Holy Bandits
(Cooking Vinyl Ltd./Ryko, 1993)

I'm told members of the Oysterband hate it whenever someone calls them an Irish band. So let me get this out in the open right away: they're English, OK?

But, hearing them for the first time without explanation, I thought they were Irish, too. They probably should have been, but that's a matter for the Fates to decide and not within the scope of this review. And I am writing a review here, if you'll give me a moment to get to it.

I've heard several Oysterband albums and enjoyed them in varying degrees. But none has ever stood out in my mind so much as the band's 1993 release, Holy Bandits. This album is, from what I've heard so far, the pinnacle of the band's achievements. The very first track sets a wild, upbeat mood with "When I'm Up I Can't Get Down." Although later popularized in North America by the Newfoundland band Great Big Sea, this Oysterband original is the epitome of "happy-fun" songs, practically guaranteed to bring low spirits up. The next track, "The Road to Santiago," is a mischievously bouncy song about the devil's machinations and the band's cheerful trip towards someplace a little hotter than Spain.

Further along on the album you'll find "Here's to You," a raucous drinking song with some fiery instrumentals -- perhaps the biggest reason for believing this band to be Irish. Add to the pile of evidence the dirge-like "Rambling Irishman," the only tune on the album not written by someone in the band, and "Blood Wedding," which surely sounds like a raunchy description of some Irish weddings I've heard about. In the proper setting, the rebellious "Fire is Burning" could easily be taken as an anthem from Northern Ireland, and "Gone West" sounds like the plight of many an Irishman gone to America to seek a cure to Irish poverty.

Oh hell, it hardly matters where the Oysterband calls home. Holy Bandits is lively and fun, with strong vocals and instrumentals all around. Kudos to John Jones (vocals and melodeons), Alan Prosser (guitars, mandolin, banjo, viola and vocals), Chopper (bass, cello and vocals), Lee (drums, bodhran, vocals and "banging and shouting") and Ian Telfer (violin, viola and "drinks monitor"). If you like your rock 'n' roll deeply rooted in Celtic (OK, or British) folk traditions, or if you like your folk music heavily seasoned with rock, give this one a try.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Check out the Oysterband at CDNow.