When Stornoway announced their farewell tour last week, where was my hotline? Where could I call for grief counselling, interspersed with reassuring birdsong and comforting comedy trivia about my local area? We may not have given ourselves a collective noun – Stornowayfarers, anyone? – but we were a faithful cult; the queue of fans that failed to get in to see them in a tiny tent at Latitude 2015 stretched virtually the length of the site, and they quietly snuck into venues as big as the Forum thanks to a strong and enchanted following. Stornoway are/were the sort of band that, like the seabirds that singer Brian Briggs is so obsessed by that 20 different species were essentially backing singers on their last album ‘Bonxie’, take up roost in your life. After my last soul-shredding break-up in 2010 it was their chin-up, life-is-but-road-trip ballad ‘Fuel Up’ that soundtracked my regular emotional breakdowns in supermarket meal-for-one aisles. Five years later I walked my wife down the aisle to ‘Zorbing’.
It was their intimate personability that was the making of Stornoway, but also, perhaps, their downfall. While the world’s Mondeo-driving accountants and Strictly-guzzling cultural sheep were yee-hawing along to Mumford & Sons like the world desperately needed a fucking farm-yokel Coldplay, these were the real UK folk pop wonders, stirring atmospheric maelstroms with their wind-whipped melodies, stunning four-part harmonies and shanties stinging with sea-salt. Their acoustic gigs in Oxford churches and museum dinosaur halls were as bewitching as their theatre shows, and even these would be stunned silent by moments of unamplified multi-harmonic genius like ‘Josephine’, probably the best folk song you’ve never heard. There was a sense of belonging to these events, of being in on a special secret, part of a clan with its own traditions and ideologies. Briggs, with his characteristic faux-timid wit, would read out amusing local news stories or fascinating animal facts and we’d all commune with nature from afar through such outward bound tunes as ‘On The Rocks’, ‘Farewell Appalacia’, ‘Between The Saltmarsh And The Sea’ and twitcher anthem ‘Watching Birds’. Their mission statement was summarised in ‘We Are The Battery Human’, their call to join “the new revolution to free the battery human” by unshackling yourself from Instagram, shutting your laptop and getting “out in the natural World Wide Web… ‘cause we were born to be free range”. A warming sentiment drawing you into their close campfire circle.
This was a band who donned chunky knit sweaters and bird-watching binoculars for photo shoots, whose idea of the perfect use of a convertible in a video wasn’t to fill it with strippers and cruise Hollywood Boulevard but to drive it alongside flying geese in the Cotswolds. Just like they weren’t born for nine-to-fives in web design, Stornoway were never going to be an arena band. They were perfectly placed in venues large enough to feel like events but small enough to hear their acapella brilliance when they stepped away from the microphones with an acoustic guitar. But such cultivated intimacy works against bands in 2016. No longer can rising acts survive on their music at a cult-like theatre level, undervalued by the press, crowd-funding their albums, selling a few thousand copies and playing to large – but never Ally Pally-sized – audiences. The mid-level musical comfort zone is dissolving as surely as glacial ice-caps, and with it, I fear, the wonderful, quirky, leftfield acts like Stornoway will slip into extinction.
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Stornoway had already shown strong signs of scattering. Briggs, boasting a PhD in the study of ducks, had moved to Gower in Wales, in sight of the turning tides, writing songs in a rusty campervan and learning to communicate in birdsong. Drummer Rob Steadman had moved to New York to get a degree and take drama classes. Ambition or necessity drove them beyond the confines of pastoral folk-pop. But Stornoway will go down as one of those slow-burning legends that people will discover for themselves over the course of decades, a band your children will be amazed you never saw. There’s one tour left; stow away on their magical icebreaker while you still can.