John Bramwell @ O2 Academy Oxford – 21/04/12

Every month, in association with BBC introducing, a selection of Oxford’s most promising local talent is showcased in the upstairs area of the O2 academy on Cowley Road, aiming to promote the music of fresh and exciting new artists that span an eclectic mix of genres and musical backgrounds. The doors opened at 7:00pm on Saturday evening and I ascended the blackened steps that led into the dimly lit performance area tangled with cables and the soft hum of valve amplifiers, glancing briefly at the line-up on a beer soaked piece of paper at the bar before making my way to the centre of the room where a reasonable crowd had already gathered.

Empty White Circles were the first band to take to the stage, an Oxford based five-piece indie outfit that played an impressive and energetic set combining strong vocals and acoustic rhythm guitar juxtaposed against a backdrop of reverb drenched melodious lead phrasing, soft tonal synth accompaniment and huge crashing drum patterns that created a rich and interesting sound. Standout tracks included the guitar interaction on ‘Positives’ and the emotional intensity encapsulated in the epic outro to ‘These days’, constructing a wall of sound somewhere between the creative visions of Explosions in the Sky and Manchester Orchestra.

Next up was hypnotic electronica rock band Sonic Rising whose aesthetically messy appearance of The Horrors, rough ‘n’ ready crunchy guitar riffs, hard hitting rhythm section and confident Kasabian-inspired bass lines made this a solid and memorable performance, helped out of the ordinary by the addition of a Hammond Organ and the use of interesting sampling and FX that complimented the overall sound well.

Leading on from this came a nice break up between the bands with singer-songwriter Jess Hall, who created an intimate and relaxing listening experience with her soft, warm vocals floating delicately above simple arpeggiated folk-infused chord sequences. As a singer she had great vibrato control and a beautifully melancholy tone, picking lyrical narratives of love and the hardships of life encompassed within vivid images of nature, made even more expressive by the wisps of meandering smoke illuminated by the dim turquoise spotlighting that framed her, created a relaxing and ambient atmosphere. Of all the songs she performed, ‘Sea Song’ was by far the strongest with the aid of three backing vocalists, introduced as the ‘sea-singers’, merging intricate harmonic arrangements and acoustic guitar accompaniment.

Following on from this and in keeping with the newly established folk theme arrived The Lake Poets, a band from Sunderland fronted by singer-songwriter and founding member Martin Longstaff. For the first half of his set he sang mournful and harrowing songs accompanying himself on acoustic guitar but after a few tracks enlisted the help of a backing band, the instrumental layers working really well together creating poignant drops and dynamic contrast that built into a complex and emotive texture. Notable tracks include his haunting, unique vocal style on ‘Windowsill’ and relaxed finger-picking countermelodies on ‘Friends’, combining the virtuoso acoustic mastery and memorable, heartfelt choruses of Ben Howard with the subtle close harmonies of Fleet Foxes that gave a distinctive quality to their sound.

Finally the headline act I Am Kloot’s John Bramwell took to the stage at about 10:30pm, playing a mixed set of old and debut material to rapturous applause. He showed true musicianship with effortless technical ability, merging interesting dissonant jazz harmony, elaborate finger-picking patterns and resonating harmonics that created an emotionally charged performance.  With a delicate, passionate style of playing and the ability to interact well with the audience John was a firm favourite and gained the biggest cheer of the night after agreeing to a two song encore, raising his glass in the air as he finished playing, declaring with a big smile “Cheers everybody, it must be my rather fanciful northern charm!” and with that the gig was over.