New York-based indie duo We Are Scientists kicked off their latest tour, TV en Français, at Oxford’s O2 Academy this month. The show marked the beginning of an epic three-month run for the band, which takes them across the world: from the UK, they’re due to head to mainland Europe, followed by North America and finally Australia.
The crowd at the O2 Academy was certainly thrilled to be a part of the first step in this journey for We Are Scientists. Despite a somewhat empty floor throughout The Heartbreaks (first support) and a slightly busier crowd for second support act Superfood, the Academy was absolutely packed by the time the headliners appeared. It was nice to see a slightly more mature crowd, lacking an army of young teenagers and giving way to the young adults, who undoubtedly followed We Are Scientists in their noughties heyday.
Despite some of the more negative reviews of TV en Français coming in, the band still played an assortment of their latest songs – and, more importantly, played them well. The band showed their obvious ease with their new music, opening with the new song ‘Return the Favour’, before playing a good two-thirds of their new album with as much skill and polish as the songs they’ve been playing for the last nine years – an impressive effort. The crowd certainly loved the mix, and although the latest album had been released for all of two days, there was a large proportion who were at least familiar with the newer material. It was obvious that this warm reception at their first gig since the album dropped meant a lot to both Keith Murray and Chris Cain. The band’s certified Gold album With Love and Squalor made a predictably large appearance on the setlist, to an audience that was incredibly familiar with the songs that springboarded We Are Scientists’ career.
Although they had just arrived from a small acoustic set at Truck Music Store, We Are Scientists still managed to give their performance their all, which is exceptionally impressive when you take into account that the band played 19 songs in their set and maintained a high level of musical delivery. The duo, accompanied by a very talented drummer, ensured that the gig remained lively and dynamic, making good use of the vast stage space and interacting with each other naturally. They also lived up to their reputation as a force of humour to be reckoned with, and between songs their engagement with the audience was excellent. The rapport and one liners coming from the band members suggest that, should their musical skill and great live performances stop, a career in stand-up may be on the cards for the pair of them.
Oxford’s O2 Academy has housed some amazing live acts over the past couple of years, with the rest of 2014 looking equally as impressive and promising – the line-up includes American duo We Are Scientists, Tame Impala, the X-Factor’s Matt Cardle, and Katy B. Part of the charm of O2 venues is that they appeal to a wide variety of tastes, and are able to easily accommodate these.
The capacity of the building is around 1,400, which easily makes it the largest and one of the more easily accessible live music venues in Oxford. Every gig that I’ve seen at the O2 Academy has been comfortably busy, with a lack of rowdy drunks. It is clear that those in attendance are there for the music rather than the alcohol, and this gives the whole experience a much better atmosphere – singing at the top of your voice to your favourite song is made all the more special when there are hundreds of other people singing alongside you.
One of the O2′s strengths lies in its ability to showcase professional commercial artists, and to provide a stage to match. Here, the advantages of having a properly equipped music venue come into play – the lights are always incredible, with no two shows having the same bog-standard display. Smoke machines give the entire venue a great atmosphere, as well as creating a mysterious and ethereal vibe which really exalts the live music. The main downside to the O2? The extraordinarily high prices of any beverage, not ideal for a student budget.
Kate Bradley – Oxford High Street
Oxford has some great live music venues – Cellar, Jericho Tavern, the Wheatsheaf, the O2 Academy – but the cheapest, most enjoyable venue to see live music is the city centre. At weekends in summer, a huge range of musicians grace the streets of Oxford, and every ten yards there’s a new sound to enjoy – singer-songwriters strumming their guitars, MCs rapping over processed beats, classically-trained pianists and jazz musicians, and my favourite, the trio that plays medieval Eastern European music. The more uncharitable amongst you might be angered by these musicians’ imposition on the aural texture of your day, but it always warms my heart to hear someone putting their talents on show, effectively for free, in the hope that someone will drop them a pound in return.
