Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Concert4Conservation: The Dreaming Spires, The Epstein and Stornoway

After such an incredible evening seeing Stornoway play at Somerset House back in July, it was with great anticipation that I found myself waiting outside The Regal in Oxford on Saturday evening. As a Londoner myself, part of the excitement was seeing them play on their home turf; and standing on the Cowley Road, I half expected to see a giant Zorb rolling through the Street at any given moment. Once in the queue we were quickly approached by an orang-utan and something resembling a 5 ft chicken taking money from us. No we weren’t being robbed by primates and birds; instead the evening was a charity fundraiser. The Concert4Conservation was in aid of 3 charities, The Sumatran Orangutan Society, The Earth Trust, and The RSPB – charities chosen by Stornoway, and particularly apt ones considering Brian’s previous job as an ornithologist, perhaps reinforcing the idea of escaping our ‘battery human’ existence. Supported by fellow Oxford bands The Epstein and The Dreaming Spires and organised by Truck, it had all the ingredients for a perfect homecoming for Stornoway – their first concert to a home crowd since 2010.
            Brothers, Robin and Joe Bennett (founders of Truck Festival and the recently opened Truck Store on Cowley Road) kicked off the evening with their band, The Dreaming Spires, recently featured as Steve Lamacq’s ‘favourite new band’ on BBC radio 6. Not knowing much about the band I was taken aback by their rock‘n’roll sound, such a contrast to the likes of some of Stornoway’s more muted songs, but nonetheless, I decided to give them a chance, and was even slightly surprised that I liked what I heard. With such a rich tapestry of full-on guitars and drums, the sheer energy being generated on the stage was enough for anyone to truly feel a part of the music – though I didn’t appreciate the constant elbowing from the people rocking out next to me!  However the true highlight of the set for me had to be ‘In Our Lifetimes’, a song which Robin Bennett told us had been written to accompany a video game his neighbour had created about running the United Nations Climate Agency – appropriate for an evening In aid of wildlife conservation. The gentler tones contrasted with the rest of their repertoire, and for the first time in the evening, I didn’t feel in danger of a seizure from the strobe lighting. With an album set to be released in October on Clubhouse Records, they’re sure to be one to watch, though whether I will be queuing up for it is a different matter. 

            The opening bars of ‘6.06pm’ reminded me why I love The Epstein so much. The ethereal quality of the piece was truly magical, and the lack of lyrics ensured that nothing detracted from the beauty of the melody and the intertwining instruments that came together to produce a sound so stunning that when the music swelled and crescendoed all your hairs stood on end. ‘Black Dog’ by contrast showed the band’s playfulness. Shut your eyes, and you could almost imagine yourself sitting on the porch of a cattle ranch in Wyoming, showing The Epstein’s versatility that two songs by the same band are such polar opposites. Olly Wills’ powerful voice in ‘Morning News’ combined with the background harmonies of Seb Reynolds and Jon Berry made for an exhilarating slice of Americana, which had even the most phlegmatic tapping their feet along to. And suddenly all too soon, they were onto their final song, ‘Leave Your Light On’ a reflective number ‘to sing around the fire’ that only required Olly and Jon and two acoustic guitars on stage. It was truly beautiful, but sadly the mesmerising musicality of it was lost on the back on the room, whose main priority seemed to be the bar. However, for those who were listening, it was an enchanting end to one of the best live sets I’ve ever seen. 

After what seemed like an age, and a technical hitch or two (well it couldn’t be a Stornoway gig without a couple of those!), Tim Bearder (Radio DJ and huge champion of the band) finally stepped on stage to introduce the headline act to the adoring fans. Reading from the email Stornoway first sent to him many years ago, he reminded us what a ‘polite band they are’, and well, that’s all part of their charm. Lead singer, Brian Briggs, seemed slightly taken aback by the mass of screaming audience members, and it’s reassuring that unlike so many bands, Stornoway haven’t ever taken their success for granted. It was a smart idea for ‘Fuel Up’ to be one of the first songs of the evening, considering that the concert was all about conserving the planet, and despite the serious implications to the environment that ‘fuelling up’ has, the song was as beautiful as ever - Brian’s clear voice rang out over the gentle strumming of the guitar and the harmonies of Jon Ouin, and Oli and Rob Steadman, and the driving beat of the drum (if you excuse the pun) kept the pace without distracting from the lyrical quality of the vocals. 

To restore the evening back to its green roots, it was appropriate that new song, ‘Sixth Wave’ followed – a song about mass extinction. Featuring the auto-harp (an instrument which Brian learnt especially for the occasion), the fast pace was a dramatic change from the slow melancholy of ‘Fuel Up’, and completely different to any of the material on their debut album ‘Beachcomber’s Windowsill’. For many in the audience, it was also the first time that they’d heard ‘Waiting On The Clock’, a fairly old song of the band’s, co-written by Brian and Oli that didn’t make it onto their first album. The references to Oxford landmarks (The Jericho Cafe and Worcester Place), the insanely catchy melody, and background vocals, encompassed everything that’s good about a classic Stornoway song, and Oli’s spinning round on the stage with an infectious grin was enough to carry the audience with him, sharing the moment. The high standard which Stornoway set themselves was never in danger of slipping. ‘The Ones We Hurt the Most’, had all 4 Storno-members around a single mic, singing in perfect four part harmonies, that cast a spell over the audience members, enraptured by the beauty of the gentle vocals, that at the same time was steeped with power and emotion.

But of course, there was only ever one song that would satisfy the audience at the end of such a memorable Stornoway evening, and backed by The North Sea Radio Orchestra; ‘Zorbing’ concluded the set with the same power and freshness it had on first hearing. With a second album looming in early 2012,  the fans are clearly ready to hear more from this remarkable band. 

 Read my interviews with Olly Wills of The Epstein and Rob Steadman of Stornoway, and for more information visit: 


  1. Awesome review! It almost felt like being there with you. ;) And of course, it wouldn´t be a proper Stornoway gig without some technical problems. But the best line is just "...and Oli’s spinning round on the stage with an infectious grin was enough to carry the audience with him" - sooo true! Glad you had such a great time. Maybe we´ll manage to go to a Stornoway gig together some time. And thanks again for the videos!

  2. Alex (from Brazil)9 September 2011 at 00:15

    Ohh you have no idea how bad you made me feel for not living in England! I went to their gig at Somerset House and I've been craving another Stornogig ever since I left that place.
    Thank you for this review. It's nice knowing what they're up to with so many details, especially when it is told by someone who loves this band as much as I do.

  3. Great review! I was at the Regal as well but unable to finish Stornoway's set as I have to catch the last bus back to London. Shame they started a bit late but it was enjoyable none the less. :)

  4. thank you for your lovely comments! it was definitely an amazing evening (as I'm sure you can tell!). Bring on the second album!


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