Stornoway - Manchester Club Academy - Gigs - Reviews - Soundblab

Stornoway - Manchester Club Academy

by Maria Crossan Rating: Release Date:

Fresh from recording a session at the BBC studios for Marc Riley - a required stop along the path to acceptance into the indie-folk-pop canon - Stornoway played their second Manchester date this year at Club Academy on May 12 to a laid back but quietly expectant crowd.

Tunbridge Wells six-piece Tom Williams and the Boat provide suitably energetic fiddle-wielding support, and the main act's on-stage banter sets the tone for the evening. A discussion of a Belgian festival that involves dropping cats from bell towers, that ends not in a punchline of any sort but a musing on the non-terminal velocity of small mammals? Check. Singer's first name Brian, with an unhealthy interest in ornithology? Check. Stornoway are already my sort of band.

Keyboardist Jon Ouin, for example, is a man who looks like he wears his shirt tucked in his jeans for practicality's sake, rather than the vagaries of any passing fashion - and I mean that as a compliment. I'm usually the most cynical person I know, and was reeled in hook, line and sinker by their absolutely genuine delivery - sweet but skilful lyrics, and folksy-but-just-far-enough-from-twee instrumentation. Every word is heartfelt without becoming over-earnest; it's delivered by people who clearly live folk slightly differently than we might have come to expect.

It's this sincerity-without-earnestness that stops some of their extended metaphor songs straying into dangerous Flight of the Conchords territory. 'Fuel Up' is a truly lovely meditation on the road from adolescence to adulthood "'You've borrowed the car and you think you're the driver"), and 'We are the Battery Humans' is a lament for the outdoor life in the face of ubiquitous technology ("We were born to be free range…")

Even their technical hitches are endearing. The keyboard gives out before launching into 'Boats and Trains', and, after a hastily rearranged set and another go at firing it up, it becomes clear it was less of an issue than first thought ('So what you're saying is it wasn't switched on?').

Having recently visited the band's Hebridean namesake - a result of the combination of a broken kneecap and a Googling misunderstanding (don't ask) - I can say with some authority that the band's name is entirely appropriate. Despite their roots in landlocked Oxfordshire, Stornoway's collective unconscious ranges (zorbs?) over rocky outcrops, seas and rivers, in boats and trains. Their imagination is coastal, pastoral, slightly otherworldly, and more than a little nostalgic ("Conkers shining on the ground/ The air is cooler/ And I feel like I just started uni" sings Briggs, in Zorbing). This tends to get translated into tags like 'wide-eyed' and 'childlike exuberance', but heard live there's also added depth, with a distinct tinge of melancholy. Brian Briggs' voice really is astonishing, and brings these lyrical and musical subtleties out beautifully. Live, you get a real sense not only of its clarity and choirboy-like pitch-perfection, but strange and beautiful undernotes of plaintive 60s female chanteuses, a Celtic tone in there too.

Lyrically there's depth too - despite their starting points in the folk stock-in-trade of hills and seas, many songs skilfully utilise a slightly different image store for folk pop in the 21st century. We're nostalgic for "starting uni" rather than rural idylls; we're slaves to the computer screen, not the man. Declarations of love are technical, not floral -"I'm holding a torch for you/ And the batteries are all brand new…" - and love itself is a feeling akin to the silly New Zealand-invented adventure pastime of zorbing.

Tonight's set gives a tantalising preview of next week's album release, Beachcomber's Windowsill, with the track listing represented almost in its entirety. 'I Saw You Blink' opens, followed by 'Here Comes the Blackout…!', 'November Song', 'On the Rocks', and of course, 'Zorbing' (the entire country saying in unison, "I saw them do that on Jools Holland…").

The gem of the evening was the entirely acoustic encore - no mic, no nothing. The whole crowd craned forward, hushed, hanging on each intake of breath, each shade of the cello and banjo. The crowd favourite 'We are the Battery Humans' loses some of its bluegrass pace and becomes slower and quieter and sadder, and is even better for it.

The band have been travelling the world, they tell us, but the locations aren't quite as glamorous as you might (perhaps) expect for upcoming folk pop heroes-in-waiting. Brussels was on the list - cue cat-dropping festival discussion - and an overdue first visit to the band's namesake. I notice one of the next dates on the tour is at a pool hall in Oxford. Like I said, my sort of band.

Video of We Are The Battery Human from the gig here

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