Busking can be quite a lucrative trade, and it’s no wonder that so many people are attracted to the streets on bright, sunny days to play to the crowds of shoppers and tourists. I’m most impressed, though, by the guitarist who plays soulful acoustic hits until 11 or 12 at night outside Boots – when I’m walking to Tesco or Cellar at 11.30pm, the world feels just a little less hostile thanks to ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’.
Nobody’s saying that High Street has the best acoustics, or that it’s always pleasant to have a soundtrack while you’re trying to dodge past strangers who are walking interminably slowly, but there’s nowhere else in Oxford you could find such a variety of live music for free.
Don’t be fooled by appearances. Oxford’s best classical music venue is in fact located a minute’s walk away from the Sheldonian theatre in the relatively small and unostentatious Holywell Music Room. Yes, the Sheldonian may have it all when it comes to orchestral music and drawing in the big artists but at the price of unadventurous programming and an impersonal atmosphere. The Holywell on the other hand is open to anything from student ensembles to the latest experimental music through to nationally renowned chamber ensembles (the annual chamber music festival is unmissable) so you really never quite know what you’re going to get.
The Holywell, in its miniature stature, also exudes intimacy on every level, from the proximity to the performers to the living room lamps used to illuminate the stage. It is this that makes performances here truly special, they become personal and human.
I am yet to watch a performance at the Sheldonian that matches the unique expressiveness and atmosphere of the Holywell Music Room.
Three sold-out shows graced Oxford’s O2 Academy on the final day of February this year – One Direction support act 5 Seconds of Summer, DJ Annie Mac, and London-based singer Louisa Allen, more commonly known as Foxes.
Given that Foxes’ general success thus far has been due to her collaborations – notably on Zedd’s ‘Clarity’ and Fall Out Boy’s ‘Just One Yesterday’ – Foxes certainly did well to sell out an Academy 2 gig. The crowd, largely groups of teenage girls and late-twenties couples, certainly seemed to think so.
Arriving on stage a good twenty-five minutes later than the running times suggested, Foxes still received cheers – notably from the rows of fangirls right by the front of the stage – as she launched into her first few tracks. After a somewhat hesitant start, Foxes became visibly more comfortable as the performance continued, her voice gaining strength throughout the show. The set-list was suitably varied – Foxes’ debut single, ‘Youth’, had the majority of the unusually static crowd bobbing along, with even the occasional jump attempted. Her newest single, ‘Let Go For Tonight’ also proved popular.
Added to this, Foxes displayed her incredible musical talent most prominently when she let her voice take centre stage. A mash-up cover of both Eminem ft. Rihanna’s ‘The Monster’ and Drake’s ‘Hold On, We’re Going Home’ really allowed Foxes’ vocal training to shine, and was a lot more enjoyable than some of the more electro-heavy songs. ‘Beauty Queen’ was sung beautifully – the “more acoustic” feel, as she put it herself, allowed the powerful message of the lyrics to be heard and displayed Foxes’ talent as both a singer and a songwriter. The use of keyboard, rather than the synth-pop and electro, really gave this song a layer of emotional quality that the mesmerised crowd engaged with. Finishing with Zedd’s ‘Clarity’, arguably the song that shot Foxes into the music industry with the most force, was definitely a crowd-pleaser, and not just for the girl that kept screaming her request at the stage.
Despite her amazing vocal strength, the stage was perhaps a little too big for Foxes. With her drummer and keyboardist polarised at either end of the stage, it seemed that the space in between was a bit too much for Foxes to know what to do with. Ensue a lot of hair tousling (though her fringe stayed perfectly in place – a true achievement), the intentional knocking over of the mic stand no less than six times, and some awkward engaging with the crowd.
All-in-all, Foxes’ vocal strength was the highlight of the show, as it should be. With a little more experience and time, hopefully Foxes will become more comfortable on stage, allowing the crowd to interact with her more successfully. The release of Foxes’ second album in May will definitely be one to watch out for.
If you find yourself hanging around in Oxford over the vac, essayless and alone, don’t worry! We’ve put together a handy guide so you can fill your vac with beautiful, boredom-alleviating noise.
