The O2 Academy is Oxford’s largest venue. It’s not massive, but it’s sold out, and for Oxford’s lagging music scene that used to be a special occurrence. These days, however, it’s the rule rather than the exception: as a city for bands to come through and play, this town of unfriendly spires is really on the up.
Of course, there is good reason for the O2 to be sold out tonight. This Is the Kit – the alias of Kate Stables – is playing touring their latest album Moonshine Freeze, a wonder of folk-rock at times quiet and at times disquieting. If you thought that the banjo was no longer relevant in 2018, put on ‘Bullet Proof’ to realise you are wrong. Coincidentally, that ‘super blue blood moon’ is out tonight, and Kate asks the crowd what they’ll be doing tonight. “Are you charging your crystals? I’ll be charging my tuners,” she jokes after having to re-tune her guitar. Despite the full room, Kate and her band are able to immediately create a nice living room atmosphere.
The gig starts a few minutes early, for a change – the dressing room was a walk away, so the band decided to wait around the main stage instead – which means This Is the Kit isn’t rushing it tonight. Instead, they’re teasing us out with some lesser-known tracks. Apart from the aforementioned ‘Bullet Proof’, which is the third song they play, the gig only really gets going when the mystical ‘Moonshine Freeze’ follows the threatening ‘All Written Out In Numbers’.
Unfortunately, by that point I have to leave the O2, as I am double-booked. Next door, in what is probably Oxford’s smallest venue, The Library Pub, Beautiful Freaks favourites Porridge Radio are playing, and there’s just no way I could miss that. The contrast between the two gigs is interesting in itself. While the O2 was pleasantly packed, the Library’s underground ‘stage’ is nearly empty but therefore easily friendly. Unlike the timely This Is the Kit, the proceedings down here are severly delayed. I catch the last track of (Oxford-based?) Jeff, who sounds better live than when I checked out her Bandcamp, and then somewhat awkwardly wait around during Porridge Radio’s Dana’s (she’s doing a solo set) extended soundtrack.
It soon becomes clear that that will take a while, but after some 20 minutes we, the watchers, have become tired of talking to strangers and watch Dana plugging in and out instead, trying to catch as much music as we can. “That’s an awkward silence,” the sound man comments after we all discover ourselves standing staring.
When Dana finally plays her first song, however, I know I made the right decision in changing gigs, because this is the real thing. This is Real. I should mention here that writing about anything Dana does makes me scared as hell, as it requires me to confront something unknowable that I know is bigger than myself, a Lovecraftian monster of human proportions. But I keep on trying, and the first thing I’ll say is that Dana solo sounds very different from Porridge Radio as a full band. The difference is obvious though: one person on stage simply sounds different from three or four. The music is as intense, and when hearing Dana sing I wonder how a full line-up PR gig would be bearable at all. Surely, this is as much human connection as someone can sustain? The songs themselves are all wrapped in a soft synth which remind me of the early Frankie Cosmos, and indeed the whole aesthetic is very ‘bedroom pop’, although in Dana’s case stripped of all frivolity. And yet, and yet, I hesitate to call this outright depressive, because it is so obvious, so blatantly, painfully obvious that there is a torrent of feelings behind the surface, pushing at it like the air particles in a box bouncing against the walls. This is not emptiness. It’s the opposite of emptiness. This is very empty-sounding depth. (And these sentences I have written, I hasten to add, are very deep-sounding emptiness).
During the set, there are some technical problems as well. In fact, the lyrics to the song Dana plays just after some of these difficulties go: “it was an easy mistake to make”. It’s a great simple sentence, the word ‘mistake’ connotating a casting away of guilt, and yet a strong feeling of regret. Mistakes are the messiest kind of things that can happen between people, I think, and Dana expresses that well, through the easy sound of her synth and the strained sound of her voice more than through the words themselves. I am, I think, ready to see Porridge Radio in full live next time they’re in Oxford. And maybe when that happens it’ll be sold out too?
-- Caspar Jacobs, February 1, 2018