Named after a coastal town in Scotland far away from their hometown of Oxford, England, Stornoway, like Mumford and Sons, has four principal members and play folk pop. But Stornoway also have a violinist, Rahul Satija, as well as a trumpeter, Adam Briggs, brother of main songwriter and lead singer Brian Briggs. Having compared Mumford’s Sigh No More against Stornoway‘s debut album Beachcomber’s Windowsill released on 4AD, I think Stornoway has the upper hand in terms of song preciousness; that is, their album cuts you deeper emotionally, bringing out feelings you never thought you had. So I’m not embarrassed to admit seeing them live practically reduced me to tears.
Sunday night’s show at the smaller of the two Black Cat stages, Backstage, was also the last date on the tour with Franz Nicolay and Major General as support. This year, the famously cool and mustachioed Nicolay left the Hold Steady in favor of a solo career and also released a new album, Luck and Courage. Nicolay’s material runs the gamut from emotional folk to more up-tempo numbers. “Dead Sailors,” introduced by an enthused Nicolay as “this is a tango!” did not disappoint, nor did the dramatic “Have Mercy” or the set closer “Jeff Penalty,” a song he explained was about “a friend who got his dream job in the end.” The song could be about Nicolay himself, as he and his three-piece backing band were having a ball onstage. They even said we were the best crowd they played to on this tour. Excellent.
Beyond the music, Nicolay is hilarious and has great rapport with an audience, making us chuckle, warning us “no texting in the front row!” and how their set would feature accordion solos, advising those of weak heart and constitution to leave the premises if they could not handle his squeeze-box shenanigans. But I have to say, after only hearing a couple songs on his MySpace like “This is Not a Pipe” and a humorous collaboration he did with Dresden Dolls, “New England,” I was not prepared for as a spirited set as he delivered. This might be heresy to some, but I think I like Nicolay’s solo stuff better than the Hold Steady.
Franz Nicolay and Major General Set List:
The Ballad of Hollis Wadsworth Mason Jr.
This is Not a Pipe
Rock Rinse (what it looks like on the handwritten set list)
Z is for Zachariah
Luck and Courage
Felix and Adelita
But the breathless crowd assembled was waiting for Stornoway to appear. The Black Cat gig, like most gigs at the venue, was an all-ages show, which meant quite a few youngsters had come far away for it: a mother, daughter and friends from Wilmington, Delaware, drove nearly 3 hours for this – talk about dedication. The show began with a plaintive violin solo by Satija before the band came out to thunderous applause and launched into “The Coldharbour Road,” a song in which Briggs draws metaphors for himself and the woman he loved, like the relationship between a seabird and the cold, unfeeling ocean, and the mind of a man that a memory of a woman once lived in. This is deep, deep stuff and definitely stuff that touches my heart. The recording features what can only be described industrial clanking, which in the live setting is achieved by extra band members hitting on, amazingly, an antique TV set and a beer keg. Briggs’s voice and his band members’ harmonies were spot on and gorgeous. It set the stage for a monumental evening.
Before the show, Briggs described “Fuel Up” (my favorite song on Beachcomber’s Windowsill) to me as a song about the pains of growing up. The words of the chorus are so simple yet powerful: “so fuel up your mind and fire up your heart and drive on / drive on, drive on / and when your days are darker / put your foot down harder / drive on, drive on.” It seems to say, life goes on and so do we, so soldier on for there are brighter days ahead. Just as I do every time I hear the song on my headphones, I could feel tears pricking my eyes hearing this live. I don’t cry at gigs; I just don’t. But the beauty of Stornoway‘s music was so moving, I couldn’t help myself.
I don’t want you to think that all this band does are slow ballads. Songs like “Watching Birds” (a song which makes total sense now that I know Briggs got his degree in zoology and studied birds at university) and a particularly joyous version of “We Are the Battery Human,” featuring keyboardist Jonathan Ouin playing a banjo emblazoned with a rainbow-colored nautilus and done completely unmiked and acoustically, were so energetic. They got the audience stamping their feet and clapping their hands to the beat. This was an unforgettable evening that tugged at the heartstrings as well as made the heart sing. I was so glad I was there to experience it.
Stornoway Set List:
The Coldharbour Road
Boats and Trains
I Saw You Blink
On the Rocks
November Song (acoustic)
Long Distance Lullaby
End of the Movie (acoustic)
We Are the Battery Human (acoustic)
Dec 08 – Biltmore Cabaret / Vancouver^
Dec 09 – Crocodile / Seattle^
Dec 10 – Doug Fir / Portland^
Dec 12 – Independent / San Francisco^
Dec 13 – Troubadour / Los Angeles^
^with the Head and the Heart