Live Review: Stornoway with Franz Nicolay and Major General at Black Cat Backstage, Washington, DC – 5th December 2010
When I heard Stornoway were coming to Washington, I was really disappointed they were playing the smaller Backstage. Not that there’s anything wrong with Backstage – the Joy Formidable show there last month was absolutely amazing – but I just thought the Oxford band could draw a much larger crowd. Turns out the intimate 200-person capacity Backstage was preferred by the band over a larger place, as you will read about in an upcoming feature in which I interviewed Stornoway’s singer and principal songwriter Brian Briggs. Back in October I was already going through my gig list to try and tease out which would be my top 5 but I think after Sunday’s performance, I’m definitely going to have to rethink my top picks…
The DC date was the last show Franz Nicolay and Major General (his touring band and also the name of a solo album he released in 2009) would be playing on this tour. I always (and you also possibly) always thought of Franz Nicolay and the Hold Steady together, but he left the Hold Steady this year to have the freedom of doing his own thing. He released an album ‘Luck and Courage’ this year, and many of the songs he played for us were from this new offering. What I had envisioned: folky, emotional tunes like ‘This is Not a Pipe’ that you can hear on his MySpace.
The accordion he used to play on occasion with the Hold Steady is ever present but Nicolay also plays banjo and acoustic guitar, and many of the songs he plays are high energy, much higher than I expected. ‘Jeff Penalty’, the set closer, was a foot-stomping, hand-clapping affair. Nicolay is a master of a stage patter, making us all night with his jokes, like how we were ‘on notice’ and later on when it was obvious the crowd liked them, we were ‘allowed’ to buy his merchandise later. Anyone unsincere with similar words to an audience would have gone down like a lead balloon, but Nicolay, genuinely in it for the art and for the fans, is a great entertainer. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure how well matched he and his band were going to be for Stornoway, but they were the perfect warm-up for what lay ahead.
Stornoway’s wonderful debut album ‘Beachcomber’s Windowsill’ was practically surgically implanted in my ear during the entire month of November. I shivered hearing the band soundcheck ‘The Coldharbour Road’ while I was stood by the Red Room Bar right outside the room where they would play for us. This was the song they began with, and what a fun number it was, the whole stage covered in instruments and people. The band’s merchandising seller, Jared, was wearing a burgundy ‘cloak’ and hitting an antiquated tv set with mallets while Briggs’s brother Adam was banging on a beer keg (???), recreating the industrial clankings you hear on the recording, along with the band themselves and their violinist Rahul Satija.
‘Fuel Up’, now my favourite song of the album and an insightful look at the life you have lived and the pains of growing up, was gorgeous in harmony and lilting melody. ‘Watching Birds’, a song whose title now makes complete sense knowing that Briggs got his doctorate in ornithology and very keen on wildlife, was a up-tempo, exuberant number that energised the crowd. It was great to see the band comfortable and enjoying themselves in front of the Washington crowd. What looked to be the band’s last song, ‘Zorbing’, was obviously the number most of the crowd knew, cheering as soon as Briggs announced it. Luckily for us it was not the last song, with the band returning for two more tunes done acoustically and completely unmiked, ‘End of the Movie’ and ‘We Are the Battery Human’. Bands who can do acoustic numbers and do them well are a rare breed these days, and Stornoway have the goods.
The only thing that could have been perceived as a misstep was an instrumental malfunction: when Briggs switched acoustics and broke the lowest string on his black guitar, ‘Here Comes the Blackout’ had to be abandoned and the set list was slightly rerouted. All through their set, I could not (and even now still cannot) get over how beautiful Briggs’s lead vocals and the band’s combined harmonies are. Briggs told me that he and the band were happy to be playing small intimate gigs on this tour, as back in Britain they don’t get to play small venues anymore thanks to their popularity. But regardless of where you see Stornoway, go – because I can guarantee you a spellbindingly stunning performance.
Franz Nicolay and Major General Set List:
The Ballad of Hollis Wadsworth Mason Jr.
This is Not a Pipe
Rock Rinse (that’s what it looks like on the handwritten setlist)
Z is for Zachariah
Luck and Courage
Felix and Adelita
Franz Nicolay and Major General Photos:
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)