So, in the bleak midwinter, with the frosty wind making moan and all that, I went off to the Pindrop Publicity Midwinter Festival, down at St John the Evangelist on Iffley Road. As it was a charity event for Oxford aid programme, The Gatehouse, it seemed like a worthy show to see – though this was no holier-than-thou sort of gig, but a top collection of Oxford musicians all crammed into one evening.
The first act I caught from the two hour acoustic set was the lead singer from Americana outfit Huck and the Handsome Fee, or just Huck for short. With a clean, Dixie-ish guitar and a voice evoking The Tallest Man on Earth (‘The Ancient Greeks’ even sounded like ‘Graceland’) – Huck managed to put on a pretty damn good show, which funnily enough seemed perfectly suited to a church. Shame his set was only 15 minutes long, we would have appreciated a little longer…
Unfortunately, I can’t really say the same for Rainbow Reservoir. Her singing style was a bit like a more mumbly and whimsical Kimya Dawson (who soundtracked the film Juno); paired with a piano instead of a guitar. She had some witty lyrics floating about, but the monotony and tweeness of it all was a bit too much – not really my thing.
Performing our next three-song bout was Jess Hall, a short and sweet set, which rarely (if ever) hit a bum note. Her music’s a bit more catchy than the rest, with a really cracking voice. My only complaint is that the Christmas song was a bit cutesy, but it was otherwise a decent set.
Next up: Billy T’Rivers and three guys in beanies – aka the Wild West Retirement Home – performing a set that sounded like a depressed Mumford and Sons camping out in Tennessee. Their music isn’t half bad (they’re pretty entertaining) it just needs a bit of a kick up the backside and less of a Mississippi-cum-Somerset feel to it.
The Southern theme continued with Matt Sage of Catweazle fame, straight from introducing sets to bringing yet another variant of guitar from ‘Murica down to Oxford. (What is it with Oxford and Americana at the moment? Is there something in the water)? Despite slightly resembling that embarrassing dad in assembly, his set was punchy, funny and “had musical merit” as the person sitting next to me describes.
Last on the acoustic line up was local ledge Ags Connolly, today bearing an uncanny resemblance to Hank from King of the Hill and warming us all up in the freezing church with his mighty fine singing voice, crooning about getting old and his “Trusty Companions.” After unplugging for his last song – by request of event organiser Sebastian Reynolds – he showed that the acoustics of the church were perfectly suited to his soulsy music. We’ll be seeing more of Connolly, I bet.
After a short interlude, it was time for the plugged-in sets for the evening to start with the oh-so-catchily named Until the Bird of the Soul Takes Flight from the Cage of the Body….I liked this lot, they had a bit of an Allo’ Darlin feel to them, but with an unholy amount of other instruments besides a ukulele.
The highlight of the evening – what with Wild Swim calling off sick (disaster!) – was special guest of the night, the Mercury Music Prize 2012 nominated Sam Lee. He was described by Matt Sage as “lighting up little fires” of authentic folk music on the London scene, which is hard to doubt after hearing his fantastic loyal renditions of traditional folk music, many of which he learned first-hand from Roma gypsies. Though at first a little sceptical (he can sound a bit like a primary school teacher at times) the audience quickly warmed up to his interesting freestyle approach and various murder ballads. He even managed to get us all singing along to an ode about a guy promising to “treat his lady decent”.
Lee was then joined by Flights of Helios, where they proceeded to produce some synthy alt-folk mishmash about a child killing three dwarves, which worked perfectly in the church. Their catchy but intense sound was one of the best features of the evening, and their singer’s great falsetto and the moody, pulsating vibes really worked well together. After collaborating with Jess Hall on a song, Flights Of Helios finished with a tribute to the Bleeding Heart Narrative, backed by the rest of the acts from the evening. It was a dark and brilliant finish, and really topped off the evening for me.
By this time, the audience was pretty done and the handouts of sausage rolls and a speech from a Gatehouse volunteer failed to bring us up throughout The Epstein’s headline set. The band’s bluesy guitars and melodies about love and goodness knows what else were certainly pleasant, but the songs started to melt together like badly-baked biscuits and just get a bit dull. The Magnetic Fields cover and closing song, ‘I Held You Once, finished off well, despite the band overstaying their welcome a bit.
The evening ended with a tremendous sense of well-being. It was a pretty intense gig for much of the audience who lasted through all 12 acts, but it would have been a shame to miss out on such a special event on the Oxford calendar this year.