Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Stornoway at RAMM

Stornoway’s Saturday evening appearance in the rear gallery of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter was a prelude to a summer spent performing in idiosyncratic locales and at events which studiously avoid the routine repertory of rock dives. They will be landing for a brief roost at the RSPB reserve in Minsmere, waking up in The Village for Festival No.6 at Portmeiron, offering their optimistically humanist worldview for critical scrutiny at the How Lights Get In festival of philosophy and music at Hay On Wye, and filling their faces at the Summer Pie Festival in Spain. Such an eclectic schedule betokens a determination to avoid the obvious or to travel the usual, well-mapped rock routes. This adventurousness is also reflected in their willingness to try out a variety of performance styles, adopting different approaches to familiar songs and adapting to the environment they find themselves in. We would discover this for ourselves later on. But first, there were two support acts who were hugely enjoyable in their own right.

Cave Mouth were all about raw but controlled and corralled power. A classic rock trio, they pursued a propulsive Nuggets garage or early Velvets trajectory with pounding drums, ferociously thrashed electro-acoustic guitar and lithely stalking bass. There was something of the Buzzcocks to the no-nonsense, concise blend of pop nous with frayed punk edges, a mood compounded by the lead singer’s loose, broad-striped jumper and the sharp harmonies introduced in chorused chants. They filled the gallery with an infectious noise seldom heard rebounding around its generally hushed and contemplative space. The paintings in the current exhibition, taken from the museum’s fine art collection and focussing on local subject matter, had been removed for the duration. Necessary, but a shame in some ways. It would have been amusing to see the fixed oil gazes of bygone Devon worthies watching with impassive curiosity as these punk sons and daughters of the city performed before them.

Nuala Honan and Kit Hawes played Appalachian music via Bristol, from mountain country to harbourside city. They acknowledged the influence of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and indeed played one of their songs, Red Clay Halo. They certainly shared something of that musical duo’s adept way of honouring the tradition whilst updating and adding to it. Familiar classics such as Make Me A Pallet on Your Floor, also sung by Gillian Welch (and Sandy Denny in her early folk club days) and a number recorded by Doc Watson, I Miss the Mississippi and You, sat comfortably alongside Nuala’s own highly personal songs. Her voice perfectly captured that country catch in the throat which tugs so insistently at the heart. Kit Hawes’ deft and nimble guitar picking was technically highly impressive, but also deeply expressive, never straying into empty showmanship. Again, David Rawlings work with Gillian Welch was a touchstone here. Nuala was the vocal focal point, but Kit put on his best Hank Williams tones for a few responsive lines in one song, and added harmonising shades in others. They made a fine duo, complimenting and reinforcing one another’s voices in a manner which implied familiarity and ease with their respective musical personalities.

Stornoway prepared the audience for the ornithological tenor of their performance with mixes of bird-themed songs playing in the background during the intervals. We had Fly Like An Eagle by the Steve Miller Band, Night Bird Flying by Jimi Hendrix, Albatross by Fleetwood Mac, Nightingale by Laura Veirs and And Your Bird Can Sing by the Beatles, along with many more. No Hawk by Broadcast or The Owl Service by Pram, but you can’t have everything. Lead singer Brian Briggs studied zoology at Oxford and later gained a doctorate in ornithology, and is an enthusiastic and evangelical birdwatcher. He wrote a piece in the current RSPB magazine about the band’s Highlands, Islands and Ireland tour, which included a visit to the town of Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. He talks with infectious excitement about seeing golden eagles, black guillemots, gannets and a great skua, as well as a large shoal of dolphins, the ‘blue men’ of the Minch sea road which I had just read about in Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways. He finds a sense of the sacred in the natural world, as expressed in his observation that ‘it was a gift to be visited by animals as beautiful and mysterious as these’. He also refers in the article to the band’s ‘bird-inspired pop’. This inspiration is certainly foregrounded in the title of their latest album, Bonxie, a Shetland nickname for the great skua. It is indeed a sizeable seabird, as I was able to discover for myself by investigating the museum’s bird cabinet, which stretches from floor to ceiling.

