The Epstein @ The Bullingdon – 21/04/11

The Backroom at The Bullingdon Arms was about half-full (or half-empty if you’re the pessimistic type) on Thursday night as the four-day weekend kicked off with a night of folk-rock offerings from Oxford and London. Fortunately, the audience’s enthusiasm exceeded their numbers.

The same can be said for the night’s headliners. Although Oxfordshire’s The Epstein have been whittled down from a five-piece to a trio, their sound is far from diminished. If anything, this honing allows the listener to tune into the adept, thoughtful songwriting, which – along with frontman Olly Wills’ distinctive plaintive tone and their uncanny instinct for instrumentation – is really what sets The Epstein apart from other “Englicana” efforts. The last song of their set, ‘Hudson’, was actually a bit Simon-and-Garfunkelesque for me in that respect.

Other faves were ‘Morning News’ and ‘Calling Out Your Name’, both perfect candidates for blaring during a drive through the West Texas desert with their soaring harmonies, twangy electric guitar and foot-tapping groove. And although it was downright balmy in the Bully, I confess I got the chills during fan fave ‘Leave Your Light On’, the second tune of their two-song encore.

The Epstein were supported by London-based six-piece outfit Left With Pictures, who provided one of the night’s highlights when they descended from the stage into the audience to close their eight-song set with a softly charming rendering of Richard Thompson’s ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ complete with glockenspiel and melodica. Before them were The Yarns, who may not possess the ambition of the other two bands, but who were definitely on form with their tightly-knit, clever indie-folk-pop-complete-with-trumpet tunes. The Yarns hit their up-tempo staccato stride mid-stream, and put the people in an extra-good mood.

The three bands – altogether a baker’s dozen of folky dudes – put on one of the gracious shows I’ve seen recently, which each outfit profusely extolling the others, and it was a sublime soundtrack for a warm (for Oxford) Thursday evening.