Saturday night saw the Cellar chocked full of foot-thumping Americana. Simon Stanley Ward had us hoppin’ and a boppin’ while The Knights of Mentis reeled us in (as always) with their trademark mixture of Irish folk, Americana and Oxford in-jokes.
The double bill of trans-Atlantic folk came from a pair of acts who both make absolutely no apology for their British roots. In the case of Simon Stanley Ward, his beautiful, self-deprecating song, ‘American Voice’ said it all as he declared, ‘I can’t walk away/ I have no choice/ I’m just tied to the sound of my American voice.’ With his band full of energy and joy, Ward played his way through a mixture of heartfelt, honest homages to true American country and wonderful comic songs, including ‘Where The Hell Are My Keys?’ (with a theatrical run off stage to search for said keys) and a tune about the Beluga whale, which included the perfect, slow-drawling lick, ‘I’m an opportunity feeder.’ Genius. The crowd was all on board for Ward’s tales and playful lyrics and as the temperature and tempo rose, he had us all singing along to ‘I Wish I Was Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.’ Make no mistake – Ward is no clown; he’s just a talented musician that’s happy to play the fool.
Next up was Oxford’s own. It’s been a while since The Knights of Mentis have played a gig in their home city, but the hiatus has turned out to be extremely fruitful. Not only has Keith, the banjo player, grown a praise-worthy beard and Malachy, the double bass player, acquired some very cool jazzman shades, but the band also has a host of new tunes. Around three quarters of the set seemed to be new material, including a rousing number with the infections Oxford-focused refrain, ‘up to the pubs of Jericho.’ Of course, with so much new stuff the set wasn’t perhaps as tight as the Knights can be at their best, but the band still sounded damn good with their harmonica player on particular fine form. Sadly, a couple of their softer ballads got a little lost in the hubbub of the full house, but the old favourite ‘Your Man’ came through loud and clear and their infamously re-imagined version of the Happy Monday’s ‘Step On’ worked perfectly as the crowd-pleasing, Saturday-night-party-starting encore.