June Tabor and Oysterband, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Twenty-one years after releasing their first album, Freedom and Rain, June Tabor and Oysterband return with Ragged Kingdom, a vibrant and rousing set whose slant is angled closer to the English folk tradition and the matter of magic, mystery, history, murder and mayhem deeply embedded within; it is no place for health and safety.

Tabor is renowned as English folk song's most melancholic voice, the queen of doom whose solo work is often a measured, intensely introspective affair. Here, the energy level is ramped up to match the visceral energy of the Oysters – including Ian Telfer on fiddle, singer John Jones on melodeon, Alan Prosser and Ray Cooper on cello and guitars, and a skintight rhythm section of Al Scott and Dil Davies.

Tabor and Oysterband have often performed on stage together – this new album was inspired by a gig at the Roundhouse in 2010 – and the intimate familiarity between the singer and the band, previewing material they've never played live before, made this album launch gig a real pleasure.

The set list ranges from Sixties counter culture with "All Tomorrow's Parties" and Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit", to the spiky rockabilly of set opener "Bonny Bunch of Roses", in which Napoleon is painted a hero, as Tabor notes at the song's end, "to Britain's poor and dispossessed". But Napoleon never came. He met his Waterloo – as does the brother in "Son David", an eerily jaunty tune tethered to a tale of fratricide, and the men of Shiloh in Tabor's spine-tingling rendition of Shel Silverstein's American Civil War song "The Hills of Shiloh". Folk's body count is high, with battle and departure lurking even in the wings of the slow-motion ecstatic rapture of "Fountains Flowing", a leave-taking song of great magic whose beautiful melody was later taken to fill the sails of John Bunyan's "To Be a Pilgrim".

Special mention must go to the setting both singers give the traditional songs they've made their own. Tabor frames her tribute to the role of the Travelling people in preserving great songs and a vital witnessing of history (you'll learn more about Napoleon from "Bonny Bunch of Roses" than from hours of bluster from Schama, Ferguson, Starkey et al) against events at Dale Farm. She shows that traditional music, as Ezra Pound might have had it, is news that stays news.

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