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Oyster Band - A Basket of Oysters

J.J. Looking at it from slightly outside the Dram, they were the victims of their own commitment in that they didn’t compromise any of their ideas. They took Mike Warren around as a P.A. man, making it effectively a five-piece even when the four-piece couldn’t have made a living. They were trying to move into quite highly arranged, well rehearsed, big productions and whereas clubs would accommodate that now, perhaps, lots of them wouldn’t then.

I.T. No, and I don’t actually know what I feel about that music now. I think it was good… but perhaps it was also a little arty, a little too over-arranged for easy communication to live audiences in an informal setting. Not wishing to sound patronizing, but it was going over people’s heads – it was too complex and we were asking songs to do things they didn’t quite want to do. Some of them were eight or ten minute sequences built around ballads!

Oyster Band
Oyster Band 1982 Photo: Ian Anderson

So at some point Oyster Ceilidh Band and Fiddlers Dram were running in parallel. What made you go in the Oyster direction? Bearing in mind what you’ve just said, was it light relief!

I.T. Well John was interested in dance, he’d been involved with Morris and so forth in Exeter, and we met a lady who lived locally called Keris Bishop. Dixie Fletcher, who was the local folk mage at that point, wanted a dance band for a charity event – so we got together about thirteen people, a rough jamming thing. Keris sorted everybody’s A-sections out from their B-sections and their right and left-hand stars and it was fun. We then discovered that not only was it fun, but it was more fun if you did it better – and indeed that there was work to be had because people like doing that. Then Keris wanted to give up regular gigging each weekend. so we unanimously elected Cathy into learning how to be a caller.

J.J. For someone who was reluctant and rather sceptical of it at the time, she took to it really well. She’s a good dancer herself and has devised some good dances, but she’s always considered herself firstly a singer. I think she was sadder than most when the dance work grew and the song work got less – she had more to lose.

I.T. And that was the way things started to work out. Living in Kent, where there’s not exactly a thriving folk song club scene, there turned out to be a huge market for a dance band – virtually no competition. Which cuts both ways of course… we got a lot of work for local organisations, villages and so forth, which we try to still do because, in a sense, if we didn’t do them each year then the gig itself would die.

J.J. Or worse, they might use records.

It seems to be almost the quote of the year from lots of the other interesting bands that have begun to emerge from this field, that it’s really good for a band to just get out and do the PTA circuit and play a lot, do your experimenting in public.

I.T. I’d put it even stronger than that. It totally changed my attitude to the act of playing. When you’ re learning from scratch, you have to be very careful that you just know the tunes. But you get to be master of your musical repertoire when you’re playing for dancing, so it loosens up. I think it’s historically true that dance music tends towards improvisation, so if you play a lot for dancing it encourages you to do that. Now we can work music over in a creative way.

So from playing with the acoustic Dram, which was extremely exact music that you’d only change consciously, by arrangement, it was very good for our souls to go to the opposite thing where you could jam it up to the teeth and develop the rapport in the band to the point where you can start changing it while you’re doing it. So now, if we go to play some set of tunes for a long dance, Alan and Ian Kearey can start working through new chord sequences for the same tunes by nods and winks and all the rest. That delightful moment comes when you realise that nobody is actually playing the tune any more! The whole thing is coasting on its own impetus – that’s very good for your soul.

From Southern Rag 15, January 1983


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