Live Music + Gig Reviews

Stornoway + Beth Jeans Houghton @ Rich Mix, London

11 February 2010

The main hall of a very modern looking cinema in Bethnal Green is a mildly incongruous setting for a gig under the banner of Twisted Folk. Concrete grey with high ceilings and a huge open space for the music to get lost in, 19-year-old Geordie Beth Jeans Houghton creeps onstage all but unnoticed.

This is odd. Odd because she appears to have three or four Persian cats caught in her hair, such is the sheer volume of the wig she sports. Her band – The Hooves Of Destiny – are all sporting matching pink shirts with braces and have each had fake moustaches pencilled on.
For all their attention-seeking garb, they seem incredibly nervous, Houghton mumbling a quick “Hello” before starting a short set that bewitches and confuses in equal measure. Her uniquely skewed take on folk isn’t going to sell lots of albums, but her songs each have a certain charm that keeps the melodies lodged in your head. I Will Return I Promise, from her recently released EP, Burnt Toast Vol. 1, is the highlight, a rollicking, folk hoedown that has people dancing.

Her initial nervousness isn’t helped by the imposing venue, which Houghton remarks on continuously. She seems to warm to the task as the set progresses and, after telling a story about one of her band mates’ ignorance when it comes to puddings (he’d never heard of ‘banoffee’), she lets out an infectious cackle before stopping on a dime and, with perfect timing, introduces the next song: “This is a song about 12-sided shapes.”

For all her apparent kookiness, Houghton’s songs are often simple, lovingly crafted tales that look at aspects of the everyday from a slightly different angle. The fragile, softly lilting Lilyputt is as pretty as anything Joanna Newsom has mustered. Unfortunately the strangely mixed sound – the drums are too high, her voice too low – means that it can sometimes be a struggle to make out the lyrics. Still, there’s always that immense wig to mesmerise us.

After the theatrical support, on come the slightly less impressive-looking Stornoway. Made up of four bookish looking blokes from Oxford (and their two mates), their aesthetic is less ‘look at me’ and more ‘can I see your library card please’. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing of course, but there are long stretches where the music matches the lack of visual stimulation. Singer Brian Briggs has an interesting, versatile voice, but it’s one that has a tendency to dominate the songs, with the musical backing being supplementary.

The poor sound also does them little favours, with the keyboardist clearly working hard but to little avail. Still, future single I Saw You Blink is a deliciously catchy slice of breezy guitar pop with a radio-friendly chorus that should follow Mumford And Sons up the charts and, of course, the brilliant Zorbing still sounds as joyous ever. (In fact, at one point during the song a pair of knickers are flung at the drummer, who shyly moves them off his hi-hat.)

But their intellectual tendencies also lead down one decidedly cringeworthy alley with the awful We Are The Battery Human. Performed acoustically, it’s let down by some appalling lyrics comparing chickens and humans, which in Houghton’s hands could have been funny but here just sounds slightly condescending.

So, an odd night of folk(ish) music in the cavernous hall of an East London cinema ends on a downer. Whilst Stornoway will no doubt get the plaudits when it comes to releasing their debut album, they were trumped tonight by a young lady with a big talent and an even bigger wig.

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More on Stornoway
This Music Made Me: Stornoway
Stornoway – Bonxie
Stornoway – Tales From Terra Firma
Stornoway @ Somerset House, London
Stornoway @ Brookes Student Union, Oxford