Heatwave alerts from the MET Office, health warnings from the government - disregarded by a huge chunk of Oxford's music-lovers as they swill sugary alcoholic drinks in the hottest place in town, and optimised-for-summer band Whitney let loose on stage.
"It's like Chicago out there… so very muggy" muses drummer/vocalist Julien Ehrlich, too sodden to be wistful. The band's home city is also the birthplace of Pitchfork, who've been backing these guys for their whole short life thus far. Musically, they mine traditions from all over the US, transcending pastiche, as theirs isn't primarily a recycling of tropes past - it's a body of songs that happens to draw upon Americana. Listen out for Light Upon the Lake's neat soul guitar licks, the distinctive lead vocals (tonally it's castrato rather than falsetto - Neil Young rather than Robbie Robertson) that recall Elliott Smith in their front-and-centre vulnerability. There's also an optimism to their sound on record that lifts things above mawkishness - would it translate to a live context?
Jonny Payne & The Thunder set the pace for the night - the bassist's Hofner signals 1964, and indeed their arrangements could come from any time in the past half-century. As with the headliners, it's great to hear fresh songs from a long-matured genre, and staleness was averted through cantering tempo-surges, a surprisingly Arctic Monkeys-reminiscent breakdown and the steadily distorting throb of electric. Cameron AG follow with winsome harmonies, and a combination of folk-derived songcraft and Beach Boys-esque touches. They have the decency to sing a song about winter, which doesn't have the desired effect of (as watching The Revenant did) making us feel a few degrees more chill. I utterly love the textures of everything from keyboards to electric toms to a keening vocal, but it's not the underlying songwriting that grabs me.
Expanded from youthful duo Ehrlich and Max Kakacek to a stage-filling six-piece, Whitney are ready to celebrate and perspire. Born in winter 2014, the band dreamed of brighter climes, but perhaps didn't predict their own popularity - "A year ago, we finished our first tour in Chicago. There weren't as many people in the room then as there are tonight" says Ehrlich appreciatively to a heaving backroom at the Bully, dispensing with deadpan coolness. And they hit all their greatest songs with panache. They translate perfectly to the live arena because of the extra oomph given by the rhythm section - Ehrlich is hitting hard, deploying fills he's probably never played before, maybe because he's having a great time. And the bits from the LP I thought might get lost? He attacks the vocals without straining, and a unison harmony recreates the familiar double-tracking; one trumpeter plus some electronic wizardry equals a horn section; and Kakacek is as note-perfect as his recorded self.
Another reason for celebrating - the former Smith Westerns guitarist turns 26 today, and is ceremoniously presented with a splendid, candle-laden birthday cake. The room sings to him. Ehrlich also makes a deal of how the band has nowhere to stay tonight, and how much they want to party - bonhomie and the whirl of on-the-road success, everything you'd hope from a band on their way up. But importantly the songs were on point, their brevity allowing each one to gain energy early on. A Dylan cover was transformed into a recognisably Whitney thing (this is probably what The Thrills wanted to achieve years ago), a second cover had apparently only been learned this afternoon but boasted excellent momentum and the most-celebrated trumpet solo I've witnessed in many a year. The first encore song shows a similar, Band-like chord progression to what had gone before, but this is the set's only pall. We share a mass singalong to gorgeous single 'No Woman', say our goodbyes and soon find the band outside the venue, waiting to see where the party is.