Live Review: Stornoway, Oxford

A sell-out audience at Oxford Town Hall eschewed the option of sitting in a crowded, over-priced restaurant on Valentine’s Day in preference of catching Stornoway for the first of two nights in their hometown as they tour the country in support of the impending release of their long awaited second album, ‘Tales from Terra Firma’.

Unfortunately songstress Laura J Martin who has been supporting on the tour was unable to make the show due to numerous accidents on the M1 but local rising stars Spring Offensive stepped into the breach and proved more equal to the task, putting on a fine performance. Recently voted ‘Band of the Year’ by the ‘BBC Introducing’ in Oxford team they are a band really starting to stretch their wings; touring extensively and receiving airplay on both Radio 1 and BBC 6 Music. I have no doubt that they are a band you will only be hearing more of over the course of 2013.

By the time Stornoway took to the stage the venue was packed and buzzing with an expectant air, for those of you not familiar with Oxford Town Hall it is a very grand, ornate and impressive location but with the downside of not having the best acoustics for live music. That said, it is without doubt a stunning setting and along with clever light provided the perfect backdrop for the evening.

The band opened their set with the first single from the new album, Knock Me On The Head, safe territory as it has likely been heard by most in attendance due to the extensive coverage and radio play the song has been receiving. The intro to the song set the scene perfectly, evoking the smell of salty air and long journeys to far-off shores before the catchy chorus kicked in, getting even first time listeners nodding along.

It is always difficult when a band is touring to support an album that hasn’t been released yet as it means they are going to be playing songs never before heard. The crowd were receptive though and enjoyed the new tunes but until they have had a chance to buy the album and listen to it at length it is too early to know which of the tracks from the new record will become firm favourites. Talking of which the set was peppered with some old faves from the bands first album in amongst the new material with appearances for The Coldharbour Road, Fuel Up and old fave Zorbing.

Singer and guitarist Brian Biggs regaled us in his usual faltering but utterly charming style between songs with spooky tales from the road before unplugging his guitar and moving away from the microphone for an unplugged performance of November Song. The crowd listened in complete, absorbed silence as his distinctive voice soared, filling the lofty venue with its sonorous tones, the rendition receiving one of the loudest cheers of the night.

It was nice to see a band adjust to make the most of their surroundings, leaving the stage after the final song with the crowd clapping and cheering while waiting for the encore only for them to reappear on the balcony at the rear of the venue. Lit by a lone spotlight the band performed a beautiful version of ‘The Ones We Hurt The Most’, their 4-part harmonies accompanied perfectly by the cello playing of bassist Oli Steadman and subtle strings from violinist, Susie Attwood.

There was one final treat in store after having been serenaded so beautifully as keyboard player Jon Ouin popped up minutes later seated at the enormous Cathedral sized organ and proceeded to perform a mad ‘phantom of the opera’ style piece, joined by drummer Rob Steadman and leading straight into a rousing version of crowd favourite, Watching Birds, which had everyone singing and clapping along.

The night was a success on all fronts, Oxford came out in force to support its returning heroes and the line-up showed the strength and depth of a local music scene that is already punching above its weight on a national scale. Attentions now turn to the release of the new album and to see where 2013 takes things for Stornoway.

Tales from Terra Firma is released on 11th March through 4AD records and you can catch the band if you are quick on the last few dates of their tour.