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.
Regular readers of the music section will have noticed quite a bit about Spring Offensive from me this term and while I apologise for such a deluge, I assure you they really are more than worthy of the coverage. Self-released and funded by an ingenious Pledge Music campaign, the Oxford quintet’s debut Young Animal Hearts has been a long time coming and die-hard fans will appreciate older favourites holding their own amongst some stunning new material.
Thematically, Young Animal Hearts will resonate with the bands 20-something peers, encompassing the post-student worries of dead-end jobs, financial grievances and identity crises. With the band members themselves experiencing many of these issues first-hand, the songs have a credibility and conviction that is overwhelmingly emotive. Lucas Whitworth and Matt Cooper’s lyrics balance simplicity and poetic imagery perfectly, with narratives that are both beautifully articulate andintellectually accessible – an irresistible mixture that makes the album highly relatable. The defiant, chanted refrains found on tracks such as ‘Speak’ and ‘No Assets’ draw you in deeper, subconsciously catchy and bizarrely euphoric given their morose subject matter.
Such an odd juxtaposition of dark, melancholic lyrics with exhilarating, uplifting melodies has led to comparisons with bands such as The National and Death Cab For Cutie. The intensity of the emotion is certainly equal to that portrayed by Berninger and co. but the jolting rhythms and mesmeric blend of vocals feel less polished, rawer and more intimate.
While musically complex, the album has been meticulously arranged to ensure every instrumental layer gives something to a track. There’s no flamboyance or pretension and their characteristic intricate percussive patterns and striking harmonies remain at the core.
The flawless ‘Not Drowning But Waving’ opens, its eerily unsettling guitar hook providing a relentless undercurrent on which the percussion and harmonies build – steadily brewing like the storm depicted – to a thunderous crescendo. Staccato synths punctuate the clipped vocals on the more instrumentally sparse ‘Bodylifting’ and clapped rhythms on ‘The River’ and ‘Carrier’ provide a similarly punchy beat that both lifts and drives the brooding libretto.
This unsuppressed vigour and energy in the face of hardship tires only in the final tracks ’52 Miles’ and ‘Young Animal Hearts’. Slowed down and more subdued, they convey a wearier resilience and while still hopeful in outlook, express a resignation to the trials of modern life and an acceptance of our innate human nature.
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.
Newly released university rankings have declared Oxford the best university in the UK and third globally.
The annual QS World University Rankings listed Oxford as first in the world in modern languages, geography and English.
The university placed third overall in the world, behind Harvard and MIT who ranked first in eleven and nine subjects respectively.
Cambridge fell behind, ranking first in only one subject, history.
However, Cambridge outperformed Oxford in mathematics and sciences.
Oxford is ranked sixth in physics, seventh in Computer Science, and ninth in Material Science. The rankings listed institutions from around the world in 30 different subject disciplines, based on the opinions of academics and employers. Together Oxford and Cambridge took out 24 of the 30 number one spots in subjects.
The Oxford University English Faculty reacted with delight to the news of their number one position, tweeting the link to the QS ranking with the comment: “It’s official, [Oxford] is world no.1 for studying English Language and Literature”.
A university spokesperson stated that though there are “always limits to how to precise league tables can be”, the QS figures “confirm Oxford’s leading international status across all subjects, delivering some of the best research and education in the world”.
Many students greeted the news with approval. A history undergraduate spoke of her surprise, commenting, “Considering how many more contact hours the scientists receive, it’s strange that Oxford seems stronger in humanities than in sciences. I imagined it would be the other way round.”
However, third year French student at Keble, Holly Meehan, was less enthusiastic. She stated: “Why would anyone give a flying fuck about these rankings? I’m hardly going to run away to Cambridge because their student satisfaction was 0.2% better.”
As someone involved in the workings of OUSU, I am starting to get slightly tired of the latest trend in the student press, which involves reeling off ranting comment pieces, slamming OUSU, OUSU Council, OUSU members, OUSU’s campaigns – or in fact, anything else within reach. A recent example of this came in Alexander Rankine’s rant in the Cherwell last week, addressing what he believed to be ‘the failure of OUSU Council to provide a meaningful democratic connection between students and OUSU.’ As current Chair of Council, and former Chair of the Scrutiny Committee, I am well placed to address some of the points raised and can hopefully provide a more nuanced take on OUSU Council.
Firstly, I would like to make the distinction between OUSU – the organisation made up of full-time and part-time officers, office staff, campaigns and committees – and OUSU Council, the democratic arm of the organisation. Council exists to provide devolved democracy, where common rooms have elected representatives to speak on their behalf. They should be consulting the students they represent, but in reality, this doesn’t often happen. Sitting at the front of the room as Chair, I am often dismayed at the attendance, or lack thereof, particularly amongst those who aren’t OUSU reps (especially the ‘3rd vote’ that all colleges have). OUSU Sabbatical Officers do their best to make agendas available, highlight important issues and encourage people to bring motions to Council, but they cannot physically force people to do so. In his piece, Alexander laments at the lack of motions being brought to Council – but these are open to all students to bring forward and in recent meetings, most of the motions have not been brought by Sabbaticals Officers, but by students with an interest in a particular issue. On his criticism that OUSU Council only meets every two weeks, I don’t think that it is realistic to expect students to turn up every week, during terms that only last eight weeks as it is. Perhaps he doesn’t have a lot of work to do, but I certainly do. It is also worth noting that is usually how often JCR meetings take place.