Paul Lewis @ the Sheldonian, 18th March 2014
Pianist Paul Lewis performs Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, and Mussorgsky at this concert for lovers of extravagant and showy classical music.
Stranglers @ O2 Academy, 19th March 2014
Famed for their sophisticated punk, Stranglers have been impressing audiences for four decades, and this promises to be a great night.
Bright Works @ Jericho Tavern, 22nd March 2014
Bright Works (formerly Nairobi) are an Oxford band making experimental sounds - go to this great venue to support local talent!
Metronomy @ O2 Academy, 25th March 2014
Metronomy are right on trend this year, and they come to the O2 a couple of weeks after the end of term.
Suede @ O2 Academy, 28th March 2014
Long after most Britpop bands decided to call it a day, Suede carried on making music, and it’s still as catchy and crafted as ever.
Susan Boyle @ New Theatre Oxford, 29th March 2014
Iconic popular opera singer who came to fame unexpectedly on Britain’s Got Talent, Susan Boyle comes to New Theatre to perform this year.
Matt Cardle @ O2 Academy, 13th April 2014
If you’re back in Oxford before the start of term, you could go and see ex-X Factor singer Matt Cardle, whose chart hits have brought him the love of tweens and grans everywhere.
Let’s make one thing clear: Harleighblu’s debut album, last year’s Forget Me Not, is a fantastic listen. The instrumentation is crisp, the songwriting masterful, and the leading lady’s voice a force of enough emotional potency to make Emeli Sande shake in her platform shoes. Look here for the seamless marriage of electronic and flesh-and-blood feel that defines ‘neo-soul’. The influence of neo-soul’s first lady Erykah Badu looms large through the record’s understated beauty. Harleighblu is yet another stellar discoveriy by Brighton’s Tru Thoughts label, counting Bonobo and Hidden Orchestra as former label-mates. However, it remains a sad fact that, for reasons largely beyond the control of anyone on stage, her performance at the Cellar largely failed to live up to the album’s production.
I arrive just as openers Red Soul Brigade, are finishing up their soundcheck. What I hear sounds incredibly promising, and they don’t disappoint. Once they kick off, a couple of minor rhythmic stumbles barely matter amongst a set of hip-shaking original funk songs and well-chosen covers. Whilst some of these covers seem almost inevitable (I saw ‘Play That Funky Music’ coming a mile off, and Cee Lo Green’s ‘F**k You’, strictly not the PG version), it’s the energy and enthusiasm frontman James Doherty brings to the songs that stops these covers becoming soulless reproductions.
What he may lack in high notes (it doesn’t take a genius to work out why there’s no James Brown in their repertoire) he makes up for in charisma and audience interaction. This, combined with the band being as tight as a particularly well-tuned drum, makes the Red Soul Brigade an ideal party act (future College Ball committees, heads up). The final song in the set, an original with an irresistible hook, leads to them being called on for an encore (a first, in my knowledge, for an opening act); when this encore turns out to be Kool and the Gang’s ‘Jungle Boogie’, there isn’t a pair of still feet in the room. As if this isn’t enough, they’ve got a song about Summertown.
With the energy in the room still palpable, it’s up to the headliner to keep it simmering. It’s therefore tragic that tonight Harleighblu falls flat. To be fair, she and her band had a hell of a day: their car broke down on the lengthy journey from her native Nottingham, and technical difficulties delay the beginning of the set. Somewhat surprisingly, they’re using an electric drum sampler as opposed to a live kit. Initially, it’s clear that this doesn’t throw her off; Harleighblu is an enthralling performer, combining stratospheric vocal prowess with an almost theatrical delivery of her lyrics. Her warm interaction with the audience stops her becoming a stereotypical ‘icy’ soul diva. But the fact remains that, on the album, the ballsy stomp of ‘Casanova’ triggered mental images of the smoke of speakeasies penetrated by a visceral voice and the blaze of horns, whereas here, the relative lack of live instrumentation reduces the cracking snare to a drum loop best described as anaemic. This is the problem with tonight’s performance; it’s practically crying out for a live drummer. The gig also suffers from simply not being loud enough, particularly in the case of the bass guitar, which has to be turned up halfway through the set. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a decrease in volume between support and headline act; it took me a good two minutes to even recognise the album’s standout track, bitter ballad ‘Let Me Be’. However, as the band walk offstage without the encore that was afforded to their opening act, we can’t blame Harleighblu herself for this disappointment, nor her band. The combination of foul-ups from the internal mixing and the sound desk completely takes the album’s teeth out.
