Every so often you watch a band perform at a venue so well suited to them that you can’t imagine them separate from it. Stornoway’s homecoming gig at the majestic Oxford Town Hall tonight befits them perfectly, where gothic revival pillars gawp at an ornamented ceiling and a hall organ sits proudly above the stage. Blue lighting dusts the domed roof, emitted in part from a moon lamplight onstage that marks the impending release of Tales From Terra Firma, the Oxford quartet’s sophomore effort.
There’s no sight of the band yet, save for a young woman playing a gentle Celtic melody on violin. It’s about the most romantic setting that you could wish to find yourself in for Valentine’s Day. Except, of course, if you’re alone in attendance…
Before long, the band enters, welcomed like they have a 30-year career behind them. They open with a song from the new album (which I have been able to hear in advance) called ‘Knock Me On The Head’ – a blustering, jocund little folk-pop number. It’s generally well-received, even if an abrasive fairground organ overpowers the sound.
Old-favourite ‘The Coalharbour Road’ gives vocalist Brian Briggs radiant confidence, with the audience singing passionately in unison. ‘Fuel Up’ sounds equally accomplished live with Briggs channelling self-deprecating humour gags between songs.
The cascading Vampire Weekend guitars in ‘(A Belated) Invite To Eternity’ float about the hall and enable the band to boast their dexterous talents. Supplemented by three additional musicians, the quartet effortlessly shift between textures and tempos, leaving eyes wide at the song’s close.
One thing that Stornoway are not afraid of is borrowing each other’s instruments and throwing all sorts of hodgepodge items into the mix. At first glance, the usual guitar, bass, drums and keys are in view, but on further inspection, autoharps, trumpets, dulcimers and even a saw can be spotted. If it makes a good sound, why not use it?
‘Take Me As I am’, another newbie taken from Tales, bursts forward with crisp acoustics and is wonderfully coloured by brass instruments. Briggs’ clear vocals and poetics shoot straight into your ear – a skill not often achieved live.
The same couldn’t be truer for ‘November Song’, a lilting solo ballad performed unplugged by Briggs alone. He is a born-performer and brings any audience chatter to silence in an instant.
All is rather tickey-boo until the actual tick-tock of ‘Clock-Watching.’ True to the band’s word, it really is a “strange” number; nothing could prepare the audience for the next three minutes of horror. Imagine the Benny Hill theme tune and…yeah, just imagine that.
Appropriately, ‘Clock-Watching’ marks the exact point at which interest dwindles. ‘Farewell Appalachia’ – arguably the strongest track on the new album – is sorely under-rehearsed and sounds completely unbalanced live. There’s little clue as to what the saw instrument adds, but thankfully pitch-perfect harmonies stop the track from stewing. ‘The Bigger Picture’ also sounds limp live and, in all honesty, puts a downer at the mid-way point, regardless of its happy-go-lucky makeup.
Whilst die-hard fans would argue that ‘Zorbing’, ‘I Saw You Blink’ and ‘Watching Birds’ are the standout performances, the billowing a capella harmonies in new song, ‘The Ones We Hurt The Most’, are what leave jaws ajar. Performed from a hall balcony, the band join double bass, violin, guitar and vocals in natural matrimony, growing together in sound as the song progresses. It really is a flawless performance.
As everyone bends their necks and leans on each other to reach the lofty heights, a real sense of community overwhelms the space – a kind of pride for what talent this city sprouts. Moreover, to house Stornoway in such a magnificent setting is this is testament to the crowd’s immovable respect and fondness for them. It’s for a band who still makes the city excited every time they return to play.