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August 2018 – upcoming London pop and rock gigs – The Mantis Opera, Bozo Zoo, The Butterfly Wheel and Imogen Bliss (25th August); Norwood & Brixton Foodbank fundraiser with Treasure Of Woe, Carl White and Apocalypse Jazz Unit (also 25th August)

15 Aug

The Mantis Opera + Bozo Zoo + The Butterfly Wheel + Imogen Bliss, 25th August 2018There are several reasons that I’ve been following the exploits of The Mantis Opera this year. One is the music: an illuminating synth-rock rush through cunningly orchestrated post-classical complexity and brainiac alternative pop, topped with similarly cerebral lyrics which slide fizzing, thinking ribbons through philosophy, logic and linguistic theory before binding them back into more down-to-earth life situations.

If this sounds hideously dry or snooty, it isn’t. This is simply music which is neither ashamed of its own cleverness, nor too self-absorbed or chilly to invite you along for the ride. They’re among an increasing number of newish, bumping-along-in-the-underground acts who share this kind of quirky enthusiasm and possess the requisite smarts and chops to back it up. Tom O.C. Wilson, Prescott, Thumpermonkey and Lost Crowns spring immediately to mind: bands and songwriters who see nothing wrong with turning out songs with the depth and twists of playful short stories, of compressed novels-of-ideas or of meandering Flann O’Brien-esque digressions.

As regards The Mantis Opera, I’ve been chucking around terms like “wide-awake brain music” and “avant-prog keeping watch from under a dream-pop veil” and I’m not going to drop those yet, although I might have to come up with a few more if the band are going to keep up regular performances.



 
The other reason that I’m keeping an eye on The Mantis Opera is that they tend to keep interesting gig company. Whether they’re good at being invited or are inordinately good at charming their way into lineups, the band seem to have a knack for fitting onto a wide variety of different bills, and this end-of-the-month gig at Paper Dress Vintage is no exception.

Two summers old, already pegged as “rust-bucket swing” and compared to “Mark E. Smith manning the Hot Five”, Bozo Zoo play rootsy jazz-folk and rhythm & blues on drums, double bass and comfortably sleazy sax. Hollering, theatrical vocalist and off-the-wall lyricist Mark Warren (who also handles the inevitable, ubiquitous ukulele) ensures that they tilt into a similar realm of bulging-vein vigour and twisted circus berserkery to that of The Tiger Lillies. A few decades ago he was bobbing about in the kind of lucky-dip underground bands that showed up on Org Records compilations: now he’s singing up budding cabaret gallimaufries of music hall songs and ditties about chess grandmasters. On top of all this, Bozo Zoo seem to have fused Spinal Tap with Schrödinger, via recent online mutterings about “a new drummer but we’ve also kept our drummer… but it ain’t a band with two drummers… but we have got two drummers… it’s complicated.”


 

Hailing from east London and extensively festooned with mysticism, The Butterfly Wheel aren’t quite the esoteric revelation that they’d like to make out. Plenty of their surface schtick – the Gothic theatrical trappings, the Early Music dirge-wails, the stripping away of Western pop tropes in favour of frowning middle-continent antiquity – is more than familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of Dead Can Dance (or of the host of intense, tousled imitators DCD spawned over three decades). What is refreshing is the shifts underneath those surface. A female duo, their songs reshuffle and transform archetypes for an increasingly feminised new time. There’s the sense of old stone patriarchal gods and legends being chipped away at; of more hopeful alternatives being birthed out of the sea; of the stories sitting up and rewriting themselves. We’ll have to see where it leads.



 
From Camberwell and Coldharbour, Imogen Bliss reshuffles Eastern European folk songs and tufty pop covers on voice, mandolin and loop station. The examples below are Armenian and Balkan/Romani, sandwiching a reworked Cure hit: the latter may not sound a great deal different to those pixiedreamgirl uke songs which still bog down every other cinema advert, but Imogen sounds awake and illuminated rather than sun-drenched and casually dreamy. I’m guessing that she’s got other tricks up her sleeve…

 
Paper Dress Presents…
The Mantis Opera + Bozo Zoo + The Butterfly Wheel + Imogen Bliss
Paper Dress Vintage Bar & Boutique,, 352a Mare Street, Hackney, London, E8 1HR, England
Saturday, 25 August 2018, 7.45pm
– information here and here
 

* * * * * * * *

Norwood & Brixton Foodbank Fundraiser: Treasure Of Woe + Carl White + Apocalypse Jazz Unit, 25th August 2018On the same night, there’s this. Lovers of righteous noise, here’s your chance to sample some noise that’s a bit more righteous…

“London promoters Wrongpop and Chaos Theory have gotten together for a one-off special event to raise money for Norwood & Brixton Foodbank: some of the best new underground bands out there have agreed to bring you their sounds for this excellent cause, so it’ll be a phenomenal evening with extra positive vibes. 100% of ticket sales go to the charity.

