Friday, April 05, 2013

Straight outta Cowley - review of Stornoway

Stornoway at New Greenham Arts, Greenham on Monday, February 18

NOT actually from the Isle of Lewis as the name suggests but in fact formed in Oxford (they clearly considered it a more atmospheric name than “Cowley”; Stornoway are on the more interesting end of the spectrum of the new folk rock sound so often drowned out by the likes of the ubiquitous Mumford &  Sons. For a start, they have a saw-on-woodblock combo as a percussion instrument, and a large metal cylinder that gets bashed to oblivion. And - possibly most pleasingly - a lot less banjo.

As the first band to be allowed a standing gig at New Greenham Arts, Stornoway conquered the Monday night blues to attract a sell-out crowd, the largest probably seen on the former USAF air base since the Prodigy played in one of the old aircraft hangers in the mid-90s.

They may not have visited their remote namesake town until 2010, but Stornoway’s sound is certainly evocative of the windswept Outer Hebrides: lush layers of music sweep and soar before being stripped back to a soundscape of near-bleakness for acoustic moments and even acapella singing. There are two sets of brothers in the band, and the phenomenon of sibling harmony that arises from a shared vocal timbre is a string to Stornoway’s bow.

A slight naive tilt to some of the lyrics of songwriter and frontman Brian Briggs grated a little with the overall maturity of Stornoway’s music. For the otherwise gorgeous Farewell Appalachia!  Briggs appears to have imbibed a thesaurus of countryside terms: Through the scree at the foot of the bluff/  And I drank from the brook/ And I slept in the lee of the wood. And the line in their UK number four chart hit, Zorbing, “I feel like I just started uni” just makes me feel a bit old.

Aside from traumatising some audience members (ie me) with the realisation that at least some of these immensely talented “songsmiths, scholars, scientists and men of the earth” are young enough to be my offspring, Stornoway attracted a wonderfully wide spread of ages to NGA, and the ability of this band and their ilk to induct a new generation into the folk genre deserves a generous doff of the cap.

And anyway - any band that can produce a song as lovely as The Coldharbour Road can be forgiven a few duff lyrics along the way.

  • First published in the Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, March 5, 2013

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