500 people, from young children to grandparents, dancing and singing together in the Sheldonian Theatre. I’ve been attending and performing in concerts at the Sheldonian for some years and I’ve never seen anything like it. Demolished was the austere artifice of the graduation hall, gone were the gowns and robes. Left in their place was a large crowd having incredible fun. The Spooky Men’s Chorale’s encore, which encouraged everyone to take a partner and dance, summarized their entire telos of community musicality.
Celebrating the release of their latest album, ‘Warm’, The Spooky Men’s Chorale put on a wildly mixed concert displaying music from all their albums. Veterans of international tours, the Choir has made appearances at numerous folk festivals and other venues, growing in reputation and popularity all the time. Peddling a unique brand of hyper-masculine irony and musical mastery, the Spookies have acquired a fan base rooted in beer and beards, especially evident in the Choir’s mid-concert visit to the pub.
Humour in music is a curious thing. It is often generated through surprise or subversion of expectations, manifested in a range of ways, from rhythmic to structural. The Spookies have translated this musical humour into their entire performance style, often setting the audience up for a certain style or subject, only to swerve away into bizarre realms of self-proclaimed stupidity. This appeals to many people, as is evident through the Choir’s mass popularity, but I felt that the feeling of pantomime was too present. The Spookies continually prove themselves to be fantastic musicians, especially noticeable in their comedic songs through the use of partially sung lines. The attention and ensemble musicianship required to speak in perfect unison at seemingly sporadic times requires incredible skill. That this skill is tainted through hammy acting and overenthusiastic facial expressions is a real shame.
While the Spookies are clearly very committed to high quality performance, they are also let down by their occasional attempts at more traditional choral music. We are spoilt in Oxford by the unmatched quality of the College Chapel choirs, making up one of the strongest centres of choral singing in the world. It is a mistake for a bunch of rough-hewn, largely untrained men to attempt to replicate that. On the other hand, the one Georgian folk song, titled No. 27, was my personal highlight. As a musical tradition I have only limited knowledge of, this stunning display of ostinato-driven power convinced me to seek out more, mainly from the Spookies large back catalogue.
The Sheldonian is a large venue, seating around 800 people, meaning that controlling and engaging the crowd is often a difficult task. The distance and angle from the upper gallery to the stage makes the communication even harder, but the Spookies did a fantastic job of involving the audience in the performance. The nature of the humour requires participation to elicit fun, and this was ably managed by Steve Taberner, the ‘Spookmeister’. From his hilarious compèring, ‘we’re going to sing about a very important body part now’, to the heavily encouraged audience participation, the audience reacted perfectly to his every move.
But not all the credit can belong to the performer; a performance is a mutual exchange of musical experience, a bidirectional communication. The Spookies have a very large, and very committed, fan base that is largely also interested in folk and traditional music. Seated around the hall were several members of Oxford’s Man Choir, as well as many other clearly musically engaged people. The result was not just attention and enthusiastic participation, but genuine musicality; how many concerts have you been to where people seated around you automatically start to sing in harmony? The Spookies fed off the energy, but it also made my experience much more enjoyable, being among musical people improves the quality of any performance.
While the humour was not often to my taste, the rest of the audience thoroughly enjoyed themselves, proving that pantomime is still relevant. However, the Spookies latest album, ‘Warm’, is proof that the Choir needs not rely on humour, but on musicianship. There is a heavy presence of Georgian folk polyphony on every album, especially on ‘Warm’, and it is performed with immense quality. And so I feel the Spookies have had misplaced success. As Taberner mentioned during the concert, the Choir was set up to sing Georgian music and ‘the stupidity happened by accident.’ I think the Spookies would do well to use their fame to further promote this fact, and bring a largely unknown musical genre to the fore in the traditional music scene.