It’s been almost a year since Stornoway last played in Oxford, since then they’ve played the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury, toured Europe, America and Australia, and started preparing album number two, due out late next year. Tonight’s gig is in aid of three conservation charities, The Sumatran Orangutan Society, The R.S.P.B. and The Earth Trust, and every penny raised from both tickets and merch is going to be split between the three. As such, there are some extremely warm looking people walking around with collection boxes dressed in orang-utan suits, it is extremely hot in The Regal, the things people will do for charity!
Having seen, and not particularly enjoyed, The Dreaming Spires at Truck Festival this year, I went into their set with low expectations, of which, unfortunately, they did nothing to change. It’s not that they’re bad musicians – far from it. The problem with The Dreaming Spires is that their songs lack substance, they’re lyrically awful, musically innocuous, and generally generic and boring, and they try to mask this by piling more onto them – there were at least six people onstage at any one point. To be fair to them, they’ve perfected their brand of insipid early nineties easy listening rock, they’re obviously practised performers, and the crowd don’t hate it – I’ve seen worse supports in my time, but christ, ‘Everything All The Time’ is awful.
Next up are The Epstein, who, while being no less polished, play a more stimulating set than the preceding. Live, they sound a whole lot more upbeat than on record. ‘I Held You Once’ is a particular highlight, a lush, soaring track that builds up into an effervescent, melodic peak, receiving massive applause from the audience. Their set finishes with a rousing rendition of fan favourite ‘Leave Your Light On’.
When Stornoway finally take to the stage, their set is interspersed with talk of the charities involved in tonight’s gig, thanks to the people involved in organisation, thanks to the other bands, thanks to the audience – they’re a very polite band, Stornoway. The first sing-along of the set comes in the form of the lively ‘Watching Birds’, following on from a slower, but no less anthemic ‘Coldharbour Road’. They play the latter part of the set backed by special guests the North Sea Radio Orchestra, in the process including instruments as diverse as an autoharp, and even a musical saw on ‘Here Comes the Blackout…!’
After a short break, they come back on stage to a new song in which all four band members stand in a semi circle around a microphone and sing together, it’s a lovely moment, raw, harmonious, but more than anything, intimate. I don’t know if this is what the song is going to sound like on record, but tonight it is wonderful. Of course though, it’s final track ‘Zorbing’ that really gets the crowd going, not least because of the release of two giant white balloons – á la festival – for them to play with.
I don’t know if it’s more prevalent through every single person in the room dancing to ‘I Saw You Blink’, the cheering when Brian starts detailing the similarities between humans and orang-utans, or the resultant rush to the charity merch table at the end of the gig, but Stornoway are loved in Oxford. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait a year to have them back again.
Photgraphy by John Bullock