June Tabor and Oysterband have attained almost canonical status within the modern folk world but Tabor in particular doesn’t shy away from political critiques during tonight’s performances, providing a sharp and prescient edge to an otherwise sublime performance.
Canterbury’s Oysterband have been in existence in one form or another since the late seventies and initially collaborated with Tabor on 1990’s Freedom And Rain, a magnificent melange of traditional and contemporary renditions. After a hiatus which puts Kevin Shields to shame, Oysterband and Tabor reunited in 2011 for the follow-up, Ragged Kingdom, which has garnered a slew of awards, coming away with three awards at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards amongst the myriad album of the year accolades. In fact, their award ceremony success has been so consistent, frontman John Jones lamented at the gig how March had been a “slow” month in terms of poll-wins, something the band are not used to of late.
June Tabor is safely established as Albion’s grande dame of folk interpretations, or, as she recalls a description elsewhere, “Polly Harvey‘s long lost folkie mother”. However, while the latter artist indulges herself with Great War narratives informing her work, Tabor’s approach seems to emanate from a far more distant time, removed from “modern phenomenon”, as she puts it.
Tabor attracted a reputation for dourness over the years; this is clearly not in evidence tonight as her effortless stage patter, ranging from aforementioned political outbursts, gentle digs at Richard Thompson and acceptance of her fame on a local level when her name appeared on (the late) Ceefax. And, of course, her voice was mesmerising, taking complete ownership of everything she sung, Tabor exerts an intense vocal timbre, emanating from the soil of the British Isles and the soul of our shared cultural past.
Aligned with the folk finesse and versatility of the Oysterband, this collaboration works wonderfully when it is the two acts in tandem. The traditional Scottish ballad Son David was executed with style and aplomb, Richard Thompson’s Night Comes In was performed in markedly different, and arguably better, style to the original while opener Bonny Bunch Of Roses is a delivered with a glam-like stomp, a suitably punchy backing for a song about the high hopes the Irish once held for the efforts of one Napoleon Bonaparte.
The night wasn’t entirely a look back at the far past; All Tomorrows Parties excelled with Tabor’s warm, earthy delivery running through rather than the ice-cold chill of Nico and Love Will Tear Us Apart also got an airing – a song one may have long past the realm of sheer over-exposure but tonight sounded magnificently brooding, reconstructed as a duet between Tabor and Jones, the frantic strumming of the original shorn to reveal the desperate melancholy within.
With the chapel itself an ideal setting for such an intense performance, the recent success of this folk reunion is both deserved and entirely unsurprising. While anybody with a broken heart and an acoustic guitar seems to be earning plaudits under the folk banner, it’s heartening and invigorating to witness the precision and skill of Old Masters at work.