Regarding accountability of the officers, it is not their fault if nobody asks them any questions in Council. Every time we get to that part of Council, I deliberately pause, look round the room and remind people that this is their opportunity to directly scrutinise those who represent them. And I am usually met with silence for my efforts. I also take issue with the derisive remark that ‘the Scrutiny reports read like interviews with the officers.’ Well, they are based partially on interviews with the officers (how else would we conduct the process?), so of course they are going to sound a bit like the interviews that provided their source material! What is important is that whatever ends up in that report does so after careful consideration, feedback from other people working with the officers being scrutinized and a weighing-up of the ‘evidence’, as it were. The Scrutiny Committee’s job is to check that elected OUSU officers are fulfilling the political aspects of their role i.e. carrying out their election manifesto promises, representing students in a proactive and positive manner and interacting well with them. If the Scrutiny Report is broadly positive, then this is because the officers are doing a good job! In the past, I have never held back when I felt someone was not fulfilling their role, and concerns that have been raised in past reports are now actively being taken on board. A good example of this is Part-Time Executive written reports to Council, whose appearance has increased thanks to successive Scrutiny recommendations. When I stood up to present the report to Council last term, I did not mince my words about some of the more unacceptable findings we had, and would reject the idea that we are not holding officers to account.
Finally, I would like to deal with the issue surrounding the ‘atmosphere at Council’, which has become more prominent since OUSU stalwart Jack Matthews’ blog post about his time in student politics. I notice that his quote taken from a Council meeting in 2008 seems to keep being used as though this were the current state of affairs. Yes, it is true that OUSU has a tendency towards left-wing thinking and policy, but this is only a reflection on the fact that most of its members, being students, do tend statistically to veer towards the left. As someone with few party political convictions myself, I have never felt threatened or intimidated by the party politics from either side at OUSU – in fact, they rarely come up or enter the debate, as it’s often more about a clash of beliefs, political or otherwise. I have actually found that it has produced lively debates on all sides, a recent example being of the debate surrounding financing the Oxford Left Review (a motion which fell). As Chair, it is my duty to maintain the atmosphere in Council so that everyone feels able to speak. When I have felt debates have become intimidating or contributions irrelevant, I have said so, as have many of my predecessors (including Jack Matthews).
OUSU, like any democratic institution, has its failings, but this does not lie solely with its Officers. JCR and MCR reps need to step up to the plate, actually attend Council, ask their Common Rooms what they think and make points in the debate. If OUSU appears like a club or a clique, it’s because there are some people who are more passionate about certain issues than others, but the idea is that anyone can contribute to any debate in any way they chose, provided their remarks are not offensive. Sabbatical Officers cannot win – they are criticised for not engaging enough with students or letting them know what they’ve been doing, but are then lambasted for sending ‘self-congratulatory emails’ when they do tell you what they’ve been up to! Every student member is entitled to attend OUSU Council, so here is my invitation to you: come along, propose motions, take part in the debates, ask questions of your elected officers, rather than reeling off comments in the student press.
PHOTO/Nele van Hout
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.
After moving from the coast of North Devon 5 years ago, folk singer Jess Hall (no relation, before you start crying nepotism…) has certainly not forgotten her roots on debut album Bookshelves. Classically trained and from a musical family, Hall has an undeniably stunning voice and her captivatingly pure vocals have seen her quickly established on the Oxford music scene, attracting attention from a number of big names.
A musical acquaintance of Hall’s for a number of years, renowned folk-roots cellist Barney Morse-Brown (Duotone) produced this debut, as well as providing accompaniment throughout. On hearing her performance with local band Flights of Helios at 2013’s Wilderness Festival, Stornoway’s Jon Ouin also expressed a keen interest to work with Hall and had a hand in arrangements and instrumentation. The result of such high profile collaborations is, however, still very much her own record. Instrumentally sparse, Bookshelves holds Hall’s hymnal voice centre-stage, with her own gentle guitar picking rippling beneath, there simply to accentuate her wistful and nostalgic musings. Morse-Brown’s subtle yet affecting cello movements exquisitely compliment Hall’s alto range – most notably on opener ‘Dearest Heart’ – lifting the touchingly open lyrics and adding emotional depth. ‘Apple’ (cover of traditional folk tune ‘I Will Give My Love An Apple’) is sung entirely unaccompanied, showcasing the power of the human voice as an instrument. This though, is the only song on the album that could be said to stem from the traditional heritage that inspires numerous folk artists. With Bookshelves, Hall instead focuses on the more personal, setting to her familiar back-drop of sea-spray and sand, stories of friendship, love and childhood memories, all narrated with a simplicity and honesty that is surprisingly emotive. On tracks such as ‘Sea Song’ and the playful ‘Maps’, this lyrical simplicity can sometimes come across slightly twee, but for the rest of the album, it works perfectly. Achingly tender vocals, choral at times, wash over the poignant undercurrent of rising riffs and hooks, crafting the purest declaration of love on stand-out track ‘Duet’, while building heart-rending pathos on break-up song ‘Winter Branches’.
Although elements of influences such as Laura Veirs and Lisa Hannigan are visible on Bookshelves, Jess Hall has certainly carved her own style and this simple but strikingly beautiful debut is a confident entry to the UK folk scene.
Bookshelves is out on 24th February 2014