Sunday, November 28, 2010

You Missed Out: Stornoway

While waiting in the back of Schubas for Stornoway's first ever show in Chicago, I had a different band's song in my head. Blind Pilot's "Story I Heard" was right in there where a Stornoway song should have been. In fact, I couldn't even remember what Stornoway sounded like, but I had a feeling it must be something like "Story I Heard." By the time they played their first song, I understood why I was confusing the two. They do sound alike, with their mid-tempo folk melodies delivered with sentimentality and sincerity.

In fact, by the time Stornoway's set ended tonight I heard at least four songs that were much better than any Blind Pilot song. Both bands excel at indie folk pop, reminiscent of The Decemberists on their best days. But Stornoway easily beats The Decemberists at their own game. Since they're actually British, Stornoway doesn't have to try nearly as hard to appear bookish and refined. To them it's natural. The Decemberists wish they were British. It's kind of embarrassing.

Stornoway songs such as Zorbing, I Saw You Blink, We Are the Battery Human and The End of the Movie could all end up on a year-end list of 2010's best tracks. The Oxford quartet performs flawlessly in the live setting, offering brief, single-track surprises like looping violins (a la Andrew Bird), and cellos and banjos for the encore only.

But the best moment of their set tonight may be credited to the natural intimacy of Schubas' warm interior. Two songs were performed unplugged, with lead singer Brian Briggs turning his guitar amp all the way down while singing at the very front of the stage. If you've been to Schubas, you know how good it can be to hear a man step away from the microphone with only his acoustic accompanying him. Everybody can still hear him clearly, even from the back of the room. And the setting becomes all the more charming when Schubas puts up their big Christmas wreaths and white lights on the walls.

Or if you haven't been to Schubas for an unplugged experience like this, imagine that scene in Once when they're sitting in that house harmonizing and playing Irish folk songs in a big group.

Stornoway probably released the best album you didn't hear this year, but it's not too late to include Beachcomber's Windowsill on your "best albums" list. Schubas was far from sold out tonight, but don't be surprised if you have to pay a little more to see them in a larger venue come 2011. I'd be shocked if they didn't open for The Decemberists in America at some point. Of course, Stornoway deserves to be the headliner. And I honestly wouldn't be surprised if they were in 2012. Because, yes, they are better than The Decemberists.

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