We've all felt like strangers at one point or another. And, more often than not, it's the warmth of fellow strangers that makes us feel less alien. Imagine that, instead of starting at a new job or new school, you were taking a spin around a new country. It's a good thing that Oxonian quartet Stornoway packed a healthy supply of pleasantly poppy Brit-folk for their first American tour. Having already built a sizeable following back home, the guys arrive about six months after the stateside release of their debut, Beachcomber's Windowsill (4AD). Though they don't identify themselves with the London scene that birthed the Mumford & Sons and Noah And The Whale sensations, Stornoway's glowing reception in the US is undoubtedly bolstered by those bands' recent success. Regardless of what brought the crowd to Johnny Brenda's for Stornoway's first ever Philadelphia performance, they were there to see one of England's most promising young groups do its thing.
Leading the night was Franz Nicolay, the dapper multi-instrumentalist formerly of The Hold Steady and Against Me!. Nicolay and his band have released several records of original material credited to Nicolay himself, though his own career has yet to match the acclaim of any of his prior bands'. The reason for that certainly can't be chalked up to a lack of charisma; whether wielding a guitar, banjo or accordion, Nicolay presents his tunes with the rousing energy of a cabaret ringmaster. Nicolay's wordy songs aren't too big on hooks, making his set a little tough to get into. Still, it's hard to resist the guy's charm, and his between-song stories and banter were some of the most enjoyable I've heard in a while.
Photo | Eric Schuman
Though Stornoway have but one album to their name (so far, at least), their debut set wasn't just a retelling of Beachcomber's Windowsill. That album's sonic variety really comes through in a live setting, with "I Saw You Blink" and "Zorbing" providing the upbeat bookends to an evening that alternated between sparse emotionalism and jubilant bounce. Lead singer Brian Briggs' soaring voice and the rest of the bands' rich harmonies are the cornerstones for each song, giving a traditional, almost nautical folk implication to songs about love in film ("The End Of The Movie") and ornithology ("Watching Birds"). That juxtaposition between old and new really stands out in a new song, "When You Touch Down From Outer Space," and the very last song of the night, "We Are The Battery Human," a satirical celebration of wasting the day away online.
As guests in our strange land, Stornoway are quickly earning loving favor. As one particularly impressed attendee exuberantly proclaimed, "I freakin' love this British shit!" From endlessly looped violins and empty (?) kegs banged on for percussive effect to a singing saw and a banjo emblazoned with a detailed mollusk illustration, there really isn't anything not to love.
(Video | John Vettese)
(Video | Eric Schuman)
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