It’s a chilly Autumn night in the city of dreaming spires and something strange is happening. There are no university gowns in sight, nor any scantily-clad teenagers slumped on the side of the road. Tonight isn’t about the city’s students or tourists; tonight is a whirlwind celebration of Oxford’s famous musical heritage, its cosy contemporary music scene and the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, now known globally as Oxfam. It’s an exciting music festival that raises awareness about poverty and injustice without shaking a jar at you.
The Cellar is a welcome respite from the crisp air outside and has already been warmed by cider-drinking punters awaiting ToLiesel’s set. The band play like they’re headlining; their feet set wide apart, guitars held aloft like godly relics and lead singer Jack Olchawski glowing with confidence. New single, ‘The Light’ is a charming song that bursts open with energy, healthy Americana and swashbuckling rhythms, but ‘Whispered Half Asleep’ sees ToLiesel at their most accomplished. Aquatic guitars quiver and heavyweight three-part harmonies boom around The Cellar’s tiny underground space. “I’m flattered so many of you are missing We Aeronauts for us,” Olchawski says wide-eyed, “try and see some of their set.” And with that, a quick walk next door to The Purple Turtle allows gig-goers to catch the end of We Aeronauts’ set.
Sweat is dripping from PT’s cavernous walls and We Aeronauts are looking suitably bemused on stage. Technical difficulties have actually postponed their performance and the seven or so twenty-somethings are beginning to share perspiration with the walls. When all things are go, their first few minutes on stage are understandably a little flustered, but lead singer Anna is a force of nature and really pulls the band forward with her Feist-like vocals. A twee accordion and trumpet nicely pepper their grounded folk-guitar, piano and drum arrangements, but ongoing complications with the sound lets them down a bit tonight.
Thanks to the hard work of the festival organisers, all the Oxjam venues are in close proximity and the clubs themselves are fitting for each act. Take Sisterland for instance, a fuzzy garage-punk who have been wholeheartedly embraced by the local Blessing Force collective. They couldn’t be better suited and booted for Modern Art Oxford, A.K.A. Oxford’s hipster haven (it’s a visual art gallery-cum-performance space that sells seasonal food and soft grain leather rucksacks, for Christ’s sake). Musings aside, Sisterland play a remarkable set. The lead vocalist’s choir-boy vocals add a sugary sweetness atop the trio’s concoction of heavily distorted guitars and thrashing drums. Their set is criminally short, but Pet Moon are on next.
Sporting a rather unconventional short back and sides, Andrew Mears of Pet Moon immediately jumps into action, strutting around the stage and bouncing his RnB vocals off Modern Art’s whitewashed walls. They’re regulars on the local circuit and have been in some form for years (Mears was one of the original founding members of Foals and the since-dissolved Youthmovies). But it’s a rather odd affair watching them tonight. Mears intermittently hits the high notes and rarely engages with the audience, which is a surprise when considering the context of his established musicianship. Perhaps it is just his style. It could also be an extended metaphor for their somewhat disjointed and unpredictable music, where synths scurry like mice, trigger-sharp rhythms cut and splice and warm vocals wash with the beat. Their sound certainly lies somewhere between ambient producer How To Dress Well and a modern Prince, especially on the rousing ‘Superposition.’ Pet Moon have some fascinating experimental sounds at their disposal, but they just need to find a way to execute them live.
Shortly afterwards at The Turl Street Kitchen, Empty White Circles take over the stage like there isn’t a moment to spare. Fronted by two American brothers but seemingly rooted in Oxford, the five piece play glorious Americana and rootsy folk ballads. Lead vocalist Kevin Duggan is a young incarnation of Marcus Mumford, who projects with a wholesome country hum and ‘woahs’ like he invented it. ‘Positives’ is an infectious shuffle-pop tune played with remarkable assuredness, but it’s ‘Adventures’ that really sells the band live. All five of them flank the edge of the stage and just as the Duggan brothers lull the crowd with their honeyed harmonies, the whole band stomps in unison like a strange, sedated hoedown. It’s powerful, engaging and damn-impressive from start to finish, just like their entire set.
Lamp shades add a rather domesticated feel to the venue, perfect for headlining solo acoustic hero Richard Walters‘ stripped-back sound. He’s just flown in from Ireland and looks bloody knackered, grinning and bearing the first few songs but eventually warming up to the attentive crowd. Walters is a captivating performer who never once opens his eyes but completely envelopes audiences in his stories of love, loss and life. New single, ‘The Escape Artist’, proves that he doesn’t need a full band behind him to stun everyone to silence. The recorded version – although in itself a beautifully undercooked composition – features yearning strings and tumbling drum patterns, but it couldn’t be better heard than live with just Walters and his solitary guitar.
The Turl Street Kitchen is enjoying a quiet crowd that takes comfort from Walters’ aching melodies and ecclesiastical vocals. Recognising this, Walters decides to dig out a couple more songs from his back catalogue, including the mesmerising, ‘Weather Song’, in which he compares his lover with natural elements over a trickling, plucked guitar.
The fact that Walters brings Oxjam Oxford to its close with this song is not only fitting for tonight’s breezy Autumnal weather, but it nods to the city’s love for performers of all kinds – from lo-fi garage bands to sensitive one-man band balladeers. After tonight, Oxford should be extremely proud of its charitable and musical heritage.