Stornoway celebrate their past decade of making music with a farewell gig of sea shanties, bird noises, and Simple Minds, writes Rebekah Shaw
4th March at Manchester Academy
In October 2016, after 10 years of playing together, nature-loving Oxford graduates Stornoway announced their split and subsequent ‘Farewell Tour’ as a celebratory goodbye and thank you for lovers of their eclectic folk-pop sound. Fans responded in their hoards, encouraging them to upgrade to larger venues in many of their prime locations — an unexpected but touching end to their time together.
Attending the tour was largely the band’s most dedicated fanbase, and hence their performance was all about giving them what they wanted. Other than distributing the setlist choices slightly more evenly from their main three albums, the gig felt like business-as-usual from the Oxford graduates. I suppose there is something comforting about your favourite band doing just what made you fall in love with them in the first place. A dip into their mini-album You Don’t Know Anything — offcuts from second album Tales from Terra Firma — would have completed their repertoire, however they built the set-list from fan requests, so there must have been less demand for this side project.
Fan favourites of the night were the ones that got people dancing in celebration of the Stornoway’s catchiest successes: ‘I Saw You Blink’, ‘Fuel Up’ and ‘Zorbing’, their most popular outputs from their debut album Beachcomber’s Windowsill. ‘Fuel Up’ in particular felt appropriate in this context, mirroring the tale of growing up in the song with the growth of the band themselves, in a different place now to where they began a decade ago. “There’s no rewind, so you might as well play on,” lead singer Brian Briggs and the crowd sang together. Amongst these, a cover of Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ fit right in as an ode to fan memory and their dedication, further adding to the celebratory atmosphere.
Although some love the gimmick of bird noises being used in tracks on their final album Bonxie, as part of the live set it felt excessive and frankly unpleasant hearing these screeches at the beginning of ‘Lost Youth’. Rather, musical highlights of the set included the wistful ‘A Belated Invite to Eternity’, and ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ in which the vocal ability of Briggs shone through. The band did not skimp on their iconic range of live instrumentation, either, as ‘The Great Procrastinator’ and ‘Farewell Appalachia’ from Tales from Terra Firma attested their love of experimentation with brass, woodwind and percussion.
Over the years, Stornoway have built up many performance quirks focused upon audience participation, which appeared fondly loved by their long-term fans but can border on cringey for casual listeners. Although the Mexican waves, clapping and clicking may not have appealed to myself in particular, it cannot be doubted that it went down well with those there for the interaction with their favourite band for potentially the last time ever.
A particularly cool quirk that they have mastered over the past few years has been silencing the entire room, stepping away from microphones and playing a couple of their songs, which really benefit from this intimate acoustic style. They had not anticipated having to do this unplugged segment in the 2,660-capacity Manchester Academy when planning the tour originally, and it may have been a bit too much to ask for an audience of this size for three consecutive songs, however the effect was astounding. Briggs excelled in his solo of ‘November Song’, and the sea shanty-esque ‘Josephine’ was another highlight for the quartet; the absolute silence was soon shattered with deafening applause.
More popular than anticipated, the gig had been massively bumped up from Academy 3 (which had a capacity of just 450), and Brian Briggs expressed the band’s gratefulness with shining eyes onstage, as well as giving a heartfelt shout out to the oldest and fondest followers of their journey as Stornoway. As much as this tour was all about celebration, every moment was also tinged bittersweet with recollection that this is most likely the last time they will play as a band together. As they themselves said: “Stornoway are Stornomore”.