Tales from Nem-a Firma (Stornoway gig review)
A good friend and regular Off The Chart Radio show listener introduced me to Stornoway‘s music around four years ago. They went on to be the first band to spend an entire year on my Unchart feature, as well as performing at festivals including Glastonbury and BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend, and performing on Later… with Jools Holland (after being spotted at Glasto). It was a privilege and pleasure to hear them perform live at Oxjam in Brecon three years ago, and to have the opportunity to interview the lead singer, Brian Briggs. You can imagine how excited I was to find out that they’d be playing in my hometown of Pontardawe on 20th February 2013, where I caught up with bassist and vocalist Ollie Steadman for a follow-up interview, and had another chance to speak to the whole band at the end of the show.
There’ve been a couple of line-up changes since 2010, but essentially Stornoway have the same core, not only in terms of musicians and musicianship, but in attitude. Even with all of their accolades and achievements, the band embraced and included the whole audience in a down-to-earth fashion, sharing with us their friendliness and good humour, as well as epic arrangements interspersed with beautiful unplugged vocal items. The intimate layout of the Pontardawe Arts Centre lent itself to creating, if you like, a ‘giant folk club’; the band seemed taken aback by the attentiveness of the audience, but performed as if they were at ease with it, interacting so closely with each and every one of us that they could have been sitting on the next seat over.
I remember commenting that the entire night was so brilliant that the word ‘gig’ was blatantly insufficient to describe the experience. If there was any way to clearly and undeniably demonstrate the difference between a gig and a show, this was it: incredible harmonies, instrumentally and vocally; choreographed instrument changes which flowed as perfectly as the tunes; perfectly-timed contributions, even when those contributions came from the sound of a torn newspaper, or a saw (yes, a saw, dragged through a block of wood, rhythmically and musically). In fact, the carefully-considered musical journey began with Laura J. Martin, their support act for the night and the entire tour, who opened with single-handed mastery of the loop pedal, flute and mandolin (perhaps it should be double-handed mastery of the flute and mandolin, thinking about it, so it’s not a perfect metaphor!) Her vocals and style had more than a pinch of Kate Bush, and she filled the stage, not relying on technology to do this, but using it expertly as a tool, creating a virtual orchestra. Ollie (from Stornoway) then joined her on the double bass for a couple of numbers, which was a teaser of things to come, in terms of the vibrancy of his playing.
After a short break, the lights went down and the audience volume with it, setting up an electric atmosphere. Led by a beautiful violin solo which blended perfectly into the catchy piano riff to ‘Coldharbour Road’, the remaining musicians appeared from the wings to take their places one-by-one. Many great performances followed, but I feel they excelled themselves with their performance of ‘November Song’, with Brian revealing its connection to West Wales, it having been written whilst he was staying there. There’s also a connection with the Swansea Valley itself, since Stornoway’s tour van was donated to the band by Abercrave man Pat Hall (read more about this here). The band were really pleased to find out in advance that he would be in the audience, giving them the opportunity to speak to Pat and everyone else about the impact of this kind gift, which had certainly not been forgotten. They also paid tribute to the van itself, which they’d been using since 2009, until its recent demise.
Talking of vehicles, hearing ‘Fuel Up’ live was another special moment for me; it’s reassuring to know that the song isn’t considered by the band to be ‘too old’ to perform – it’s the song that remained on the Unchart for an entire year thanks to listener votes, and remains a favourite of friends and listeners – but it’s also a timeless song by the very nature of its lyrics, which uses a car journey as an analogy for life’s journey. The imagery of travelling in the back of a car at an early age merges analogy with reality at a point we can all identify with.
The band finished the set with another unifying song – ‘The Ones We Hurt The Most’ – with the vocalists stepping down from the stage and positioning themselves just in front, to perform a capella in five-part harmony amongst the audience. This powerful work made many (if not all) of us realise that we were not only fully included in the musical experience of the night, but also in the emotional experience, with the song bringing myself and mum to floods of tears and a tight hand-hold. All of us as a family having watched my grandmother “fighting to hang on … [putting] so much in for nothing in return”, hearing these lyrics sung almost hymnally was so difficult and so incredibly emotive, as the sincerity of the vocals connected on a level which was almost tangible. When they sang of feeling like “strangers in a town we don’t recognise” on coming “out the other side”, the lyrics captured our emotions at the time perfectly, so perfectly that the song couldn’t possibly have been a work of fiction. On top of everything else the band had already shared with us, now they were sharing their hearts. Stornoway had created the very opposite of a ‘them-and-us’ atmosphere from the start, but at that moment, the concept simply didn’t exist. We were all just people, “… all going the same way down this long hard road”, as in the ‘Fuel Up’ lyric, a song which gains more meaning and poignance every time you hear it.
“And when your days are darker, put your foot down harder, drive on, fuel up and drive on …”
Stornoway’s new album, Tales From Terra Firma, was released on 11th March 2013 on the independent 4AD label.