As Oxford’s strongest sons Chad Valley and Stornoway make waves around the country and beyond, the city’s music scene is undergoing a period of profound change. Most significantly, the collapse of Truck Festival over the summer and the loss of its investment into Cowley Road’s Truck Store will once more leave Oxford temporarily without an independent record shop until new premises are prepared. Also occurring on Cowley Road on the same weekend as Truck’s “Not Closing Down Sale”, Ley Lines is a new festival which comes with a reassuring sense of ambition and renewal. Moving from venue to venue in Oxford’s cultural hub, it feels like things are on the up; drawing bands from around the country to a varied set of venues, this is surely the most exciting new live event the region has seen in some time.
We begin the day in the Bullingdon Arms watching almost deafeningly loud post-rockers Vixens. These local boys have vocals which still leave much to be desired but they’ve come some way since they supported Golden Animals over at the Jericho Tavern some years ago. A move down the road to the downstairs part of O2 Academy Oxford puts us before The Great Hereafter, who possess an almost disturbingly polished rock sound, to the end that it is hard to believe their song ‘Life With the Lions’ was written only yesterday.
Additional post-rock comes from Listing Ships, who prove to be a minor revelation. Vaguely reminiscent of similarly relentless Factory Floor, they are bursting with exciting ideas which makes the presence of a lone lightbulb on stage all the more appropriate. Their seemingly unending and coruscating guitar lines and superb drumming are the foundation of a superb set; indeed, we’re so stunned at the conclusion of the songs that in one instance the bassist must remind us that the tune is over before we clap. The mawkish acoustic mewling of Adam Barnes upstairs does not keep us away from such prowess for long.
After our swift dinner break the Bullingdon draws us back into its small, dark music room with the promise of an appearance by Blackpool pianist and singer-songwriter Rae Morris. Her shy, girlish exterior and a vast mop of curly hair conceal a tremendous voice and songs which impress even as they sometimes tip into Vanessa Carlton territory – there is talent to spare here. Back upstairs at the Academy, Secret Rivals are a very different prospect. Their slapdash dance-punk is a bit of a shambles, frankly, and the minimal attention they pay to the audience makes for an alienating set.
Returning to the Bullingdon for another piano chanteuse in the form of Catherine A.D. could have brought on some Rae-ja vu, but the addition of a three-piece string section makes this one of the festival’s most distinctive sets. A heavy cold does little to dampen Catherine Anne Davies’ syrupy voice or her gothic stage mystique, even if the songs from new mini-album Communion are crying out for more variety. Also in the wars is electro crooner Jamie Woon, who must sit down for his O2 Academy appearance owing to a recently broken leg. While this does not help the lack of visual element to his set, the bigger problem is the fundamental tedium of his songs, which seem to leave everyone more baffled than blown away. Confusing also are guitar/drums duo Beta Blocker & the Body Clock, who look and sound like half of a poor Nirvana tribute. It’s grim.
Fortunately next up at the Bullingdon, Alt J are the real deal. This much-discussed Leeds group are a devastatingly innovative unit and a true pleasure to watch. Sounding like a group of centuries-removed Chinese peasants asked to form a rock band, their warped and alien compositions bewilder and beguile as they skirt around the edges of expected practise. Dominated by “Tessellate”, their set is simply the strongest of the whole day until…
Theme Park are just phenomenal. Given a hard task to follow they step up on stage just beaming with enjoyment of what they do and bursting with confidence in themselves. This short set by a young band takes in everything they have released and more, including an irresistible outing of their single “Wax”. Tight and practised and a huge leap on from their recorded work, their live performance provides a fantastic party atmosphere. Some of the many who start dancing will carry on by watching Hyetal, Toddla T and Melé later on, but while we must go, this set will stand for us as the perfect ending to a mixed but encouraging entry by Oxford into the burgeoning city festival market.
All photographs by Stevie Denyer.