“Formed from members of Long Slow Dissolve,The Love Me Tenders and Witchfist, Treasure Of Woe play stoner and psychedelic jams on guitar and drums. We’ve seen this duo doing their thing at The Facemelter last September and they just keep on recording their jams and releasing them online, so have a listen at the link and get down for the full live experience.


 
Carl White are a guitar/drums experimental rock duo, originally formed in Brighton and now based in London. Over the years they’ve shared the stage with acts such as Nitkowski, Alpha Male Tea Party, Flies Are Spies From Hell, Witching Waves and The Mae Shi.They’re currently working on a new EP, from which there will be a single/video released in the next couple of months.


 
Apocalypse Jazz Unit were started in 2013 by Rick Jensen as a recording project, after nearly three years of not making music. After numerous albums, Rick recruited some new and old musician buddies and started playing live. AJU quickly went from a small group to an over-the-top collective of psycho improvisers, with up to seventeen members at any one time. To date, they have released over seventy albums and have played a ton of gigs. AJU harnesses the spiritual fire of free-jazz of the ‘60s, mixed with a bit of disco when the mood takes them. Always high-energy and with a heavy sense of humour, AJU can easily swing from delicate and sombre, to full-blast horn mayhem.”


 
Wrongpop & Chaos Theory Music Promotions present:
Norwood & Brixton Foodbank Fundraiser: Treasure Of Woe + Carl White + Apocalypse Jazz Unit
The Black Heart, 2-3 Greenland Place, Camden Town, London, NW1 0AP, England
Saturday 25th August 2018, 7.00pm
– information here and here
 

July/August 2018 – upcoming London opera – the rest of Grimeborn 2018 including a baroque ‘Xerse’, a reconfigured ‘Membra Jesu Nostri’, a reclaimed ‘Carmen The Gypsy’, repertoire hits, kids’ shows and jazz-dance (24th July to 26th August)

20 Jul

Grimeborn 2018, 24th July to 26th August 2018

While my previous post on London alt.opera festival Grimeborn 2018 dealt with many of its obvious heavy-hitters (including the revivals of Turnage’s ‘Greek’, Britten’s ‘Rape of Lucretia’ and Ethel Smyth’s ‘The Boatswain’s Mate’, plus its premieres of Keith Burstein’s ‘The Prometheus Revolution’ and a slew of BAME/female-originated one-acters), there’s plenty more to the season. First of all, let’s take a quick look at the reconfigurations.

Most boldly, Opera Louise’s ‘Teenage Bodies’ takes on ‘Membra Jesu Nostri’ – Baroque composer Dietrich Buxtehude’s seven-song five-voice cantata on the body of Christ. In a corkscrew dive from the sacred to the secular, director/lyricist Julien Chavaz, choreographer Oliver Dähler and music director Jérôme Kuhn rework it as a meditation on puberty and development, mixing live music, physical movement and new text. I’m assuming that the original Biblical listing of “feet, knees, hands, sides, breast, heart, and face” have either been replaced or restored to the carnal. Equally, perhaps they’ve turned into a politicized view of the relationship and power dynamics between young and old bodies. The publicity photos and videos show what seems to be a Theatre of Cruelty classroom with an elderly man and several younger figures cavorting around each other. It could signify anything. At any rate, it’s one of the best-equipped operas in the festival, complete with small orchestra.

 
For ‘A Fantastic Bohemian: The Tales of Hoffman Revisited’, Opera MIO & Co-Productions take Jacques Offenbach’s rollicking Victorian fantasy opera ‘The Tales of Hoffman’ and turn it into an Anglo-Spanish immersive theatre piece spread across three spaces, kitting out the Arcola as Mexico City during the 1940s (during its Golden Cinema Age). The original score will be interspersed with bursts of Mexican danzón, all of the music being played by a four-piece band of piano, cello, clarinet, and violin.

Grimeborn 2018: 'Carmen The Gypsy' - 22nd to 25th August 2018In turn, Romani polymath and Romany Theatre Company head Dan Allum has rewritten Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ as ‘Carmen The Gypsy’, setting it within the contemporary British traveller community and highlighting both anti-Romani racism (“when the outside world thinks you’re scum, can you ever be free?”) and Carmen’s own struggle to liberate herself from “a brutal husband and the shackles of tradition.” This reworking features original Gypsy songs played live on guitar, drum, violin and accordion, plus staged cage fighting (presumably replacing Bizet’s bullfighting) and, as with many RTC productions, a combined English and Romani libretto.

Baroque tradition meets contemporary minimalist theatre in Ensemble OrQuesta’s straighter revival of Francesco Cavalli’s ‘Xerse’, directed by Marcio da Silva. The company triumphed last year with their production of Armide, and return with this dramatic comedy of “jealousy and unfulfilled love” set in the royal court of Persia (with a company of eleven singers, baroque violins, cello, lute and harpsichord).

