Cathedral offers a magical stage in the city where John found folk inspiration
When Oysterband frontman John Jones bursts into song in the heart of Exeter Cathedral later this month, he will be fulfilling what he sees as a pinnacle of his long and successful career.
As singer and accordion player with one of the best-loved and most enduring punk-tinged folk rock bands of our times, John has performed in more than 35 countries around the globe. But he can't imagine a more special venue than this hallowed space in the city where he was a student in the early 1970s.
"It feels like a real triumph for me; I just can't wait," enthuses John, who will be accompanied on February 21, not only by his Oysterband colleagues, but also by celebrated folk vocalist June Tabor, in one of the final live dates of their outstandingly successful revived collaboration.
Last year June Tabor and Oysterband were voted Best Group at the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards and their rousing LP Ragged Kingdom – their first together for more than 20 years – won the Best Album category.
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"It is my favourite cathedral," says John. "Oysterband have played in Exeter many times, at venues like the Corn Exchange and the Great Hall, but in our collaboration with June we have created a very different atmosphere which allows us to go into more theatrical venues... and now the cathedral. Churches have that wonderful natural reverb that just carries the voice. It is going to be magical."
John, who now lives in the Welsh Borders, was born in Aberystwyth, and raised in a music-loving, working-class home in a Yorkshire mill town. His mum and grandad played pub-style piano and he, reluctantly, had lessons as a child.
"I sang in the church choir too, and we used to sing carols and things around the piano at home," he remembers. Arriving at Exeter University to study sociology and politics was a total culture shock.
"I came down for the interview and I couldn't believe there were so many trees on the campus," says John. "The guy interviewing me was from Sheffield; he said to me 'Come here, we need people like you'. I just fell for the place, I really did; walking from my digs to the uni, I could see the foothills of Dartmoor – it was so beautiful."
It was in Exeter that John discovered traditional music and folk singing, and found his voice – most specifically at the regular folk club gatherings at the Jolly Porter pub near St David's railway station. One of his contemporaries was Show of Hands' Phil Beer. He and John were in separate duos, both performing Robin and Barry Dransfield songs.
"I connected with what still is a living tradition, as well as the people who were reviving it; if you get into something like that as a young man, then it stays with you," adds John, who also formed a strong connection with the Great Western Morris.
"Exeter was the epicentre for all that and it still seems that way."
On graduating, although his heart was in music, John felt a strong obligation to get a "responsible" job.
"Coming from the background I did, I almost felt I had to prove myself to my mum and dad because I'd been to university, so I became a teacher for a while. But the music just took hold of me, and – to be honest – I like being in the limelight!" adds John, who formed the Oyster Ceilidh Band purely as a dance outfit when he moved to Canterbury 35 years ago.
The Oysterband has been through many incarnations, with John, guitarist and violinist Alan Prosser, and English concertina, violin and saxophone player Ian Telfer, remaining constant through around 20 albums and countless world tour dates.
The Exeter show is tinged with sadness as it is one of the final dates with June, and also for bass guitarist and cellist Ray Cooper, who is off to tread a solo path.
"We are going to make it a real celebration," says John. "Ragged Kingdom will be at the heart of the set, and we will also hark back to Freedom and Rain, the album we made together 22 years ago. And we have one or two special things lined up, just for this gig."