Stornoway – Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 10/3/17

Oh Stornoway. The superstars that never were. The lovely folk-pop band whose music made you smile and whose members you’d happily have introduced to your mother. The lead singer was an ornithology PhD. The rhythm section were cheeky-looking brothers. They sampled bitterns and curlews on their albums and they sold tea-towels on their merch stands. How we loved them.

Sadly, as the past tense implies, this is the penultimate gig of their farewell tour. Pulled in different directions by personal commitments, ‘Stornoway will be Stornomore’.

(Lead singer Brian Briggs wants to become a wildlife conservationist – watch out Yoko Ono, your band-busting crown might be in danger!)

Tonight, however, we are instructed not to cry for them, Argentina. Billed as a celebration rather than a wake, we’re treated to a joyous greatest hits, buoyed by Briggs’s cosy everyman sentimentality and the band’s beautiful instrumentation.

They do a good line in complex folk, employing violins and exotic percussion (including an axe, a block of wood and a packet of crisps) to deepen the sound in Farewell Appalachia and Between The Saltmarsh And The Sea, but they can also kick out the jams when necessary. Songs like Lost Youth and Get Low are bouncing, giggly pop, and the initially staid crowd are soon pogoing around like maniacs.

The heart of any Stornoway gig, though, is the unplugged section. After the nostalgic sway of Fuel Up, Briggs and the boys step back from the mics, turn off their amps and serenade a now silent audience. You suddenly find yourself getting deeply irritated with the aircon system. Why is it so special to hear Stornoway without the speakers? They manage to make the 2,000-seat theatre feel like a hushed living room during November Song, a soft ballad of married life. It’s the aural equivalent of a long hug in a woolly jumper. Then Oli Steadman brings a double bass onstage for Josephine, and the four of them sing in flawless close harmony. It’s beautiful. We don’t want the amps back.

But come back they do. As the opening chords of I Saw You Blink ring out, the partisan crowd recognises the early anthem and take up the tune, bellowing the words back at the band. As the show draws towards its end, the sense of support grows. The applause between songs gets longer and louder, the singing more enthusiastic, the foot-stomping more rowdy . You really get the feeling that this crowd loves this band.

‘Wow,’ says a visibly moved Briggs. ‘I know it’s a little late now, but I think this might be the best gig of my life.’ We’re happy to believe him.

The set ends with Zorbing (of course), and hundreds of little zorbs are released from the rafters onto the crowd as they shout the opening lyrics (‘COOOOONKERS shining on the ground, the air is COOOLERRRR‘). We bound around happily, volleying the zorbs about the hall and soaking up the last minutes of live Stornoway. One girl in the balcony is sobbing uncontrollably. There are tears and laughter all round, and the sense that this is a little bit of history.

Stornoway weren’t just good songwriters – they were a great live band, who never failed to entertain. If you didn’t catch them, you missed out. Go and listen to Bonxie – it’ll cheer you up.

@stornowayband

@o2sbe

(N.B. This blog was written six weeks after the gig, as we backdate some entries)