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Review: C Duncan at the Old Fire Station

Before attending C Duncan’s Oxford gig at the Old Fire Station, I didn’t realise the alternative music scene was missing a certain geeky sensibility. But, standing there in their shirts, jeans and trainers, the Mercury Prize-nominated Glaswegian musician and his three-piece band are not the standard indie rockers you may expect to stumble across in this tiny venue on a Friday night.

Christopher Duncan’s debut album Architect, released in July last year, really is all about the careful piecing together of sounds. But however intimate and endearing the band are, their live show does not quite match up to the sculptor’s deft accuracy with sound that we hear on recording.

Their sound does, at least, match the surroundings. The space is industrial and intimate. With the drum-kit set up on a child’s road-design play-mat, and various colourways of their album artwork and similar road-like designs projected on the screen behind them, the endearing group take to an appropriately idiosyncratic stage. But one thing neither this gig, nor any other gig, for that matter, needs, is a compere asking the crowd to “shout a bit louder” to announce the band before they take to the stage, as was felt necessary by organisers, Glovebox.

With both parents trained as classical musicians, and having studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland himself, it is no surprise that C Duncan’s musical precision is so acute. Thundering drums keep up the momentum of ‘Here To There’, as Duncan’s repeated “I’ll take you everywhere I go” becomes intriguingly chantlike. On acappella track ‘In Days Gone By’, his bandmates put down their guitars and synths to join him in vocal harmony, in a stunning, almost choral capacity.

It would not be fair to have C Duncan down as a classical musician pussy-footing his way around the ‘popular’ music scene without taking any risks. His choice to cover the Cocteau Twins’ ‘Pearly Dewdrops Drops’ is a surprising one, considering how far from the ethereal wave of the 80s/90s band C Duncan’s vibe is. But it pays off.

Even final track and single ‘Garden’ has a subtle exuberance when performed on stage, and is certainly one of the tracks most aptly transferred to a live setting. Duncan’s catchiest number takes on a mock-Beach Boys vibe, admittedly with less dense harmonies. Guitar solos in the second half become almost psychlike, which is far from what could ever have been expected from an album with such a calculated scientific branding.

When C Duncan and band really let loose, their chopped-up meticulousness is even more exciting than their modest and exact personae ever could be.

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