An UK heatwave is second best to an evening of exhilarating music at Oxfords Wheatsheaf

The Wheatsheaf, Oxford. Call it the second night of our mini, spring heat-wave. People look happier than they have in months. Pints are ordered with glee: a refreshment, as opposed to a thing to keep us smiling through the freeze. It’s cozy here, black-boxed, verging on musty. Would make the highest profile of artists endearingly underperformed.

Rozi Plain’s sporting dungaree-shorts and characteristic top-knot. She’s properly laid-back, like, almost arching out of consciousness. If someone told her the new album had reached number 1 in whatever-chart-they-quote-from-now, she’d probably respond: ‘Oh really? Awesome.’ She’s like that girl that you remember from the house party – awkward, somehow in a cool way. Much more nervous on the mic than at the merch stand, the songs have to speak for themselves. Oh, but they can. 

Last year, Rozi Plain released ‘Friend’; this year ‘Friend of a Friend’ came out. The latest album features remixes of tracks on ‘Friend’, but a couple of originals also shine through. She kicks off with the first of these, understated ‘Marshes’, her voice a soft ripple. ‘Best Team’, performed for a Marc Riley Session at the BBC, is a stand-out. Rozi’s refrain ‘…in the dark’ is ethereal and, where in some tracks the synth feels a little superfluous, the instrumental layering here is impressive. Guitar, synth and drums are played as if in a race with one another, amping the pace. ‘Tomorrow,’ they say, ‘we head across the channel. Tell your friends in France: we’re coming.’

Wandering casually onto the stage like one might wander into a best friend’s living room, Jeffrey Lewis needs no introduction. He’s been doing this for years, has built up something of a cult following over the course of his career in the anti-folk scene. Here, he stands with his band of the moment Los Bolts. They open with a sweet track that gets everyone chuckling in recognition – acknowledging the unnecessarily awkward scenarios we find ourselves in when we’re on our own. We have to take our bags into the bathroom, letting the waitress know that we’re not leaving without paying, etc. Clad in a flat-peaked cap and baggy t-shirt, Lewis is the eccentric everyman. Though now in his forties, it’s reassuring that Lewis’ latest album –‘Manhattan’ – still speaks of life’s little obscurities.

Amidst a wall-sized visualiser, ‘Manhattan’s’ opener ‘Scowling Crackhead Ian’ is perfectly surreal. His ambivalence to actualities in tact, Lewis sings, ‘you were an insane human being, whether you ever did, or didn’t even, smoke it.’ He captains us through some of his insane short films, which, with subject matters such as the condensed history of Chinese communism, are like kids’ textbooks on acid. A comic-book artist in his own right, we are reminded of the pirate who fell in love with his parrot and the trials and tribulations of the eight-handed head. Through songs such as ‘Internet’ and a snarky response to the audience interpretation of ‘The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane’ (‘LSD’) Lewis’ performance continues to oscillate happily between moments of quirk and bleakly vibrant satire. 

Things get heavier with the relentless ‘Broken, Broken, Broken Heart’ and ‘Thunderstorm’s’ lazy rhythm. Still hungry for more, however, Lewis calls out to the back: ‘How long we got?’ ‘One more song’ belts the management. The singer adjusts his hat, casting a cheeky look at Los Bolts. ‘Another hour, then.’ And the band would play long into the night, too, you can tell, if Oxford didn’t need to sleep. Instead, the whole room prepares for one last groundswell of cheery grime. When it comes to endings, they’re well-rehearsed, trading riffs like punches, and even well into the post-gig silence, we hum to ourselves, donning Jeffrey’s Janus mask – a momentary borrowing of the icon’s superpower – able to laugh and cry at the same thing. 

This Jeffrey Lewis and Los Bolts with Rozi Plain article was written by Eva Hibss, a GIGsoup contributor. Photo credit : gwen_chapelain

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