As my highlight of Cambridge Folk Festival last year, the announcement of an Oxford tour date many months ago created a great deal of anticipation. Had I remembered them too fondly through the haze of Summer sunshine and festival ale, or had they really been as extraordinary? I’ve been caught out before, but with a clear head and a year of separation I’m pleased to say that for once I wasn’t disappointed.
All that I remember loving about the Stray Birds performance was still there. Close harmonies which occasionally break for Maya de Vitry’s vocals, which are reminiscent in tone to that of Gillian Welch, to soar away. Urgent bluegrass which turns at times throughout the set to honkytonk and even sometimes gospel, all with the same quality.
Tonight they are joined by drums which add weight to some of the older tracks, their debut full length having been somewhat more acoustic than their latest release Magic Fire. The result is a formidable sound which breathes new life into the likes of Best Medicine and, in particular, The Bells, which is driven forward with gusto. They receive some of the biggest audience reactions of the night and yet, although the new album has not long been released, they are met by a room full of people mouthing the words.
Throughout the night they also weave in almost all of the tracks from their Echo Sessions EP, a live recording of 5 covers ranging from Townes Van Zandt’s Loretta to Jimmie Rodgers classic Blue Yodel #7. The only omission was Nanci Griffith’s I Wish It Would Rain; my only disappointment from a set which was a masterclass in the genre.