Saturday, 22 October 2016

The Stray Birds - The Bullingdon, Oxford. Friday 21st October 2016

With so much unsubstantial and bland music getting peddled around the UK under the country banner these days, it is refreshing when a touring band free of label pretensions shows the true qualities of the genre. In fact, The Stray Birds have been primarily courted by the folk fraternity on these shores with the obvious attraction being the band’s entirely acoustic live sound blending vibes from the roots tradition. Yet observing the band from a close up quarter as they headed into the final shows of their latest UK tour, there was an avalanche of evidence to suggest that they should be an example of the marker to assess country music genre claimants.

For this tour, The Stray Birds have expanded from a core trio to an enhanced quartet with the addition of Dominic Billet on percussion. This was in line with the evolution of their overall sound on the new album MAGIC FIRE which had a more contemporary feel to it. As expected, this top notch record was the focal point of the set list at The Bullingdon in Oxford, a popular venue hosting the band for the first time. Having seen them in their previous format last summer when they tagged on a series of dates around their prestigious and acclaimed Cambridge Folk Festival slot, there was zero danger of a 150 mile round trip not being worthwhile.

The obvious initial impact of assessing The Stray Birds’ ability to impress is the unison of Maya, Oliver and Charlie as focussed by their trademark single mic approach. A distinctive edge of vocal diversity pours out of their focal point, whether in traded lead, exquisite duet or sublime harmony. Charlie, the permanent double bassist, stepped up with some of the intended country numbers such as a cover of ‘Blue Yodel #7’ and a song introduced early in the set titled ‘New Shoes’. Oliver, a triple instrumentalist on fiddle, standard acoustic and resonator guitar, had possibly the strongest vocal output of the three, yet it was the sound of Maya that made the proverbial hairs stand to attention. You were left to wander where on earth the vocals were being dragged up from; a clear expression of a gut driven sound echoing the aural pleasure of Gillian Welch at her best.

Of course Maya’s effortless input didn’t just end at the vocals as she proved to be an exceptional fiddle player and adept guitar picker. Perhaps Oliver shaded the instrumental stakes in overall impact with his stellar fiddle playing and the blow away sound from his unplugged resonator utilising the central mic set up. Needless to say the double pronged rhythm section set the pace and the luscious onslaught of a twenty-song strong set list soared the evening to a stratospheric success level.

Although as mentioned previously MAGIC FIRE was the album being showcased, the evening began with the finest song from their back catalogue in ‘Best Medicine’. The position as set opener meant the back story to this song was omitted and this was generally the tone of the evening with the continual flow of songs supplanting meaningful insightful interludes. Not a bad thing when your venue imposes a pre-club night early curfew. It wasn’t long before the new music took hold and over the duration of the set, eleven of the twelve tracks from the new album were featured.

My three highlights from the gig were in this bunch of tracks, with the vibrant and rather excellent, ‘Sabrina’ being lined up as one of the songs that will shape 2016. This was closely followed by the powerful encore number ‘When I Die’ and the blissful country duet ‘Somehow’ delivered perfectly by Oliver and Maya at their primary best. The strength and immense stature of the new album was exemplified by further incursions into it to reveal: ‘Third Day in a Row’, ‘Mississippi Pearl’ and ‘Shining in the Distance’.

We have already mentioned one of the three moments when the band went off ‘The Stray Birds script’ with a hat tipped to Jimmy Rodgers c/o Doc Watson. The others were a tribute to Townes Van Zandt with a triumphant version of ‘Loretta’ and a take on Susanna Clark’s ‘I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose’ inspired by Maya listening to Emmylou Harris singing it.

This show was promoted by the established and enlightened Empty Rooms team who without doubt know their music. For the evening’s support artist, they acted quickly to secure the services of local based American sibling duo Loud Mountains when the original planned performer had to pull out. The brothers, Kevin and Sean Duggan, were first seen when supporting Cale Tyson at the same venue in May and this evening were just celebrating being the latest addition to the Clubhouse Records stable. Their bold Americana sound displayed distinct potential with the clearest evidence of this being in the final song of the set – ‘Remedy’. Vocally the duo was spot on and further liaison with more experienced practitioners of their chosen style will enable the raw components to evolve into a meaningful addition to the UK Americana circuit.

If they only match The Stray Birds half the distance, the effect will be profound. The core trio of Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven and Charles Muench plus Dominic on percussion continue to be a band capable of moving audiences and exploiting the vast expanses of what is deemed to be Americana music. For me they press all the country music buttons, led by highly crafted musicianship, a vocal depth from an infinite core and songs dressed with rich trimmings. The Stray Birds continue to attract plaudits endlessly seeking music utopia and kindly return the compliments with a step in this direction. 

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