June’s Ocelot column was a little different. Rather than the one page live review and one page recordings review I dashed off a double page spread review of the Oxford Punt. This may be a regular thing soon as there seem to be less local recordings coming through at the moment, and festivals need a bit more space to review as there is always loads going on!
A multi-venue festival as a reviewer is hard work, you end up rushing around trying to get a flavour of all of the venues whilst worrying what you are missing elsewhere, you miss bands you wanted to see, end up stuck at the back as you are a late arrival invariably, and end up completely knackered. Luckily, the Oxford Punt 2014 was well worth all these hardships, with a lot of them minimised through the careful planning of organisers – the venues were close to each other and all excellent, starts staggered and best of all, the music was utterly fantastic and varied. Team Ocelot had sworn to uphold the honour of the magazine and capture as much of the flavour of the festival as possible, not get lost and generally stick one up to those who claim local music is dying.
We started our journey at Turl Street Kitchen, a rather nice backstreet restaurant/bar not naturally disposed to live music but making a very good fist of it with a light and airy upstairs room equipped with a PA in lieu of the furniture I presume normally occupied the space.
First act of our marathon was Jordan O’Shea, playing as a three piece. For the first time as it turns out. And a great decision this was too, as the additional bass / backing vocals and electric guitar sounds added depth to his excellent melancholic acoustica. His easy manner and crystalline voice had the rapidly filling room transfixed, the songs filling the space with downbeat harmony. This particular show was stolen however by the cheeky chap on bass who quite obviously was having a whale of a time!
Onwards we dashed to The Purple Turtle to catch what we could of Beta Blocker & The Bodyclock. Musically I couldn’t fault them, their Psychedelia streaked fuzz rock sound was right up my street, the infectious pop melodies and distorted indie tunes dancing merry hell round my ears. However, the whole experience was marred by the band having to play with the house lights on, giving the set the feel of a school band playing assembly. A band like this is surely best heard in semi-darkness, lit only by lava lamps and oil projections?
Disgruntled, we hopped next door to The Cellar half-way through the set, trying to make the best of the worst schedule clash of the night and catch what we could of Flights Of Helios. And what a decision that proved to be. Having reviewed the band recently, describing their song Stars as “music that cuddles you to sleep in a spoon position, whispering softly in your ear” I was keen to hear what I could of their electro trip-pop. And by Odins beard I was not disappointed! More driven live than on record, the beats were massive and the music spacey and melodious; a quite extraordinary noise more trip-rock than trip-pop, with vocals hypnotic to such a degree I would have probably performed a chicken impression if told to. And bonus points go for the casual insertion of an Ocelot joke into the boisterous on stage banter.
We hung around at The Cellar to catch Swindlestock, a rather fine country-rock and Americana band who totally owned the stage with a presence normally seen in seasoned arena bands. The music was upbeat, fun and exuberant, it’s rootsy style ingrained in dusty roadside dives and whiskey drenched backstreet bars. It sounded as if it was being played by grizzled old-timers, to such an extent it was a disconcerting feeling seeing the young performers up on the stage, almost as if they were miming for a promo video. Impressive stuff indeed.
A dash over to old favourite The Wheatsheaf for more Americana was next as we checked out Huck & the Xander Band. Although they turned in a very good set, had we seen them before Swindlestock they would have made a bigger impression. But their more folky songs seemed a little lightweight in contrast and the stage presence was not comparable. However, they are definitely a band that deserves a second opinion I feel, especially as they construct their music as a complete conceptual story, telling tales of characters like Alexander and Johnny as they travel the South Eastern music hub of America, an idea that intrigued.
Final sprint of the night was up to The White Rabbit for festival closers Vienna Ditto, the only act I had seen before, and one of my main motivations for attending the night. The venue itself was “intimate” to say the least, another pub back room messed around to suit a music event. This soon became incidental as we muscled our way to the front in readiness for what was to come. The front is always the best place to catch this band, as part of the entertainment is witnessing the bands musical maestro Nigel seeming to make things up as he goes along, bumbling his way through the complexities of the electronic set up of each song, like an eccentric English inventor pottering in his shed whilst the cool, calm and collected figure of singer Hatty next him looks on in amusement. The duo really do have the unlikely stage appearance of a Mad Professor and a gangsters moll, an unusual seeming pairing but one that works brilliantly well.
Musically their slow burning groove buries itself deep within your soul, the combination of sultry vocals, fuzzy guitars, electronic wizardry and hip beats affecting primal areas of the brain, sharing more in common with opium than just its addictive qualities. The stunning vocal melodies are pure pop, featuring plenty of opportunities to sing along, which is surely the acid test of any pop music?
But Vienna Ditto are not solely about the music, they consider the whole on stage show, with projected images behind the band that were perfectly judged, adding to the songs rather than detracting, helping create an atmosphere that steamed. Although part of this hothouse effect could be credited to the insane and huge audience, who had been forced to occupy whatever space they could find, standing on tables and chairs and even hanging from ceiling fittings it seemed.
Towards the end of their set, as Nigel was launching into a customary ramble of thanks he floated the rumour that this was to be the last ever Punt, a rumour met with abject horror from the audience. I for one agree, that cannot be allowed to happen. The Punt is a cracking showcase for the strength and depth of talent bubbling away in the town, a sampler of the future of Oxford music and a valuable window for the lucky acts on the bill to deservedly reach a wider audience. Rowan, if you are reading this, don’t chuck in the towel, you perform a great service to the music scene, a scene that needs your particular heroics every year to stand a chance of success. The Punt is a highly regarded, well established corner stone of Oxford music that needs to continue to thrive. In fact, The Punt IS Oxford Music.