If Stornoway’s lyric ‘destined to go nowhere, by the fear of unrequited love’ was an early prediction for the band’s prospects, they were way off the mark.
Because if the last London gig of their final tour is anything to go by, the love is definitely mutual.
Folk isn’t renowned for screaming crowds and obsessive teens. But I’m not sure I’ve seen a crowd go so wild for a band before as at the O2 Shepherds Bush on Friday – not Pixies stalwarts at Glastonbury or New Order die-hards at Lattitude. Perhaps only Bellowhead come close in any vaguely-related genre.
I first went to see Stornoway in Exeter about eight years ago on the recommendation of my uncle.
They immediately became my favourite band – the perfect combination of (mostly) acoustic indie, but with an emotional depth that puts to shame the vacuity of much of that ilk. Themes of nature and the sublime are abundant, while eschewing the twee-ness of less musically sophisticated bands – not naming names.
Since that little gig in Devon, the Oxford synth-folk outfit have provided the soundtrack to the major events of my life: finishing college, going to university, moving abroad, moving back again (tail between legs), through all the tropes of love, loss and longing – as well as ending up in this hectic capital.
I know I’m not alone. I met those in exactly the same boat on Friday. Exactly the sort you’d expect perhaps: there are more glasses wearers here than the national client list of Specsavers. And they were enraptured from start to finish.
Beginning with the swooping, heart-swelling solo violin of their debut album’s The Coldharbour Road was a wise move. And the unique mix of percussion – Tales from Terra Firma’s Farewell Appalachia featured the sound of leaves mimicked by eating crisps very close to the microphone – somehow beautifully translates onto stage.
But by the time the crowd had been caught in the soaring harmonies of the opening track, they were Stornoway’s for the taking, with the swung beats of nature-love song You Take Me As I Am making the beautiful old theatre hall of the O2 come alive.
The emotion was mutual too. It was hard to tell whether frontman Brian Briggs’ voice breaking up in Here to Eternity was the only slip of the night, or a reflection of passion in the line ‘can you see me shaking?’
He is too shy to talk. But then he rips up the stage with his voice and acoustic skill – including in alternative romantic hit Love Song of the Beta Male. With the most brilliantly awkward frontman in music, Stornoway is the band of the beta male.
And when they switched to pure acoustic numbers, it was really pure – they took a gamble by switching off all the mics. It paid off: they held the hall to a capella masterpiece Josephine in a way that few bands could manage.
And contrasts that few could manage, too – their cover of Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me) shortly after a three-song all-vocal breakdown brought the vibe up again immediately.
After possibly the longest demand for an encore I’ve seen, Stornoway were right to finish with Zorbing – where their indie-folk fame began – that is, rolling ‘round the hills of South East London’.
This is a band that started gigging life in London, travelling from Oxford in Brian’s tiny car, with Oli Steadman lying on top of a cello.
They have worked for their success – and they worked for their grand goodbye too. So when loads of inflatable balls poured out for the final tune, it was a genuine party vibe.
This was not a funeral – this was the best of leaving dos. And well deserved after 10 years on the road.
As ornithologist Brian Briggs goes off to work on a nature reserve in South Wales (yes really), I’m sure a come-back album is the last thing on their mind.
But as a young man who travelled from LA for the gig told me: “I hope it’s like when stores say they’re going out of business but actually it’s just a marketing ploy.”
Something Stornoway are not the sort to try those tricks. But they’ll have to come back at some point. I’m going to need some fresh soundtracks for life’s successes and storms. All of us will.
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