A trip to Oxford Castle is always a pleasure and this night proved no different. Well, a little different. This was no ordinary tour date. With art installations in the crypt and cells, many a Halloween reference and some hastily-shoved-aside prison exhibits to accommodate the bands, this was truly an event of sorts. And what an inspired event it turned out to be.
The evening kicked off slowly, there was a sombre mood amongst the few that had gotten there early enough to see performance poet, Alabaster DePlume wandering around, meeting and greeting folks, offering pearls of wisdom or merely a rizla. This charismatic and beautifully pretentious soul was to be the compere (and oft centre of attention) for the evening. Without much in the way of ado, Alabaster (real name Gus) encouraged a warm welcome for the first band of the evening, Water Pageant; a three-piece folk outfit who delivered a decent set of delicately balanced tunes that varied from the upbeat to the downcast. The small crowd stood or sat around listening attentively, enjoying the music, but anticipating something more.
After 20 minutes of shuffling some instruments around a room not meant for instruments, something more did happen – Alabaster DePlume. The poetical madness spilled forth as he treated an ever-growing crowd to a Halloween ditty that measured out equal parts Court Room ballad and contemporary humour about Anne Boleyn haunting Henry VIII with “her head tucked underneath her arm”. The polite chuckles from a very Oxford audience was the early signs that they were getting warmed up and ready to be involved and invested in the evening’s spooky entertainment. DePlume continued to dish out more and more of his curious mind through verse and inter-performance verbal-meanderings. He was wonderfully verbose; self-deprecating, but not to the point of annoyance; hilarious and tender. He finished his set by informing the audience that he was a better performer when drunk, so we should all buy his single, ‘I Don’t Know‘ and his new book too.
The time had come for The Miserable Rich to take to the corner of the room that would be a stage and, once again, Alabaster was on hand to welcome them. Their new album, Miss You In The Days, was recorded in Blickling Hall (Britain’s most haunted stately home – apparently) and has a rather ghostly feel to it, so it seemed only correct that Alabaster should tell us a ghost story, backed by the chilling vocal strains of the band themselves, before letting The Miserable Rich loose on the dingy, ancient room now full of eager ears and instantly announcing themselves to those of the crowd that had not really heard them before.
There was some excellent facial hair on display as the six-piece, Brighton-based, art-folk-chamber-pop band pulled out and expertly wielded a well constructed set, peppered with songs such as ‘On A Certain Night’ that not only go somewhere, but also say something. Often bands and their sound are described as “haunting”, but never has it been more true or more deliberate, whilst managing to not seem so affected. There is a genuine heartfelt quality to each and every member of this earnestly spiritual band that may not to be to everyone’s liking, but it is there and it is undeniable.
Once more, the evening’s ever-present poet popped up to tell us one more tale; this time, of a motorcyclist doomed to fall at a certain corner for all eternity. The story ended, the band struck up and DePlume whipped out a sax to join The Miserable Rich in their penultimate song of a set which, once it ended, received such an applause from the audience that the band were forced to return and entertain us some more. Once back in the room, they treated us all to a genuinely, entirely unplugged performance of ‘Boat Song’ (complete with Brahms’ Lullaby on music box). A neat trick.
The Miserable Rich seem to have a rare gift, each instrument seemed to have its own song to sing and not merely provide backing for any one leader. A quality that, I believe, is sadly lacking from their recorded work. I had listened to ‘On A Certain Night’ the day before and I liked it. I heard them play live in a small room, with less of an audience than every artist that night deserved and I loved it.
An excellent evening of entertainment from across the arts, set within the walls of a castle that lends itself quite perfectly to the eerie, the haunting and the spiritual. If you believe in that sort of thing.