Cathedral offers perfect stage to celebrate a special collaboration
Exeter Cathedral, Friday
It was a tale of two albums, separated by two decades, mixing the joy of a homecoming with the sadness of a separation and set against the spectacular backdrop of Exeter's medieval cathedral.
As folk gigs go it was something special. And if it turns out to be one of the last live offerings from singer and national treasure June Tabor and the Oysterband – a collaboration which produced the award-winning Ragged Kingdom two years ago – then it will have been a fitting end.
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Founder of the folk outfit John Jones looked pleased as Punch strutting around the serenely-lit altar, teasing accompaniment out of his trusty melodeon and trading jokes with June now, astonishingly, 65 years old, during a set which effortlessly combined covers of Dylan, the Velvet Underground and Jefferson Airplane with traditional songs plucked from the collected archives.
Hours of meticulous setting up by the sound engineer resulted in a beautiful warm sound which filled the cavernous interior of the church without being overwhelming and still left the a cappella numbers resonating around the nave and the vast, vaulted ceiling. There were songs from the first coming together – 1990's Freedom and Rain – and the award-winning 2011 follow-up Ragged Kingdom. The two singers have real star quality and a genuine on-stage affection: June, all raggedly ecclesiastical in a baggy black trouser suit and velvet patchwork coat, gazing out towards the Great West Window, John moving around like the ringmaster, black suit and film-star sunglasses.
June introduced many of the songs, prefacing Bonny Bunch of Roses with a revisionist version of Napoleon as a hero of the dispossessed, then a cover of PJ Harvey's There Goes My Veil with the proud revelation that she is considered the "folky mum" to the wiry young singer songwriter.
A reworking of Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart Again achieved the rare feat of seemingly representing the song anew; Dylan's Seven Curses lacked none of the power of the youthful protest singer and All Tomorrow's Parties saw June channelling the haunting deep notes of Nico.
But the stand out moment was when the whole band put down their instruments and sang (When I was No But) Sweet Sixteen, a tale of a lassie left with child, described by June as the age-old tale of teenage pregnancy. The cathedral suited the event perfectly though I suspect it may not work with all live acts. The band pitched their performance to perfection. It was a rare treat.