Friday, July 27, 2012

Talon show


SPARROW AND THE WORKSHOP / ROB ST JOHN / BETHANY WEIMERS, 12TH MAY 2011, OXFORD BULLINGDON

Solo, Bethany Weimers gets off to an uncertain start, but things start picking up when she’s joined by her bandmates from Samuel Zasada. The later songs, though too well mannered, possess a na├»ve old-school folky charm, with ‘Harpsichord Row’ – the title track from the record she’s currently working on – the pick of the bunch. Jen, however, remains unmoved and, as is so often the case, proves to be a significantly sharper and more acerbic critic than yours truly: “So far I’m thinking the best thing about the evening is that we’ve got a seat…"

By contrast, she’s soon expressing her approval of Rob St John – even if that approval is largely in response to his back-and-forth rocking motion. It might be even more fervent if she knew that, despite his Scottish intonations (picked up on the alt-folk scene in Edinburgh), he's actually a fellow Lancastrian. Now resident in Summertown, St John apologises that his recently replaced guitar strings “keep slipping into jazz tunings” and that, having been asked to come up with a compilation of tracks to entertain between the acts, he accidentally brought his cooking mix, so we’ve been exposed to “what I listen to while I’m worrying about my bread rising and my pasta maker”.

St John’s lyrics may be elliptical and frequently verge on the unintelligible (two songs seem to feature the word “stratify” – is he a geologist or a geographer or something? Ah yes, he is), but he nevertheless boasts a distinctive baritone, a quiet self-assurance and a clutch of striking songs that do much to make him a far more compelling solo performer than Weimers.

Get yourself a whisky – this is going to be loud”, announces Jill O’Sullivan. You can’t say we aren’t warned when Sparrow And The Workshop immediately go on the offensive with ‘Pact To Stay Cold’, its pounding passages and fierce drum salvos contrasting sharply with the meek acoustica that has gone before.

Record shops might roughly categorise the trio – O’Sullivan, bassist Nick Packer and singing drummer Gregor Donaldson – as folk, but don’t expect whimsical meanderings about faeries and maypoles; on the contrary, they seem increasingly intent on going for the jugular, asserting themselves aggressively and explosively in a manner entirely befitting a band whose home is Glasgow – a city where “cunt” is considered a term of endearment. Even still, I’m pretty sure that “fucking bitch” – as O’Sullivan labels Irene, the subject of and inspiration behind ‘Snakes In The Grass’ – is a genuine insult…

That song is the first single from forthcoming second LP Spitting Daggers, whose generally material meets with a somewhat lukewarm response. Maybe it’s the fact that the windswept Americana and the dynamic duetting of their debut have been toned down, but the older gems – ‘You’ve Got It All’, closer ‘Crystals Fall’ and particularly ‘Into The Wild’ – all shine with a bright lustre that the newer material can’t match.

In truth, though, even those songs are afforded scant recognition from a pitiful turnout. Where are the Mojo readers who would be instantly enraptured by the trio? Where are the kids, exposed to them through Radio 6’s patronage? Where are the support acts’ friends and associates? Oxford, you’ve let Sparrow And The Workshop down for a second time. Here’s hoping the band give up trying to crack the city and instead go somewhere they’re genuinely appreciated – even if that means I can’t be there to give my own endorsement.

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