“This place is a prison, and these people aren’t your friends.” So sang Ben Gibbard on a middling Postal Service tune some years back, and he may have been referring to the Malmaison’s waitering staff, who glide around the ornate Visitor Room waiting to mug you for six quid if you’re daft enough to ask them for a pint of Hobgoblin (the Wheatsheaf is doing the same pint for £2.95.). Still, the ex-jail is a magnificent place to kick off The Oxford Punt, the annual showcase for emerging Oxfordshire acts, and Helen Pearson opens the show winningly with a delicately beautiful ballad about her old Labrador. She sings in that light, girlish style that often accompanies adverts for fabric softener or hybrid automobiles, but the songwriting is sound, neither mawkish nor cynical and her guitar playing is exquisite. Her between-song banter is quite fun as well: at one point she confesses that she has lost her thread after being distracted by an enormous bottom beaming out of one of the Malmaison’s Orwellian telescreens. The set becomes a bit generic in the middle but closes with the excellent ‘Boxer’ whose conflicts seem closer to those involving Joni Mitchell or Carole King rather than David Haye or Ricky Hatton.
“We are ugly, but we have the music” was a quote attributed to Leonard Cohen, in unchivalrous conversation with Janis Joplin. Without going that far, DJ Fred occasionally resembles the amusing description of Fatboy Slim: “a middle-aged bloke playing his record collection to the audience”. Armed with laptop and little else he proceeds to broadcast twenty minutes of fairly digestible but forgettable techno, played at Malmaison-friendly volume to a small but polite crowd. ‘Cirrhosis of the Brain’ is one of his funkier numbers, consisting of a spangly, shiny clatter of bells tumbling over the beat with the voice of Daniel Dennett or some such reductive materialist chuntering about the evils of religion at regular intervals. Clad in a billowing Smiley-Face T-shirt, Fred looks and sounds like a man born out of due time, but at least he keeps the Malmaison leg of the night from sounding too polite.
Over at the Wheatsheaf, Message to Bears have become a reliably excellent sextet (they’ve added a second violinist since I saw them last), majoring in hypnotic, orchestral folk instrumentals. Some writers, perhaps in response to the continuing slavish praise from the rest of us, have complained about a lack of memorable tunes and it’s true that texture, especially the very beautiful, chiming double guitar sound they get, plays a vital role. But there are now several excellent melodies within their set, usually assigned to the violins, which help to neutralise objections. It’s also good to see that the band, especially the bass and drums, are beginning to make Jerome Alexander’s songs their own- there are more dynamics than on his records, and even a hint of theatricality. Much as I love the CDs, this is a welcome development: when I go to gigs I want a performance, not a reproduction. I’m less certain about the addition of a couple of new numbers featuring important male vocals; these seem to be a work in progress, and the singing does not yet match the playing.
Jack Goldstein, lead singer and keyboardist of Fixers, would be well-advised to ask for a re-jig of the set-list, as he was clearly far from warmed-up while tackling the ferociously difficult vocal line of their set-opener, and his tuning issues got the band off to a weak start. However, it quickly emerged that the group is possessed of enormous vocal talent, spread evenly around all five band members. They are heavily influenced by the vintage psychedelia of The Beach Boys and Small Faces, and if they continue to develop at this breakneck pace, they could become a wonderful band: perhaps a less esoteric Grizzly Bear for the summer months. Tunes like ‘Iron Deer Dream’ are already pretty special. The find of the night.
Though Telling the Bees ran them very close. A splendidly quirky quartet, they consist of two cerebral female strings players and a couple of hairy folky blokes. Their basic set-up of cello, violin, mandolin and bass adds up to a strangely unfinished sound (normally you’d stick an acoustic guitar into the middle of the texture without thinking), but the unusual combination works brilliantly, leaving space for Hairy Bloke #1 to sing in a quiet, unpretentious baritone about Oxford scholars who run off to become gypsies and the like. The playing is uniformly excellent and there is a latent sense of drama and tension to their music which suggests cinematic potential-the instrumental at the end of ‘Icarus’ is a perfect example.
Stopping off at Coca Royal on the way back to the car, I encountered various middle-aged men hanging around the bar with slightly dopey, far-away looks in their eyes. The object of their affection turned out to be singer-songwriter Mariana Magnavita, who not only looks like Weird Science-era Kelly LeBrock, but talks a bit like her too. Her singing voice is gossamer-in-the-spring-air pretty, but her delicate, nostalgic little songs, backed by more guitar and violin, sound slightly too conventional and safe after Telling the Bees and Message to Bears. Perhaps I was rather folked-out at this point after an unusually acoustic Punt, and should have thrown myself into Risen in Black or Taste My Eyes to cleanse the palate. Reviews of these and others are coming soon, but this was musically my favourite Punt for years. Just keep an eye on the Malmaison drinks menu. The prices are criminal.