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October 2015 – upcoming gigs – Jonas Hellborg & Steve Lawson in Birmingham, London & Leeds; Tim Bowness, Peter Chilvers, David Rhodes, Theo Travis quartet gig in Cardiff

7 Sep

Although there are still some September gigs to flag up, here’s advance notice of four interesting concerts in early October for those of you who are interested in the amorphous terrain between jazz, balladry, art pop and ambient electronica. (Just straight press release stuff – the analysis will have to wait for another time, although I’ve also stuck a few review links in where I’ve covered these musicians before…)

Hellborg & Lawson, 2015

Two of the world’s leading solo bass guitarists together on one stage.

Crossing musical boundaries and blowing listeners’ minds for over thirty years, Jonas Hellborg is one of the great innovators of the bass guitar. From the pyrotechnic flamboyance of his early solo electric albums, to his unique exploration of the richness and depth of the acoustic bass guitar, Jonas has changed the way people think about – and play – the bass. Whether as a solo artist, or collaborating with many of the most respected names in music, from John McLaughlin to PiL, Ginger Baker to Shawn Lane, Jonas’ signature sound and uncompromising creative philosophy have produced an unparalleled body of work, mostly on his own Bardo label. Lauded by press and public alike, this is a rare opportunity to hear Jonas up close in the UK.

Steve Lawson is one of the most celebrated solo bassists in British music history – early in his career, he opened for Level 42 on their first Greatest Hits comeback tour, placing his unique take on melodic looping-based live performance in front of tens of thousands of bass aficionados. Fifteen years of regular gigging across the UK, Europe and the US have solidified his place as a leading exponent of solo bass. Steve’s sound-world borrows liberally from electronica, jazz, pop, rock, ambient and experimental music, to form a sonic fingerprint as compelling as it is unique. Following on from two years of wide-ranging collaboration, playing alongside musicians as diverse as Reeves Gabrels and Beardyman, Andy Gangadeen and Divinity, (and with the imminent release of his twelfth and thirteenth all-solo albums – on the same day!) Steve is back with fresh explorations pushing the notion of what the bass can be in the twenty-first century. (Here are a couple of ‘Misfit City’ reviews of earlier Steve Lawson records for those who’ve not read/heard them -‘Not Dancing For Chicken‘ and ‘Conversations‘).

Full dates, details and links:

  • Tower of Song, 107 Pershore Rd South, Cotteridge, Birmingham, B30 3EL, UK, Sunday 4th October 2015 – £10.00, tickets here.
  • The Vortex Jazz Bar, 11 Gillett Street, Dalston, London, N16 8AZ, UK, Monday 5th October 2015 – price t.b.c. – contact venue for tickets.
  • Left Bank Leeds, The former St Margaret of Antioch Church, Cardigan Road, Hyde Park, Leeds, LS6 1LJ, UK, Tuesday 6th October 2015 – £10.00, tickets here.

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Bowness/Chilvers/Rhodes/Travis, October 2015

Tim Bowness/Peter Chilvers/David Rhodes/Theo Travis (Chapter in association with Burning Shed @ Chapter,  Market Road, Canton, Cardiff, Wales, CF5 1QE, UK, Saturday 3rd October 2015, 7.00pm) – £15.00

A unique combination of atmospheric music and songs performed by the following four British art-pop, jazz and textural music mainstays:

Tim Bowness is vocalist/co-writer with the band no-man, a long-running collaboration with Steven Wilson. He has also worked with Richard Barbieri (Porcupine Tree, Japan), Peter Hammill, Judy Dyble (ex-Fairport Convention), Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera and others. He has released three solo albums – ‘My Hotel Year’ (2004), ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ (2014) and ‘Stupid Things That Mean The World‘ (2015).

Peter Chilvers is a frequent collaborator with Brian Eno (including co-creating the hugely successful app Bloom), Underworld’s Karl Hyde and Tim Bowness, Chilvers has become known for his innovative work with generative apps and imaginative use of electronic textures. (Here’s a review of ‘Thin Air‘, an album Peter did with Michael Bearpark many years ago).

David Rhodes is one of the world’s most respected and inventive guitarists, having worked extensively with Peter Gabriel as well as with Kate Bush, Talk Talk, Scott Walker, Japan, New Order, Paul McCartney and Blancmange, amongst many others. David has also released two solo albums (2010’s ‘Bittersweet’ and 2014’s ‘The David Rhodes Band’) and was a founding member of the influential post-punk band Random Hold.

Saxophonist and flautist Theo Travis (making his Chapter return after performing with the cinematic/musical crossover project Cipher) has an international reputation as one of the stars of the contemporary UK jazz scene. Travis has more recently emerged as a key figure in the progressive and art rock sphere, working with David Gilmour, Robert Fripp, David Sylvian, Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson, Bill Nelson, Gong, Soft Machine Legacy, Bill Bruford, Harold Budd and more. He has recently released his ninth solo album ‘Transgression’ (and here’s a review of an earlier one).

The evening is presented by Burning Shed, the online label and store founded by Bowness and Chilvers with Pete Morgan that has become a global specialist in progressive, ambient/electronica and art rock music. As well as releasing works on its own imprint, amongst others, Burning Shed hosts the official online stores for Panegyric (King Crimson, Yes), Ape (Andy Partridge, XTC, The Milk & Honey Band), Jethro Tull, Kscope (Porcupine Tree, Sweet Billy Pilgrim), Thomas Dolby, All Saints (Brian Eno), Medium Productions (Jansen, Barbieri and Karn), Gentle Giant and Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera.  The label has recently expanded into book publishing, and at this concert musician and author Anthony Reynolds (perhaps best known as the former frontman of Jack) will be signing copies of his Burning Shed Publishing book, ‘Japan – A Foreign Place (The Biography 1974-1984)’.

