The lineup is unusual tonight in that the crowd gets the treat of discovering what the leads of several well-known Oxford bands can do without the rest of their crew to back them up. Apologies must first go to Lee Smilex, whose set I missed due to sheer incompetence (yet whose rare solo appearance I would have been interested to catch, having only ever seen him shouting whilst half naked and leaping off the speakers). Next up was Joe Sexy Breakfast, whose set consisted mostly of the kind of generic poppy ballads that sadly make my brain go into sleep mode. His rendition of ‘Next’ by Jacques Brel certainly woke me up, however, and was a truly transfixing showcase for his elastic vocal style and cabaret delivery skills. Jacques Brel is like marmite, so half the audience looked shocked and amused as the other half gazed on in admiration as Jo sang his heart out like a star in the making. ‘Next…’
…was another chap with a good claim to Oxford stardom: Chris Harry Angel. The Angel have been purveying their dark goths-on-speed new-wavery at all the venues you care to mention over the last year, including some large and impressive festival slots, and if there were an award for hardest-working Oxford band, they’d win it. The main reason for all the fuss is clear tonight, as Chris sings like a sad angel, soaring easily into clear falsetto and executing some fancy ornamentation that the best English folk singer could only wonder at (on which note, he’s the only chap tonight to include an capella number). Many of the crowd don’t seem to know what they’re missing, however, and it may possibly be said that – especially for the Angel numbers – one’s mind occasionally wanders onto wondering how the tracks would sound with the full band behind them. Either way however the man has a voice that lesser mortals would kill for.
For the last act, the crowd surges to the front and it becomes clear who’s brought the most friends tonight. The Brickwork Lizards have a silly name, and in a way, a silly act – but it is the most charming thing you’ll have seen on stage in a while, and, if you’re into singing, also one of the most impressive. This is only their third or fourth gig, and whilst this shows a little in terms of their familiarity with the material, the ensemble’s timing and dynamic range on the deceptively simple-sounding tunes is generally very good, and it’s nice to see their onstage communication. With an unusual line-up of cello, guitar, hand-drum and oud (11-string middle eastern lute), you’d expect them to reel out some quiet, twiddly instrumental numbers at some point – and for the first few tracks, this is exactly what they do, the oud ringing out clearly as the lead instrument on tunes ranging from the Korean national anthem (not really, but it could have been) to the theme from El Mariachi (same again). One unusual feature of the band is that there are two male vocalists, Gary and Tarik (guitar and oud respectively), and whilst I enjoyed the initial twiddling immensely, after three tunes I began to wonder what the mics were there for. This was then revealed in spectacular fashion, Tarik blowing the crowd away with his super-smooth, clarinet-like vocals, with an unbelievable range – from solid deep bass through to crystal-clear falsetto. By the time he had ended one number (sung with the clarity of a member of the Inkspots - whose ‘Do I Worry?’ they performed later) with the kind of ornamental twiddling that would make Mariah Carey look like an amateur - and sung parts of the song ‘Sahara’ in traditional Arabic style - it was obvious that Tarik was an extremely talented and versatile performer (even whilst pissed - which he stated he was before even starting). On top of this, Gary has an excellent smooth jazzy voice, and his solo number also went down well. The paring down of the rhythm section to just hand drum and cello (with its range ideal for convincing rhythmic bass and also lilting melodic treble) was also a masterstroke.
The Lizards were like a breath of fresh air for the soul in a local scene that can seem top-heavy with groups valuing volume, speed and attitude over musicality. Conversely, of course, this gem of an evening also proved that the leads of loud and fast local rock acts can also make beautiful music alone. Well done Tomohawk – and a Merry Christmas one and all.