Coming in not on a wave of fabricated hype or some throwaway trend, but entering the U.S. with good graces and good tunes is Oxford, England's Stornoway. It was a year ago last June where I caught wind of the distinctive folk-pop outfit, and tonight I got to see if my instincts are correct. Indeed, Stornoway not only inspired you with their soaring melodies and campfire like sing-a-longs, they are experts in their ability to take a traditional genre and make it seem new, fresh and believable.
The U.K. has become a hot bed of new bands who are inspired by American folk or Americana. You look at Noah & The Whale, Mumford & Sons and Fanfarlo, and you can easily lump Stornoway into that fine collective. The added aspect that makes Stornoway lovable is lead singer Brian Briggs' Irish accent. There's no mistaking him for anything but Irish. I'm reminded of Billy Bragg in delivery (not tone or style), where he wouldn't hide his Britishness. Briggs still has a youthfulness in his voice and it makes his songs that much more appealing. You add the backing melody, and that what makes "Zorbing" an instant classic.
They started with I Saw You Blink with Briggs singing alone with no musical accompaniment. Then each member chimed in until the whole group came alive before us. Their hour-ish set ranged from those full-on lively songs to the simple, un-microphoned acoustic tunes. It's the complete silence during an unplugged number like Boats and Trains which shows how much the crowd took to them. Brian even commented how British everyone was behaving.
Their debut album, Beachcomber's Windowsill, is another potential Mercury Prize nominee (deadline is approaching). While I've been singling out Brian's appeal, I think the album better shows their togetherness.
Beyond Zorbing and I Saw You Blink, Watching Bird is a keeper. When they played it tonight, I notice the deep guitar parts and the almost frantic energy driving the song.
The thing that I didn't know about the live shows is how damn funny Briggs is. He's an unassuming fellow, which made his observations, dry wit and banter quite amusing. Much was made about the roof fire across the street on Houston. This led Briggs to talk about famous fire songs, and thus led into Fuel Up. He asked the crowd, "So we only have 10 more hours in New York. What should we do? We've had bagels and cheesecake. We set fire to a building." He's a laugh. The understatement of the British personality makes me laugh every time. Other noteworthy lines: "My brother couldn't make it, so we taught a guy how to play the pot" and "this song is about being a monkey".
That album comes out of 4AD next month, with a full U.S. tour coming in November. So by that time, you'll be primed and ready to discover the fruitfulness of the Stornoway live show. I'm hoping Briggs gets a new shirt by then because whatever he was wearing tonight gave me a headache. GOSH! I guess if the only thing you can speak badly of is a guy's shirt, then the show was a keeper.
Stornoway had good things to say about local act Dinosaur Feathers. Unfortunately, I don't. It was inevitable the wave of local bands sounding like Vampire Weekend. This answers the question, what's worst than Vampire Weekend? Bands inspired by Vampire Weekend. Try as they may, the three piece came off as some middle school pop band who deserve a wedgie for their wimpy, flat music. They tried too hard to be some ultra-quirky outfit with pre-recorded samples and pacing that was all over the place. Just not buying it.