Two gigs in two days is something of an unusual occurrence, all the more so when the two gigs in question are as different as Idlewild and Stornoway, their linkages being only the accidental Scottish name and the affection for things folky.
Stornoway have built a strong following through their live sets and have picked up plaudits in the national as well as the music press. They also seem to have a bit of a reputation for playing in slightly unusual venues and this, first non-classical, show at the grand and impressive Sheldonian must be the most unusual. Billed as a home-coming gig for the band, the thousand seats were sold out (although ‘seats’ can only be an approximate term for the wooden benches up high). The further unusual component was the use of the Oxford Millennium orchestra to act both as support and accompaniment to the band.
Writing this as I do overhead Greenland en route to Denver, it all seems strangely surreal now; the determinedly Oxford crowd, the august surroundings, the young band on the cusp of bigger success all nerves and anxious in front of a wildly supportive home crowd.
The Oxford Millennium Orchestra seemed to made up of the local college students, playing well together. Mendelssohn’s Fingles Cave was a welcome reminder of music from my childhood and Vaughan Williams selection of English folk inspired tunes was an appropriate prelude to the folk-laden melodies to come.
With no recording contact at present, or at least no label (although and album is promised) the music of Stornoway has had to circle around Myspace and other online sites like iTunes etc, one of which provides chargeable download of four tracks. (and which I can no longer find...) and means that my knowledge of their output is pretty limited. But no worry it is the sort of music that is immediate and accessible without being trite and predictable; strong melodies, intelligent lyrics and accomplished playing.
He band, or at least Brian Briggs as their front-man, were perhaps understandably nervous faced with this their largest crowd to date, a heart ‘beating like a jungle drum’ seemed a fair summing up. Indeed the first one or two songs had a hesitancy to them, but his voice was strong and true with a character all of its own. Each song was welcomed as a triumph by the crowd.
However it was whether orchestra joined in that the set really came to life. Adding orchestral arrangements can be a hit and miss affair, but here it was a resounding hit, adding depth and texture but no maudlin sentimentality, all credit to the two band members who wrote the score. Zorbing and Unfaithful were excellent in this form but it was On the Rocks that was the stand out accomplishment – a triumph indeed.
Having exhausted their catalogue there was no encore, just an exhortation for the crowd to give a unified scream as a last way to unsettle the staff at the Sheldonian and a final appearance by Mr Briggs to say this had been the best night of his life. That it may have been but you cannot help but feel that there will be other and greater highs for this band which, if it can ‘let go’ a bit more and a bit earlier, must be on the threshold of wider, greater and deserved success.