Thursday, December 2nd, 2010
I Saw You Blink
Stornoway and Franz Nicolay & Major General at The El Mocambo in Toronto
Frank YangSome, like myself, felt that Stornoway and their debut album Beachcomber’s Windowsill were the perfect soundtrack to Summer. Others find their rich yet subtle orchestral pop to be more Autumnal than anything else. For the Oxford, England quartet’s visit on Tuesday night, the seasonal backdrop neither – instead, they made their Canadian debut on a wet and dreary eve right on the cusp of Winter.
With them was a face who’d visited many times before, though not in his current guise – Franz Nicolay, formerly of The Hold Steady but now of himself and his band Major General. Some have wondered what would possess someone to leave a band as popular and fun as The Hold Steady, but as terrific as his contributions to that band were, his musical (and sartorial) style always seemed at odds with The Hold Steady’s unabashed bar rock-ness. And just a few songs of what he’s done on his own made the reasoning for leaving abundantly clear; his own artistic ambitions can’t play second fiddle to anyone. Fronting a five-piece band of upright bass, drums, violin and keys, Nicolay himself would rotate through guitar, accordion and banjo whilst running through material from his new album Luck & Courage that was rich with old world influences while retaining a pop immediacy – more DeVotchKa than Hold Steady, to be sure. And music aside, Nicolay clearly enjoyed the frontman role, offering up almost as much banter as music – someone as loquacious as he staying in Craig Finn’s shadow for long? Not likely.
For as good of a record as Stornoway released this Summer, they seemed to have flown largely under the popular radar and as such I wasn’t sure how many people would turn up for this show – Toronto’s inherent Anglophilia would certainly help, but I’ve also seen English bands play to empty rooms before. That wouldn’t be the case here, though – whatever numbers were dispersed throughout the ElMo for the opener ignored the rules of Toronto concert-going etiquette of feigning indifference and converged immediately at the front of the stage when Nicolay and company began their tear-down; everyone who was in attendance was seriously keen.
Much of the charm of Beachcomber’s Windowsill comes from its beautifully understated aesthetic, so it was a bit of a surprise that the show opened not with the band shyly taking the stage, but with violinist Rahul Satija offering up a plaintive looped violin solo before the rest of the band, with multi-instrumentalist Adam Briggs making their number six, strode on stage and launched into a reading of “The Coldharbour Road” that was markedly more dynamic and dramatic than the recorded version. And really, that was the recurring theme of the show – everything you liked about Beachcomber’s Windowsill was very much in evidence, but instead of just being good, it was great. Despite or perhaps because of his somewhat awkward banter and stage presence, Brian Briggs was an engaging and curiously magnetic frontman but was clearly far more confident when actually performing, and why not? His voice was a much more powerful instrument than certainly I ever expected.
Equal credit must also go to his bandmates, though. One of the talking points of the album was that over 100 instruments were utilized in its creation and while not that many were brought on tour, an impressive number were pressed into service over the course of the show, all in the name of recreating as much of Windowsill‘s rustic yet sophisticated textures as possible, to say nothing of their contributions on backing vocals. All of which is to say that Stornoway sounded incredible up there. Why they’ve not gotten more attention is a mystery to me – perhaps because they haven’t been seeking it out – but an upside to this is the sense of surprise that can result when you see and hear for yourself how good they actually are, and beyond just having made a terrific record are in fact an even more terrific band and will surely make even better records in the years to come. And if anyone had any doubts of this, then they didn’t stay for the encore when the band played a pair of songs almost completely unplugged (bassist Oliver Steadman remained tethered for one song but plucked gently), the audience inviting themselves into a call-and-response with Briggs on a stirring “The End Of The Movie”.
Earlier in the show, Briggs expressed amazement that so many people had come out to see them and knew their material so well, but would later declare – and sincerely, I believe – this to be the best show of their tour, a sentiment equally held by the devoted audience. I won’t lie, I’ve been kind of burnt out on going out and seeing bands for the last little while – not unusual for this time of the year – but shows like this recharge my batteries and renew my faith in live music.
Chart also has a review of the show. The Georgia Straight profiles Stornoway while aux.tv, The Phoenix and The Minnesota Daily talk to Franz Nicolay. Stornoway’s North American tour runs another two weeks. Really do go see them.
Photos: Stornoway, Franz Nicolay & Major General @ The El Mocambo – November 30, 2010
MP3: Stornoway – “Fuel Up”
MP3: Stornoway – “On The Rocks”
MP3: Stornoway – “Zorbing”
MP3: Franz Nicolay – “This Is Not A Pipe”
Video: Stornoway – “Zorbing”
Video: Stornoway – “I Saw You Blink”
Myspace: Franz Nicolay
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