Three years ago, Stornoway played a little-heralded show as support act to a rising local stars Villagers. Bottom of the bill at Marlay Park, they were visibly nervous, sounding solid in reproducing their nuanced, poetic brand of folk-pop, but depressingly lacking in presence on a chunky stage. Today, with an album and EP behind them in just the past few months, its clear there’s been a eureka moment in the meantime.
Tonight’s set is confident and open from the off. While de facto frontman Brian Briggs is full of wry humour, not least in his tales of stealing Massive Attack’s chicken under the watchful eyes of a hungry Phil Jupitus at Electric Picnic. Between the thoughtful ad libs, a musical tour de force links the new musical output seamlessly with the older ditties. The perfect example of the newer development comes in the intro: suddenly Oxford’s second finest (sorry lads, but Radiohead…) sound like a pulsing, slow-building Dire Straits impersonator running through their instrumentation to a huge crescendo.
There’s no doubting the older tracks remain the highlight. ‘I Saw You Blink’ is the first to get the confidence overhaul. Mid verse Stornoway take an aside to throw down tongue in cheek cuttings from ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ and ‘Dirty Old Town’, bizarrely followed by ‘Love Me For A Reason’ (“let the reason be bleurgh”) and ‘C’Est La Vie’. And why not. ‘Fuel Up’ is a more serious moment, a thought provoking riddle of life that’s given a heftier live transformation, while ‘Staring at the Sea’ has a moody blues, cabaret feel, backed with a spooked, ghost-train style holler.
When things go unplugged it’s actually a nice pace change, such has Stornoway’s previously sedate style changed. ‘November Song’ sees Briggs go it alone, a delicate, Temple Bar appropriate trad feel taking the reins. New track ‘Josephine’ is bordering on barbershop in its tonal vocal harmonies, while ‘We Are the Battery Human’ has always been something of a calling card, and ode to the band’s retro cultural direction and love of the great outdoors.
Instead of being a series of well-written songs, what we’re now watching is a show. There are changes of pace, moments of charm and recognition and others of introduction and experimentation. There’s also a confidence, a sense that the band have found the scale they belong at, at least for now, and are approaching the live aspects of performance with real belief. Briggs has grown in his role, no longer the uncertain vocalist. By the time ‘Zorbing’ comes around we’re sold: no longer simply an enjoyable and smart listen, Stornoway have grown into a compelling live asset, too.