The home leg of the Varsity jazz-off last Saturday was a roaring success. Two big band giants descended on Magdalen Auditorium for an intense contest of slick arrangements and bold solo chops: a jazz orchestra head-to-head. Tickets had sold out a good week before the night itself, and the atmosphere was suitably charged. This event has some history, and though it was my first encounter with a big-band-off I felt pretty sure by the time I had taken my seat that I had good reason to look forward to what was to come.
I did. It was Cambridge up first, in the form of CUJO (Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra). At times, their set was impressively intricate, including a rendition of Bob Florence’s composition ‘Carmelo’s By The Freeway’, which raced along in unforgiving swing, complemented by the precision of the horn section’s rhythmic fills.
CUJO were also unafraid to take on some of the more celebrated jazz repertoire including ‘God Bless the Child’: this was a tender arrangement worked out by one of Cambridge’s own. Joined by guest vocalist Hettie Gulliver, Charlie Mingus’ ‘Moanin’ and Ray Charles’ ‘Hallelujah I Love Him So’ were two further numbers which not only spot-lit the band’s evidently excellent sensibility for backing vocalists, but also said something of their versatility. By the time we had reached their Basie closer, the bar had well and truly been set.
There was nothing to fear, of course. For all the talk of versatility, OUJO were certainly not lacking in that department. The mercurial wit of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ was wonderfully executed, and their performance of ‘In A Mellow Tone’ was brilliant, loud, and infused with incomparable amounts of mid-tempo attitude. Yes, it was clear that the hometown heroes were not in the slightest fazed by their adversaries, and as the set continued I began to wonder whether it was simply the partisan spirit in me, or whether I could trust my growing suspicion that this band was swinging even harder than the last.
OUJO were blessed with two vocalist appearances, first with Will Gillett, whose great take on an ingeniously groovy reinvention ‘Wonderwall’ was matched by his idiosyncratic between-numbers commentaries, and second with Jessie Reeves, who sang a beautiful version of Nina Simone’s ‘Feeling Good’.
Was there a winner that night? I saw little that was conclusive. But I was sold on these two great bands like everyone else there, and if you’re wise you will make sure you’re there next year.
With drinks dripping off the low ceiling, an average of three (visible) piercings per audience member and an enthusiastic warm-up by Less Than Jake, the O2 was transformed from a corner of miserably-rainy Cowley Road into a slice of alternative Californian sunshine. Reel Big Fish are the champions of fusing lyrics about jealousy, relationship hell, your girlfriend turning out to be a lesbian and all other kinds of “sucky” situations with music so chirpy you’ll find yourself pissed off at life but happy about it at the same time. As viewed through kaleidoscopic effect of the impressive ‘flesh-tunnels’ of the man in front, Reel Big Fish were resplendent in a veritable mix of Hawaiian shirts, military regalia, and extreme hairstyles. They came out to a crowd that welcomed them like old friends, and their opening song ‘I Want Your Girlfriend to Be My Girlfriend’, was sung back to them word for word, firmly establishing that the aim of this gig was going to be reminiscing about the good old days.
