Review: Stornoway – The Ritz, Manchester

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People often debate in this fair city, which is more important – football or music? Both are hugely important to our economy, our tourism, our history. But they can, sometimes, play against each other. Unfortunately, on this occasion, with both Manchester teams competing for places in the Champions League, it seems football may have won. And thus, Manchester’s famous Ritz venue seemed a little quiet and sombre this evening, which is a great shame, because Stornoway were bloody brilliant.

I’ve been a fan of this Oxfordshire band for many years now, and it comes as no surprise that they have the ability and overwhelming talent to keep on delivering time and time again. People often debate band’s second albums – will they live up to the standard of their debut, will they change their sound, will they take too long with it and lose the interest of the fans? Fortunately, none of these questions even crossed my mind after Stornoway announced the release of their second record, Tales Of Terra Firma. And as expected, it’s as glorious as one could hope for.

And so, when I arrived at The Ritz, it came as both a surprise and a shame that it appeared to be only half full, not justifying the almighty support that Stornoway deserve. Nonetheless, they don’t seem to be the kind of band who would take it to heart and so, as they took to the stage after support from Sivu and Goodnight Lenin (two great acts, but unfortunately I was late to the party on this occasion), they couldn’t have been better. The band began the set with fragile rips, taps, knocks and shakes – the opening to the glorious Farewell Appalachia. A large backdrop of the moon shone behind the band, making ghostly silhouettes of each member going enthusiastically about their work.

Stornoway recently unveiled a new EP, titled You Don’t Know Anything. Initially, I wasn’t bowled over by this new recording, though it did certainly grow on me, so I was interested to see how they would be played out on stage. Following Farewell Appalachia, they proceeded into one of these tracks – Clockwatching. It was ok, but did seem a little messy and untidy. However, it is probably my least favourite on the EP and they probably haven’t played it live too many times – so I’m happy to let them off the hook! Morever, other tracks taken from the new record were absolutely wonderful, particularly the bouncy and catchy Waiting On The Clock.

Classics were thrown into the mix as well, and they delivered a very special version of I Saw You Blink, which saw lead-singer Brian Briggs take a trip down Manchester’s memory lane. Lyrics from the likes of The Stones Roses, New Order, James and Happy Mondays could be recognised, with the crowd giggling away as Briggs just kept them coming – some references were a little embarrassing (Heather Small, Take That, Simply Red…really!?) but at least Manchester had plenty to offer, unlike Nottingham where he apparently ran out of bands to quote rather rapidly!

One of the finest moments of the night however, was when Briggs shyly asked if they could do a few unplugged numbers. Playing solo at first, the spotlight came down as he bashfully delivered two outstanding numbers – first, a bonus track from their second album – November Song. A delightful and honest ditty, I could happily sing along to it all day! Then came a new track, Josephine, for which he was joined by Jon, Rob and Oli. Their voices soared beautifully around the room and it was at this moment that the show changed in my mind. No more were we a smallish crowd in a big venue that didn’t sell out. We were an incredibly fortunate bunch, at an intimate show, feeling like we’d won a golden ticket. It was absolutely stunning.

The band continued playing acoustically at the front of the stage, equipped with only a guitar, a double bass and a cajon, continuing that feeling that we were all sat in a small cafe or farmer’s barn. Stripped back versions of You Don’t Know Anything and Watching Birds were sublime, whilst old favourite We Are The Battery Human received a particularly rapturous applause, with each and every voice singing along.

The evening ended with a delightful encore, made up of You Take Me As I Am – Briggs’ glorious tale of his wedding day, The Great Procrastinator – the lyrics of which we can all relate to once or twice in our lives, and as expected, the sensational Zorbing, which again allowed each and every member of the audience a big singalong, with the odd attempt to impersonate the flowing strings and pulsating trumpets (well, I just couldn’t resist!).

Another fine performance from Stornoway, and one would happily have stayed there all night, politely forcing them to play their entire back catalogue! I can only just hope that upon their next visit, they are greeted by the large crowd they most certainly deserve.