Exeposé Music online (17 March 2017)
We honestly never dreamed we’d come this far,” Stornoway front man Brian Briggs admits. “Swindon, perhaps… but Exeter? No way.” The whoop this earns almost cancels out the outrage he unleashed earlier, back when he suggested to a tipsy Phoenix crowd that cream teas might have come from Cornwall.
Yep: between the regional banter and well-loved melodies, Stornoway’s won over its South West fans tonight. Which is cool, because no-one likes leaving things sour – and this is probably the last time we’ll see these guys making music together in Exeter.
Back in October, the Oxford four-piece broke the news that their time was coming to an end: the upcoming UK tour would be their swan song, and Stornoway were set to become “Stor-no-more.”
Happily, we featured on that farewell tour. As one of the first cities the band played in outside of Oxford, it was “great to be coming back” to Exeter, keyboard player Jon Quin told me earlier in the week. The band has good memories of playing the Acoustica festival at Phoenix way back in 2009 – and since then they’ve been back numerous times.
Tonight, we’d been warmed up by pop-rock-jazz cocktail Brasstronaut – a Vancouver six-piece who treated crowds to a high-energy set layered with clarinet and trumpet.
Maybe it was this which had us all fired up and clapping along furiously with early tracks such as “Lost Youth” – or perhaps it was just a mix of Stornoway’s enduring charisma and quirky rhythms. Some of these songs pack a surprising punch when played live – and I’m almost certain this wasn’t because of the amount of pre-gig red wine I’d had (although with the night’s iPhone notes ranging from “tjhe road tou didnt tame” to “LOVELY guitar,” who knows…)
But as the wine wore off, Stornoway continued to impress. ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ showcased the band’s impeccable cohesion in an eerie blend of echoing harmonies, while classics like ‘Fuel Up’ and ‘I Saw You Blink’ sent us tumbling blissfully back into 2010.
Technically, the band were on point throughout. The ‘bare-bones’ feel of tracks like ‘November Song’ left nowhere for dodgy vocals or playing to hide – but Stornoway were faultless. And things were about to get even more exposed, as Briggs asked the crowd: “I wondered if you’d be up for hearing some unplugged songs this evening?”
What followed was beautifully crafted. There’s no denying it: Briggs is one incredible vocalist – and stripped-back versions of ‘Get Low’ and ‘Josephine’ had the whole room holding their breath. Somewhere between the rain stick and the delicious a cappella-like harmonies, Stornoway had nailed it here.
‘Farewell Appalachia’ was up next: a whimsical exercise in twiddly melodies and haunting vocals. The tempo had been dwindling for some time now, though. Yes, this whole gig was basically a long drawn-out “goodbye” from a band renowned for its chilled-out summery anthems… but we needed something to stir us up again.
Stornoway pulled it off triumphantly, taking us all by surprise with an excellent cover of Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’. Nothing gets a crowd hyped like a rousing drum solo and getting everybody down on the floor for a whole-room wave, right? The energy remained high with “Watching Birds,” before taking an emotional turn once again with the poignantly named “The End of the Movie.” Surely this wasn’t the end, though…
As the band disappeared for the customary false-ending, one gig-goer somewhere ahead shouted: “Zorbing, if nothing else!” And yep: a few tracks into the encore, we got it. It might not have been fireworks for the whole night tonight, but Stornoway knew the failsafe way of going out with a bang – and executed it to perfection. From the reactions of this Phoenix crowd, they’ll be sorely missed, too.