Sons Of The Desert

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!

Sons Of The Desert - early line-up featuring Tracey Booth, Ewan Shiels, Stephen Harrison, Joseph Doherty and Johnny Nolan
Sons Of The Desert – early line-up featuring Tracey Booth, Ewan Shiels, Stephen Harrison, Joseph Doherty and Johnny Nolan

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…

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1 thought on “Sons Of The Desert”

  1. My favourite band of the time, never made it to Elephant and Castle but saw them whenever possible, T&C2, Mean Fiddler, others now forgotten. Got introduced to them by a mate who was a metal fan and would drive us to their gigs in his Passion Wagon, a beat up minivan full of filler holes. While they released a couple of CDs, the holy grail is the Elephant Sessions album… I’ve got a tape copy of a CD, but would love an original. The story I heard was Ewan wasn’t happy with the quality and didn’t want to release it, while the bandmates were keen to get it out there… copies got sold, which may have contributed to the band breaking up. Maybe I’m wrong on that and it was on sale at gigs. Elephant Sessions captures them at their raw best, while the more polished studio album, while still great lost a little of that live spark.

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