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By Tom Bell
The queue is long outside the Oxford Town Hall come seven o’clock, going right around the corner. It’s hard to establish the audience demography; the tickets say “all ages” and that seems pertinent. I spot a Ride t-shirt on the way into the hall – Oxford heroes of the past. It feels like a community affair.
The hall’s ornate ceiling is resplendent with dappled blue light as the folky support acts come on, and a mysterious blanketed circle at the back of the stage is eventually revealed to be a seven foot illuminated moon when Stornoway finally make their appearance, which looms behind them for most of the gig. I had been hoping we were in for some Wayne Coyne-style zorbing antics during the band’s most famous song.
While it must be difficult for contemporary folk-pop artists to cope with the eclipsing shadow cast by Mumford and Sons, Stornoway’s live show manages to avoid the issue by flaunting their musicianship above their showmanship, and falling decisively in the folk quadrant. Forced headbanging is at a premium, and this fits the fairly low-key feel of the performance, even if the stage seems at times a little too big.
Stornoway open with two new songs from the forthcoming album Tales From Terra Firma, with the swelling intro of future sing-along ‘Knock Me On the Head’ forming a perfect intro to the set, bar the fact that nobody knows the words yet. The energy level picks up a few songs in for ‘Fuel Up’, as Brian Briggs moves from solo acoustic guitar to an invigorating two-word refrain which gets the fairly subdued crowd involved.
There are curious happenings in the background throughout, as one of the four-piece’s periphery members plays a dulcimer and at one point saws a piece of wood for ambience. In penultimate track ‘Farewell Appalachia’, drummer Rob Steadman constructs a looping beat from taking an axe to a piece of wood and tearing paper. These novelties help to add some variety to a fairly straightforward set, as does Briggs’ solo unplugged performance of new-album closer ‘November Song’, on which his vocals are, as throughout, flawless. The band close with the well-received ‘Zorbing’, and I’m left feeling slightly underwhelmed by the clinical competence of it all.
The band return for an encore, but not to the stage at first. After a few minutes of shuffling they appear on the balcony at the back of the hall for an astonishing acoustic rendition of ‘The Ones We Hurt the Most’, complete with minimal strings and four-part harmony, which is surely going to be a high point on the new album. ‘I Saw You Blink’ is spectacular in a different way, as Jon Ouin takes to the hall’s enormous pipe organ and is gradually joined by the other members of the group for an extended intro to the crowd favourite. They finish with one of their most rousing numbers, ‘Watching Birds’, which closes the best few songs of the set. If they were saving themselves for the encore, you can forgive them. Thank goodness the crowd were obliging enough to ask for it.
For more on Stornoway check out this week’s interview.