The album’s songs are interspersed with recorded bird song, sounds which sometimes continue into the tracks themselves, inflecting their mood and musical mode. The band attempted to reproduce and expand upon this avian collaboration during their performance. This was partly in response to the current sound installation by Chris Watson playing in the rear entrance lobby of the museum (although switched off this evening). Watson, himself a musician as well as a highly and much sought-after sound recordist (two roles he would make no distinction between) has been creating sonic pictures of local environments and blending them together into small symphonies of the natural world, evoking the ever-changing spirit of the turning seasons. In a recent talk, he spoke of the inherent musicality of many sounds produced by living creatures, as well as their astonishing range and variety. Stornoway intended to explore that musicality further in the hope that it might entrance the audience, drawing them into rich non-human soundworlds. They had invited people to send in their own bird recordings, and had also been given the use of one made by Watson himself – a nightjar’s eerie call captured during a Dorset heathland evening. So we were treated to the lonesome cry of the loon, the resonant booming of the bittern, the bickering of little auks and the joyful fluting of the nightingale. An inattentive Saturday night crowd, intent on partying with Stornoway as background and largely incidental entertainment, paid little heed however. The birdsong was not receieved with the rapt fascination which the band and Brian Briggs in particular might have hoped for. As the Strongbow and Heineken cans were loudly popped and conversations loudly continued, Briggs was prompted to ask ‘is anybody into this?’ A few half-hearted affirmations were voiced, but the general hubbub suggested otherwise. I suspect this aspect of the evening was severely curtailed, as were Briggs’ promised insights into his own reactions to the museum and its exhibits. The musicality and awe-inspiring sonic range to be found in the conference of birds fell on this occasion on deaf ears and dulled minds.

In the case of the keening squawk of the red grouse, the recording led directly into the song Lost Youth, establishing its emotional key. The wistful note which the song strikes, whilst balanced with a more customarily euphoric exhilaration, is at variance with the generally upbeat nature of Stornoway’s music, its determinedly optimistic worldview. We are lost, the chorus repeats. But its is a glorious lostness, a surrender to the tidal currents which sweep us through life. It was noticeable tonight that the old songs which received the most enthusiastic whooping reception were those whose big and open-hearted romanticism was expressed in the most direct and uncomplicated terms. Zorbing and I Saw You Blink are naively flushed with the first feeling of love, the heady rush of inchoate emotions when all is intoxicatingly new and the world is a sudden explosion of possibility and delight.

It’s difficult to write open, optimistic songs which don’t spill over into hymnal rhapsody or sentimental blather. Easier perhaps to write introverted songs of angst, misery and suffering dwelled upon and picked apart. Zorbing, Stornoway’s greatest hit, with which they finished their set, was greeted with a rapturous waving of hands, fists punching the air, as if the room had suddenly become a revivalist meeting house. For me, it crosses a border, positivity becoming eager puppyish bounciness. Charming in puppies, not so much in mature human beings. The emotional simile ‘I feel like I just started uni’ is particularly irritating, and liable to immediately alienate a good many listeners. I find the visual metaphor of couples rolling through the world in zorbing balls an unappealing one, more indicative of smug self-absobtion and a disconnection from the wider world than of mutually supportive love. This was a song from the very early days of their career, however (and perhaps one which they will feel increasingly burdened by as time progresses). The clutching, swaying motions which several couples indulged in for this and I Saw You Blink, as if this were the first dance at their wedding, suggested that others felt less curmudgeonly towards them than I.

To my mind, Stornoway’s songs work best when symbolically allied with the natural landscapes with which they are evidently intimately familiar. Sing With Our Senses is an almost pantheistic hymn to getting out into the wilds, finding one’s soul through a vital connection with the natural environment. ‘This is the world we belong to’ sang Briggs with real conviction. Battery Humans, sung in the encore, is a rallying cry calling on us to tear ourselves away from our screen-absorbed daze and explore the bright day beyond, thereby discovering a more fundamental level of being. Stornoway’s songs are full of mountains, shores and valleys, rivers, forests and skies. In some ways they remind me of the music of Laura Veirs (one of the artists played during the intervals), whose lyrics are also full of landscape imagery and metaphor, reflecting her geological studies. The song Between the Saltmarsh and the Sea, with which they opened their set, uses the interconnected environments as a metaphorical landscape of the heart, with its tidal ebb and flow, its transformation from ecstatic engulfment to parched aridity. The very specificity of the terminology here suggests a detailed knowledge of the natural world and a concurrent clarity in its use for literary purposes.

The exhilaration of flight is a recurrent theme in Stornoway’s songs, present in their emotional affect even when not directly in the lyrics. Zorbing contains the lines ‘send my body out to work, but leave my senses in orbit over South-East London’. There is a more general feeling of soaring over broad landscapes, viewing tree, mountain and ocean from above. These are dream songs, uplifting in an almost literal sense. One of keyboard and strings player Jonathan Ouin’s songs, Man on Wire, expresses this in terms of high wire walking between towering buildings. Inspired by Philippe Petit’s twin towers wire walk and the film made about it, it also reminded me of Catherine Yass’ film High Wire, included in the recent Walk On exhibition in Plymouth. This used a POV camera attached to wire-walker Didier Pasquette’s head, recording his passage as he trod an airy path between the high-rise roofs of the now-demolished Red Road estate in Glasgow.

