STORNOWAY / ALPHABET BACKWARDS / VIXENS, 8TH NOVEMBER 2008, OXFORD ZODIAC
The concept: the Zodiac and esteemed local listings mag Nightshift join forces to put on a series of gigs on Saturdays called On A Saturday as a nod to the original name of Oxfordshire's most famous musical export, with the aim of showcasing the best the city currently has to offer.
So how the fuck did Vixens get on the bill, then?! They seem to have been abandoned as children in a big reed basket outside the door of the IPC offices and raised as NME staffers' own, and their lame, supposedly dark and often out-of-time indie owes a debt to Editors of such magnitude they can expect to be awoken by the sound of baseball-bat-wielding thugs testing the durability of their front door any morning now. I, meanwhile, can expect a torrent of abuse, if this is anything to go by...
So, what we're really craving now is originality - but, as they say, be careful what you wish for. Because if you wish for originality you might be landed with Alphabet Backwards. Sure, the contrast is something of a relief - for all of about one song, when it dawns on me that their perky pop (at odds with their scowling and strikingly square-jawed keyboard player) is intensely irritating. Case in point: 'Polar Bear', which has the repeated line "If we all threw an ice cube in the sea, could we save the polar bears?" Whether it's serious or in jest, it's naff.
So far so bad, then. Surely things can't get any worse? When the headliners have a naff tune of their own, 'The Good Fish Guide', it's always possible.
But, to my surprise, Stornoway don't play it, and better still, they're actually much improved from when I last saw them almost exactly a year ago (and thought 'The Good Fish Guide' was actually half-decent - blame it on fatigue from struggling up Headington Hill).
For an indie-folk band, they've got a real sense of the theatrical: their arrival on stage tonight is announced by an unconvincing transvestite (I think it's the beard...) beating a gong and their uniform - shirts, braces, trilby hats and the odd horse's head - makes them look like characters from 'The Grapes Of Wrath'. Brian Briggs is not only the owner of a fine voice but also of some nicely dry and bizarre bantering skills, at one point relating the strange tale of a famous fainting goat.
Aside from the song about Yo Sushi! that I first heard performed by guitarist Ollie Steadman's side project Palace Music in August but given its debut in a Stornoway set tonight and the very last song of the night, the frenetic 'Jonathan's Mullet' (they just couldn't resist slipping in one song about fish, could they - or is it about haircuts?), the emphasis is firmly on epic folk pop, from 'We Are The Battery Human's plaintive lament at being couped up at work to the rousing and anthemic 'Fuel Up'.
Like fellow Oxfordians Jonquil, Stornoway are becoming synonymous with warm-spirited, big-hearted music. A few more support slots like the one they score with The Magic Numbers a few days later and dustbowl chic will be all the rage.