BORDERVILLE / MATT WINKWORTH & THE WINKWORTHERS ORIGINALS / THE FREEMANTLE, 18TH FEBRUARY 2011, OXFORD REGAL
(Well over a year overdue, but, y'know, I've got to start catching up on the backlog somewhere...)
Tonight is The Freemantle's very first gig - and what a venue for it. The grand old Regal has rarely seemed so cavernous, so sparse is the crowd. As for the band themselves, well, I can't be kind so instead I'll just be quiet.
Attendance has swollen somewhat by the time Matt Winkworth takes to the stage, warming us up with some communal vocal exercises. Solo, his lyrically dexterous piano-based ditties suit an intimate environment, but tonight he's backed by a full band (the Winkworthers Originals, adding guitar, cello, violin, brass and drums) and songs such as 'Just Like The Movies' and '4am' are blown up to fill the space. The transformation demands that he stands rather than sits at his keyboard, a focal point for the audience, informing us that he's been researching the Regal's history and was amazed to discover it was opened in 1937 by Dolly Parton. This may not be true.
Sadly our enjoyment of his tall tales and musical flights of fancy are cruelly curtailed when the rather naive promoters, concerned that everything is overrunning, take a leaf out of the 1-2-3-4 book of rude stage management and simply shut off the power without consulting or even forewarning the performers.
When the resulting bafflement subsides, it's replaced by a feeling of annoyance which leads me to contemplate staging a walk-out in principled protest. It doesn't help that headliners Borderville failed to wow me at Truck, or that the venue is freezing - "Outside it's as cold as ice, and inside it's also as cold as ice", observes frontman Joe Swarbrick, shortly before playing a song called 'I Am The Winter'. I stick around, though, and am rewarded with something far better than the try-too-hard set they failed to pull off at Truck.
It's still overtly theatrical and wide-open to accusations of pretentiousness, of course, but then this is a band who are gearing up to release a concept album unashamedly inspired by Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. Tonight, though, there's more aggression, more angst, more murk. The aforementioned 'I Am The Winter' lopes along with a menacing Bad Seeds bassline that seems to know where the bodies are buried, while even the slower songs are like Bright Eyes putting up the blackout blinds and preparing for the apocalypse, 'Afterlife' finding Swarbrick declaring "There's no such thing as heaven, you fucking fool". 'Short Sharp Shock' brings an end to proceedings - appropriately so, as I've been jolted out of my dislike for one of Oxford's more idiosyncratic outfits.