Friday, 12 February 2010

Stornoway + Beth Jeans Houghton @ Brighton Komedia

The first time our spotlight turned to Stornoway on stage they were nervous wide-eyed creatures. Ten months on and they are composite, assured and full of the majestic flurries of romance. Stornoway are a band that we are utterly in love with.

Stornoway are not a blog buzz band. They are not surfing on a wave of unrealistic hype. With their casual straightforward look they are not even fashionable. Yet they succeed because of one simple reason; an abundance of great songs that charm. Maybe this is the reason why the audience at the Komedia encompasses every age from 18 to 60. This crowd may greet the group with almost chattering indifference but Stornoway leave stage having seen unprovoked waves of spontaneous clapping bursting out during songs, big smiles on faces and gaining an encore that is fully deserved.

Stornoway show the power of music formed out of quiet acoustic instrumentation. Their songs are awash with subtle and delicate harmonies, but they also hold a robustness which enables tunes such as On the Rocks to build from a gentle lament to a tempered crash of noise and Zorbing which delights with giddying trumpet and pop sensibilities. The bands mild mannered English eccentric charm, exemplified by intensely staring lead singer Brian Briggs, is another reason why they provide such good value. We can’t imagine that there are many performers who in between songs tell the audience of the only record of a camel in captivity in England being struck by lightning in 1997.

But away from Brian’s straight faced comedic banter, there’s the music. Steeped in themes of nature and travel, the combination of inspired song craft and distinctly enunciated lyrics make even the simplest of life moments seem special. “Waiting for a train going nowhere in a nowhere station,” Brian croons in a style not dissimilar to Tim Booth and hearts melt. Fuel Up is the distant cousin of Nizlopi’s JCB Song, but far less annoying, whereas the closing number, the philosophical and thoughtful banjo led We Are The Battery Human captures the spirit of an old English Fleet Foxes slowly Morris dancing with Mumford and Sons.

Come the end of 2010 we really hope that this band will be pretty special to many. They deserve to be.

Stornoway may not have a strong visual aesthetic, but main support Beth Jeans Houghton (pictured) certainly does. Dressed in a pink and black lycra all in one and sporting the most outrageous blonde wig, she is backed by a band who wear painted on false moustaches, bowler hats, braces and ties. It’s no surprise that someone in the audience asks her if she is straight or not, her outrageous dress sense reminds us a little of a once young Boy George. Like George, Beth is something of a personality, swearing, chatting about leprosy, abscesses and a dead rat that she found on the beach as well as clearing her throat and playing and pulling awkwardly with her finger nails whilst singing. It certainly makes for an entertaining, if slightly awkward performance.

The music Beth and her band make can broadly be described as loose-celtic-skiffle-soul. Houghton’s voice is strong and of high quality and the songs such as Lilliput with its Clannad styled ooing and the xylophone enhanced Dodecahedron are jauntily pleasing. “Red wine and whiskey, you’re no good for me,” she sings over the near-afrobeat rhythms of Atlas, the whole song having a ramshackle feel which is compounded when the harmonies at the end of the song fail and die miserably. A cover version of At The Hop by Devendra Banhart shows Beths influences, before the looped vocal and keyboard of Nightswimmer shows that Beth has more than one idea.

Beth Jeans Houghton was an entertaining diversion, and has a great voice, but ultimately the evening belonged to Stornoway. In a modern world their old fashioned virtues work small wonders.

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