Live Review: Sam Brookes at The Cellar

Sam Brookes is not a musician about whom you could make hackneyed remarks about ‘humble beginnings’. Beginning his singing career as a young chorister at the Queen’s private chapel in Great Windsor Park, he’s gone on to self-release an album, ‘Kairos’, which spills over with lush harmonies and lyrical sophistication, and embark on multiple tours, including a tour supporting Newton Faulkner. In short, I doubt that the show he gave in Oxford last Monday was the most nerve-wracking performance of Sam Brookes’ life. It was, regretfully, not as busy as he deserved. No more than about thirty people in total made the descent down The Cellar’s steps, and it was the first time at The Cellar that I’ve not considered suffocation an imminent threat. As a fellow gig-goer told me at the bar: ‘No one goes out on Mondays’. Nevertheless, the crowd that did show up were loyal and enthusiastic, and were much rewarded. The intimacy of the gig allowed Sam Brookes’ attention to detail to really shine, with each quiver in his tenor vibrato perfectly showcased.

The support act Low Chimes gave an engaging start to the evening, drawing on elements of folk and electronic music in their set, veering into territory resembling Foals and The Dirty Projectors. Low Chimes’ set complemented Sam’s headline slot, which explored similar themes. His first single in over two years, the recently released ‘My Girl Drinks Coffee’ departs from the folky simplicity of ‘Kairos’, and uses broken shards of jazzy electronica to give a fresh spin on break-up blues. An evocative image inspired by Kafka’s Metamorphosis opens the track (‘I woke up on a bed of scales, not knowing who I was’), and the song gives voice to that familiar melancholic wondering: Who might that person now be drinking coffee with, instead of me? Sam tells The OxStu ‘I was in a place in my life that I hadn’t been before, and I wanted to express that in the lyrics and sonic of the song’. Although Sam left ‘My Girl Drinks Coffee’ to perform late on in the set, loneliness and introspection left indelible marks throughout his show. His performance of ‘Into The Night’, a new song from his upcoming EP (recently recorded in a boathouse on The Isle of Skye) gave rise to musings on loss, and ‘embracing that empty space left in your life’.

What emerges from the show is that Sam Brookes is very much his own person, and with a forceful work ethic to match. His album ‘Kairos’ was crowd-funded on Pledge Music and later self-released, and Sam told me that music is ‘something that runs in my veins and has always done so from a child. It’s a way of life for me and not a job, although I earn my keep through it, I rarely think about the money’. His live band comprised a hardworking duo, who shifted around the singer as the show progressed, alternating between the drums, guitar, and synths, all the while providing flawless backing vocals. At one point, Sam cleared the stage for a solo rendition of the achingly emotional ‘Breaking Blue’ (‘There is a love, there is the light, every time such a fight / I want to start anew, look to the sky for breaking blue’). He struck a lonely figure, starkly lit up against the stage with its labyrinth of props. However, the spellbinding atmosphere was slightly compromised by an imposition of modern technology: The blustering sound of the hand-dryer going off in an adjacent bathroom. After some laughter, the show quickly recovered – But the fact is that that disturbance was only noticed because of the way that Sam’s singing held the audience’s attention in total silence.