Front man Aaron Barrett wasted no time in creating a sense of intimacy. He questioned a couple at the front about their relationship before announcing that they were “weird”, which, to be honest, was probably meant as a compliment considering that revelling in a sense of weirdness seemed to be what a Reel Big Fish gig was all about. That, and agreeing that a lot of things in life really suck. The band’s confident crowd-talk seemed apt considering they have been going in various formations for over 15 years, achieving mainstream success in the mid-90s before building up a strong cult following ever since. Back on Cowley Road, the band cemented their status as the soundtrack to teenage angst, with classic anthems ‘Where Have You Been?’ and ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ whipping the crowd into a mob of flailing skankers. If nothing else, ska-style dancing is worth it for the intense cardio workout and the stone you will lose through sweat. This was a crowd that were reliving their youth and yelling back the lyrics that had captured the dramas they faced 10 years ago.
Reel Big Fish are no longer in their 20s, and beer belly and double chin jokes bounced about between members of the band, with a cover of ‘Monkey Man’ dedicated to their ‘hairy’ bass-player Derek Gibbs. This tomfoolery made lyrics such as ‘I hate your guts and I think you suck’ more fun than embarrassing, with the crowd embracing each statement of refusal to grow up more triumphantly than the last. However, a word of warning about the sight of a 39-year-old in a Hawaiian shirt attempting to ‘twerk’: once seen, it can never be unseen.
‘Dancing’ aside, the timing of the band was faultless, with the trombone, sax and trumpet bringing each song to a rollocking crescendo and the 6-string base providing an interesting dynamic on the beat. The trumpet solo in ‘Another Fuck You Song’ was particularly impressive, leading what seemed to be half-song, half-group-therapy session, as the crowd held up their swivel fingers and roared “fuck you” in beautiful harmony. The sci-fi theme continued and a man in a ‘Bazinger’ t-shirt got particularly excited when the Star Wars theme introduced the last set. A cheek cover of Carly Rae Jepson’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ and “everyone’s worst nightmare: a new song” called ‘I Dare You to Break My Heart’ were well received. Certain of their strong appreciation from the crowd, the band wasted no time in staging an encore, and after starting their own chant of “one more tune”, went straight into a stirring finale of the band’s biggest hit, ‘Sell Out’. Then it was time for the colourful crowd to re-emerge into 2014 and for the band to go and stick naughty post-it notes on their manager, or whatever it is that almost-40-year-old men do of a Tuesday evening.
In a world where there are more female artists than one can count, it takes more than just a good album to make the artist: for Taylor Swift, an her ability to write hit after hit has kept her from disappearing into the crowd (tabloid image aside). So as a fan genuinely determined to like her, watching her live was going to be an experience.
I’ll say it now: Taylor Swift can sing live. Gone are the questionable days on the CMT awards in the first flush of success, when her voice was perhaps a little shaky. The Taylor flushed with the success of her fourth album is more polished than before, and her ability to hit high notes and sustain in front of a packed audience proves that whilst she will never be a Whitney, she has the pipes to make the scornful rethink.
It seems that when you sign up to a Taylor Swift gig you are also subscribing to the Swifty phenomena: the fans, the signs and thousands of voices all mouthing the same lyrics without any fail. From the moment you step into the arena you cannot escape this. This might be a million miles away from her first intimate shows, but she plays the crowd well throughout the whole show. Taylor is well known for having different special guests on every show, some of her past ones being The Script, Cher Lloyd, J-Lo and, of course, Ed Sheeran, and it was a treat seeing the two, albeit very different voices, singing together on stage.
Certain songs thrive in the concert arena: songs like ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ and ‘We Are Never Getting Back Together’ use the heavy beats to their advantage – and the crowd goes crazy. By contrast, the concert also manages to showcase Taylor back with her country roots, away from the pristine production and commercialization that she is occasionally accused of. Her acoustic rendition of ‘Fearless’, one of her best songs, was a reminder that despite all her awards and success and celebrity pals, the songs are still hers.
Visually, the tour is not necessarily a stand-out draw-dropping extravaganza, in the way that tours such as Take That’s The Circus Tour or the U2 360 Tour, and whilst the set pieces are interesting, they are by no means a game changer. However, I return to the point I made earlier: you go to see Taylor Swift not to be dazzled by the set, but because of her. Does the concert reaffirm her status as the queen of country pop? Most certainly.