Given this preoccupation with flight and spiritual elevation, it’s appropriate that the video to the new single Get Low (named with an irony no doubt consciously applied) should find them racing along an old runway in a jeep, following the streamlined flightpath of a squadron of greylag geese, looking for all the world as if they might take off with them when they finally ascend to the blue beyond. The chorus encourages us to ‘keep dreaming’, spelling out the subtext to much of Stornoway’s output. Uncertainty and fear do enter their orbit, but always with the prayerful insistence that they can be dispelled by the light. The lovely, lyrical ballad The Road You Didn’t Take once more leads us through wild, romantic terrain, analogous to the topography traced by the trails of a human life, and the proliferating paths of possibility stretching out before its ongoing progress. The chorus sings, with a rousing folk-inflected melodicism you can imagine being belted out by Ewan MacColl, of roads untaken, glancingly glimpsed in the peripheral vision. But the wonder of new territories to explore which the verses evoke refutes any retreat or backtracking into regretfulness or maudlin reflection. Keep on walking, the songs says. There’s so much more to discover, and there always will be.

In Fuel Up, another old song sung tonight, the disillusionment attendant upon growing up, poetically encompassed in the decade-skipping jumpcuts of a long car journey, is countered with a chorus which once again rejects the mire of maudlin introspection, the chorus issuing the command ‘so fuel up your mind and fire up your heart and drive on/and when your days are darker, put your foot down harder, drive on’. A new song, We Were Giants, offers a slight repudiation of such a gas-guzzling, petrol-headed metaphor from a band who are highly environmentally aware. It seems to look back with past historical tense at a post-disaster world in which the cars are now rusted wrecks. Whether the disaster is personal or on a universal scale is left tantalisingly vague, open to the interpretation of the individual listener and their judgement of its level of literalness. But even a Stornoway song which flirts with the apocalypse is still strongly seeded with optimism, a love for the natural world and a faith (an appropriately religious term) in its abiding strength.

Stornoway are often cast as an indie-folk band, a catch-all categorisation which may be influenced as much by their choice of name as their music. If they are folk (and it takes more than acoustic instruments to earn your folk spurs), then they appear to me to veer more towards the world of female singer-songwriters such as the aforementioned Laura Veirs. The wryly self-conscious Love Song of the Beta Male from the new album certainly rejects, in a humorous manner, the macho values of the rock world, indie or otherwise. Full strength folk elements definitely emerged this evening, though. A female fiddler joined the band for several songs. She was hardly playing jigs and reels, but the sound added a folkish tinge nevertheless, and the sight of a fiddle being bowed has undeniable folk associations. On the record, the subtly affecting string arrangements for We Were Giants stir memories of Robert Kirby’s setting for Nick Drake on Five Leaves Left. The sounds of accordions also drifted across the room at various points, and Brian Briggs even fixed a harmonica holder around his neck for a spot of Bob-like mouth organ wheezing during one song.

The band fully embraced the folk ethos when they unplugged their instruments and steeped back from the mic, gathering together in a close harmony huddle. At this point, it was as if the RAMM gallery had been transformed into a folk club. The lessening of volume forced the audience to focus, to actively listen or not hear at all. It was a bold decision to play the new single Get Low in this low-key style, reconfiguring it for the imaginary folk club. It was Josephine, another song from the new album, which really worked like a dream in this context, however. It’s a song which sees them taking a turn towards psych-folk with its abstracted, slightly mystical air and fairy tale imagery of towers and stairways evoking a mythic moment. In concert, the electrifying four part harmonies produced as the band locked into intimate vocal communion summoned the hallowed spirit of the Watersons, leavened with the sweet sublimity of the Fleet Foxes.

When they returned for an encore, they reverted to this mode once more. Briggs went the full folkie by singing an a cappella version of November Song (a conscious echo of Robin Williamson’s Incredible String Band October Song?). This skeletal interpretation beautifully brought out its emotional fragility and haunted nocturnal atmospheres. It’s a dark night of the soul song, but the Stornoway spirit comes through in the chorus, which holds out the promise of dawn’s light breaking and lifting the shadows: ‘No I won’t be afraid of the darkness a-coming/While I know a love that is as sure as the morning’. Finally, Briggs armed himself with a banjo and the band belted out a breezy version of Battery Humans, inviting us to break from the hypnotised thrall of our screen fixated lives and venture out into the great wild beyond, wonders to behold. It was an uplifting sermon to leave us with, sending us off with spirits soaring, brimful of that stirring Stornoway Soul. Keep Dreaming.

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