Milly Forrest

Milly Forrest

For repertoire shows, The Opera Box’s compilation piece ‘Recitals’ (performed by soprano Milly Forrest and pianist Alastair Chilvers) features “new spins” on pieces by Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf, Vincenzo Bellini, Franz Liszt, Francis Poulenc, and Joseph Haydn. In ‘Onegin & Tatiana’, Opera Company director Guido Martin-Brandis presents “an award-winning cast explor(ing) the dramas and psychologies of Alexander Pushkin’s immortal characters”. Centred on the character of Tatiana Onegin (and focussing on female desire, fantasy and personal upheavale) it features music from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, plus additional songs by Strauss, Fauré, Massenet, Barber and Schubert.

The remaining pieces might be heading away from the opera template, but seem to be aimed at pulling in both children and the classical-averse, providing entry points to musical drama. Children are catered for via a return appearance by Melanie Gall, with her acclaimed anthropomorphic kids theatre shows about musical animals winning through against the odds (‘Opera Mouse’ quotes Puccini and Mozart, while the scat-happy ‘Jazz Cat’ is built around the music of Harry Woods, Louis Armstrong and Robert Johnson.)

Melanie Gall: 'Opera Mouse'

A more adult-orientated jazz evening arrives with Nancy Hitzig and Cat Foley’s ‘Swing Sister Swing’ “a cabaret-inspired show celebrating female choreographers, kick ass musicians and pieces created and inspired by jazz-greats” (a trinity of Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday). It’ll be performed by Nancy and Cat themselves with fellow dancers Christine “Tine Machine” Gatchalian, Katie Stotter, Benjamin Cook and Stephen Atemie and European champion chorus-line The Dixie Dinahs, and with recorded and live music by Katie. “Through lindy hop, swing dance, vintage burlesque, song and comedy, performers will explore what it means to be a in a partnership and alone.”


 
All performances at Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 2DJ, England.

Dates:

  • The Opera Box presents ‘Recitals’ – Thursday 26th July 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • Nancy Hitzig & Cat Foley present ‘Swing Sister Swing’ – Sunday 29th July 2018, 4.00pm & 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Melanie Gall presents ‘Opera Mouse’ – Wednesday 1st August 2018, 11.00am – information here and here
  • Melanie Gall presents ‘Jazz Cat’, Wednesday 1st August 2018, 2.00pm – information here and here
  • Opera Louise presents ‘Teenage Bodies’ – Thursday 2nd August 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • Opera MIO & Co-Productions present ‘A Fantastic Bohemian: The Tales of Hoffman Revisited’ – Saturday 4th & Saturday 11th August 2018, 2.30pm / Sunday 5th & Sunday 12th August 2018, 4.00pm – information here and here
  • Guido Martin-Brandis presents ‘Onegin & Tatiana’ – Monday 13th & Tuesday 14th August 2018, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Romany Theatre Company presents ‘Carmen the Gypsy’ – Wednesday 22nd to Saturday 25 August 2018, 8.00pm / Saturday 25 August 2018, 3.00pm – information here and here
  • Ensemble OrQuesta presents ‘Xerse’ – Friday 24th to Sunday 26th August 2018, 7.30pm – information here and here

 

Through the feed – The Cricklewood Cats (Ian Ritchie and Holly Penfield)

6 Jul

The Cricklewood Cats: 'Shake Your Skeleton'

The Cricklewood Cats: ‘Shake Your Skeleton’

News in on The Cricklewood Cats, a new band formed by a couple whom I’ve been following on and off since the early ’90s. Holly Penfield sings, Ian Ritchie plays everything else. (I like bands in which one member plays “everything else”. Associates, Elephant, no-man – the tradition’s a good one.)

For those of you who don’t know them, both Holly and Ian have long pedigrees. Starting out as a teenaged Glaswegian jazzer with rock leanings, Ian began his career in the mid-’70s playing saxophone for Deaf School, the theatrical Liverpudlian art-rockers who also gave us Madness/Elvis Costello producer Clive Langer. In the ’80s Ian took a left turn into programming, becoming an early exponent of that decade’s techno-pop via his own project Miro Miroe. From there, he moved on to sleek, glossy electronic productions for Pete Wylie (‘Sinful’), Laurie Anderson (‘Strange Angels’) and Roger Waters (‘Radio K.A.O.S’). Amongst other unlikely adventures, he helped to pioneer digital home recording, flung together the ‘Lonely Planet’ theme after a two-hour crash course in ambient downtempo, and played the sax on Wham’s ‘Club Tropicana’. By the early ’90s, he’d also met and married Holly as a result of working on her second album, ‘Parts Of My Privacy’.

