During the late 1980s and early 1990s, living in Camden Town, I spent almost every evening hanging out at dives like The Dublin Castle and The Engine Room. The door price was rarely more than £3. The bills were always a lottery. And then one evening – blam! – I came across The Sons Of The Desert.
I’m not sure I knew what to make of them at first. The music featured a huge variety of influences – Eastern European, old-timey Americana, Irish trad, jazz, cabaret. Ewan Shiels, on mandolin and vocals, delivered his guttural, guttersnipe lyrics with a sneer. Tracey Booth’s voice was clean and pure. It was clear that these were musicians of rare quality. When Ewan took his mandolin version of Purple Haze off into an extended trek through increasingly strange terra incognita, Joseph Doherty (fiddle, sax), Stephen Harrison (bass) and Johnny Nolan (guitar) were with him all the way. No matter where he darted off to, he couldn’t shake them off. Sudden key changes, tempo changes? No problem. Abrupt endings? Yep!
They had a residency at the Elephant and Castle pub in – er – Elephant and Castle every Sunday for a time. A free gig as a chaser to the Sunday afternoon “cure” and I rarely missed one of them. They quickly laid claim to the stage as their home turf and, among ardent fans, they took every opportunity to spice up their exotic mixture even further with musical digressions of every shade.
And then the sad news that, for various reasons, the band was leaving the UK. Ewan and Tracey (now married), now live in France where they run a bar. The music lives on. Their band, The Shiels, have more than a trace of the old Sons Of The Desert spunk. And, with a few new faces, including Ewan’s and Tracey’s daughter, Rubi Mae, The Sons Of The Desert concept continues…