The Pleasant Sting of Stornoway

Does Connecticut take its live music opportunities for granted? Hartford just hosted one of the most impressive festival line-ups of the season at the B.O.M.B. Fest, a slate as progressive as it was popular.

In  a few weeks, Yo Yo Ma will be playing live on New Haven Green thanks to the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. The classical scene here is already well sated due to those world-class players who serve on the Yale faculty.

It wasn’t the case 15 years ago, but since the rise of the casinos, and the Webster in Hartford, and The Kate in Old Saybrook, and the expansion of the Oakdale in Wallingford, and the increasing willingness of old-school theaters like the Shubert and the Garde and the Waterbury Palace to host pop and rock and country concerts, there’s a potential venue for every size and shape of music act that comes down the pike. And since Connecticut is conveniently located between Boston and New York City, they all have occasion to come down that pike.

So, jaded much? I felt that way when I brought my nearly 7-year-old daughter Sally to the Peabody Museum on Saturday afternoon. Not only was there a brand-new exhibit about bloodsucking insects, the much-hyped British band Stornoway was performing a full set of their original British folk-pop tunes in the museum’s Great Hall—where the dinosaur skeletons are.

Not only was Stornoway playing the Peabody for the second time in under six months, the UK-based band (named for a small island in Scotland) had been persuaded to debut a brand new song at the gig.

Incredulity can be tempered by facts. Stornoway frontman Brian Briggs is a local-boy-made-international-scholar who started the band while getting degrees in ornithology and zoology from Oxford University. His father is a Yale-based paleontologist who is currently serving as Museum Director of the Peabody.

There was an attentive crowd for Saturday’s show, which was free with museum admission. It was an older audience than one imagines the band usually gets, and there were clearly a lot of Briggs family and friends present. Attendance was probably as strong as at the clubs the band plays in Europe, where their debut album Beachcomber’s Windwosill (released on the formidable 4AD label) reached number 14 on the UK pop charts (and number 3 on the indie chart). But in New Haven it was a more casual crowd, with many seeing the concert as a bonus museum weekend attraction rather than a destination in itself.

As for that debut tune, Brian Briggs introduced it jokingly by saying he wrote it in the van on the day before the museum gig because his dad’s staffers had promoted it in a press release. It was, as the introduction forewarned, a minor work. Yet thesimple, under-rehearsed blues riff, albeit one easily livened up by the band’s fiddle, trumpet and wooden-crate percussion.

And the lyrics for “Bloodsucker Blues”—which equated the stinging insects of the adjacent exhibit Invasion of the Bloodsuckers: Bedbugs and Beyond with the emotional suffering inflicted by a demanding wife—made up for its central sexist cliché with an inspired rhyme that fit in beautifully alongside the often scientifically detailed lyrics of other Stornoway songs:

She drinks me down with anticoagulation

A constant flow of mutual flagellation

This parasitical position’s getting critical

Spare me those bloodsucking blues


The song’s chorus:

Bloodsucking blues, doctor won’t you set me free?

Looks like a case of acute matrimony

This lousy spouse has got her mandibles in me

And I’ve got those bloodsucking blues


Briggs sang “lousy” as if it rhymed with “spouse-y” (rather than “drowsy”), emphasizing the buggishness of the word.

For a handful of us, this was a real “I was there” moment to exploit when next conversing with intense nu-folk enthusiasts—a jokey, lighter side of an oft-maudlin band. For others, “Bloodsucking Blues” was a catchy theme song to hum while wandering the Peabody on a Saturday afternoon. Honestly, around here, we treat the constant stream of internationally known pop acts as casually as we treat bugs in the wilderness.