A striking singer, Holly had been part of the flash and swill of the 1980s Los Angeles pop scene, into which she’d delivered ‘Full Grown Child‘ (a fairly average, commercially obscure album of New Wave pop-rock featuring, among others, future King Crimsoneer Pat Mastelotto). ‘Parts Of My Privacy’ was a much more psychologically involved work – a thematic dark-night-of-the-soul electronic ballad record, showcasing her passionate vocals, pulsating synths and Ian’s jazz-noir saxophone. It was based on Holly’s live ‘Fragile Human Monster‘ show – part rock torch-song revue, part performance art – which she performed in L.A and around the UK and Europe. Exploring her fractured psyche and pursuing human connection, while putting a contradictory twist on pop star roles, the show was a shamanic exploration of trauma and angst; persistently breaking the wall between performer and audience, and unafraid to fall on its face if it had to.

In some respects, Holly’s development at the time anticipated that of Tori Amos. Both travelled from brash hairsprayed Angeleno rock (‘Full Grown Child’, ‘Y Can’t Tori Read’) onto more eccentric, higher-achieving confessional efforts. Only one of them had hits and a grand piano; but then, only one of them regularly beat up an inflatable Edvard Munch ‘Scream’ doll onstage. The latter was one of the show’s regular features when I encountered Holly and Ian for the first time, one random night in Edinburgh in a year when they’d taken the Fragile Human Monster to the Fringe.

This in turn led to me becoming a regular at FHM gigs back in London at which Holly would deliver her naked-hearted synth ballads, display scars, converse with the audience and deliver climactic primal screams while Ian prowled the stage behind her, playing multiple saxophones and serving both as musical foil and wary backbone. Over the years, a diverse handful of support performers included Tim Bowness (with his occasional ambient folk band Samuel Smiles), Mark Bandola (ex-Lucy Show), psychedelic London songwriters Susan Chewter (Wise Wound) and Dean Carter, and Chapman Stick ace Jim Lampi. With varying degrees of buy-in, reluctance and affection, each were pulled into the culture of the show in one way or another. It was an intense cabaret of madness, compassion, stress relief and ongoing healing. Depending on how you felt on any given evening, it could be touching, ludicrous, therapeutic, alarming… you certainly had to leave embarrassment at the door. It was all too much for one show to contain for too long, and after several memorable years it finally burnt out.

For the last few decades, Ian’s continued his own explorations – early live techno and Big Chill electronica with Shen and Chance Element, ecstatic dance with Urubu, recreating the sax solos from ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ with the Roger Waters band, and innumerable jazz projects. Holly, meanwhile, has made a bigger name for herself in jazz cabaret in London and elsewhere, shaking down familiar standards with her own particular mixture of sass and kook: beyond the wigs and the campery, however, there’s always been a remarkable singer and performer. Over the years, Ian’s been a frequent contributor to Holly’s jazz bands, but they’ve not formed anything together until now.

In some respects – and on the evidence of their first single – The Cricklewood Cats doesn’t fall too far from what Holly and Ian have been up to in recent years. Rather than a return to the synth-pop balladry of ‘Parts Of My Privacy’, it’s a kind of virtual rockabilly with a strong flavour of jump blues and jumping jive. Ian’s “everything else” consists of plenty of saxophones, plenty of programming, bass, backing vocals and the ubiquitous ukelele; Holly’s collaborator on the lyrics is Tanya Chantier, who’s previously contributed to her jazz songs. Shake Your Skeleton’ is a life-affirming rattle-along on lusty, mocking baritone sax, with Holly setting the lighter and more vulnerable aspects of her balladry and cabaret aside in favour of delivering one of her gutsiest alto-range vocals to date. See above for the video cut (by Ian) from footage in ‘The Skeleton Dance’, a Walt Disney short from 1929.

The song pulls off the neat trick of simultaneously sounding faithful, sounding like a revival, and celebrating the art of the virtual band. As a consequence, there’s not much room for originality. All of the life here is in the happy, immediate unity of performance and production; and Ian cheerfully cites Louis Prima, Brian Setzer and The Cure’s 1983 swing diversion ‘The Love Cats’ rather than making any claims for breaking new ground. Still, The Cricklewood Cats seems to have brought out some of that same sense of fun and expression which Ian and Holly brought to the lighter side of the ‘Fragile Human Monster’ shows (yes, there was some of that too). I’m hope that as they grow into the project it becomes more of a channel for some of that era’s breadth of perspective and for Holly’s songwriting voice. Certainly their sheer musicality is intact.

In the meantime, you can download ‘Shake Your Skeleton’ from here. Incidentally, as far as I know there’s no connection with this.

The Cricklewood Cats online:
Homepage

Ian Ritchie online:
Homepage Facebook

Holly Penfield online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace YouTube

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