More information here, and tickets available here.

September 2015 – upcoming London gigs – the K-Music Festival – a month’s worth of Korean music

29 Aug

I got this through my feed this week – a Beach Boys cover done as Korean doo-wop.

This is The Barberettes, who’ve been singing together for three years and are in town next week, making their London debut. It’s also an audio visual flyer, of sorts, for this year’s London K-Music Festival. Presented by Serious (in association with the Korean Cultural Institute) this is a celebration of Korean music from “dynamic and energy-filled contemporary bands to eloquent and dignified traditional music” spread across some of the capital’s best venues during the course of September. Full details are below. (From here on down, it’s all press release.)

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SU:M + Arthur Jeffes (Purcell Room @ Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, Waterloo, London, SE1 8XX, UK, Tuesday 1st September 2015, 7:45pm) – £15 + booking fee

SU:M‘s name (pronounced “soom”) translates as “breath” and it expresses the physical connection of these two women to the music they create – sometimes a soft sigh, sometimes a cry, sometimes a silent holding of breath. Jungmin Seo plays the gayageum (a massive twenty-five-string zither) and Jiha Park plays wind instruments including the saenghwang (imagine the subtlest mouth organ, with seventeen bamboo pipes). They are an astonishing experience live – they’ve played Womex Cardiff and were seen at WOMAD last year. This opening concert of the K-Music festival of Korean music is their first London concert.

The evening will begin with a short solo set by Arthur Jeffes, leader of Penguin Cafe, who will play music by himself and his father Simon Jeffes inspired by their travels in Asia – and it will end with a short collaboration between Arthur and SU:M. Tickets available here.

 

The Barberettes (The Forge, 3-7 Delancey Street, Camden Town, London, NW1 7NL, UK, Friday 4th & Saturday 5th September 2015, 8:00PM) – £16.00

Formed for fun in 2012, The Barberettes are a spectacular vocal harmony trio, a timeslip girl group who turn classics of the ‘50s and ‘60s inside out as well as creating their own theatrical music with their close harmony covers and cute costumes. Singing doo-wop in Korean and English, they made their first album last year (in a retro homage to their inspirations, they called it The Barberettes Vol 1). This year they’ve already stormed SXSW in Texas and the K-Pop Night Out concert at Midem in Cannes – and now they’re bringing their unique style to the UK for the very first time. Tickets available here.

 

No Brain + support t.b.c. (Scala, 275 Pentonville Road, Kings Cross, London, N1 9NL, UK, Friday 11th September, 7:30pm) – £10.00 + booking fee

In England, we know a bit about Korean art music and hold some preconceptions about K-Pop – but we don’t know much about Korean rock music, and that’s where Seoul’s finest, No Brain, have built a huge following, playing over three thousand gigs across Korea in the last 15 years. Powered by raw vocals (Bull is the lead singer), razor guitars (Vovo plays guitar), sharp suits (Bogle plays bass) and a drummer called Dolly, they’ve won lots of Korean Music Awards, but never played London before. They’re playing an early set – support hits at 7.30, they play at 8.30pm. This is a standing show – tickets available here.

 

Jambinai (Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, Shoreditch, London, E1 6LA, UK, Wednesday 16th September, 8:00pm) – £10.00 + booking fee

Jambinai are the next thrilling instalment in the tale of new Korean music. They sculpt sound in a way that’s drawn comparisons to Mogwai, Explosions In The Sky, Sonic Youth and the crystalline power of Sigur Ros – but they draw deep on Korean traditions. It’s not just a stage full of amazing instruments – Korean fiddles, massive zithers blended with glorious lyrical guitars – but also a conscious sense of using the tradition to create something thrillingly new. They’ve been seen at Womad and Glastonbury, but this is their first London show – catch them as Jambinai step out onto a world stage. Tickets available here.

 

Noreum Machi (Kings Place (Hall Two), 90 York Way, Kings Cross, London, N1 9AG, UK, Sunday 20th September, 8:00pm) – £10.00 + booking fee

There’s a theatrical strand to a lot of Korean music and, for more than twenty years, Noreum Machi have been creating a thrilling spectacle from virtuosic percussion, shamanic vocals and acrobatic dance. Powered by gongs, Samul Nori drums and wind instruments, they work within the framework of Korean traditional performance, with a commitment to communicate their music to audiences worldwide. Tickets available here.

 

The Pansori Night: Sang-il Nam + Aeri Park + ‘Poppin’ Hyunjoon + Bae Reon + Kye-youl Jun + Ji-sun Choi (Cadogan Hall, 5 Sloane Terrace, Belgravia, London, SW1X 9DQ, UK, Wednesday 23rd September 2015, 7:30pm) – free ticketed event

The Pansori Night will bring together six talented performers for an evening of music, dance and song with a contemporary twist. Pansori is a form of vocal story-telling that reaches back centuries — the stories sung are often comic, with a Chaucerian comedy to them, but they are also more than just bawdiness, and can be romantic, sad and emotional to boot.

Rising Pansori talent Sang-il Nam will be joined by Aeri Park, one of Korea’s leading female pansori performers. Aeri Park will also perform with ‘Poppin’ Hyunjoon, who takes breakdance moves and blends them with traditional rhythms. Our three stars will also be joined by Bae Reon, playing the ajaeng – a seven-stringed instrument, percussionist Kye-youl Jun accompanying the pansori with the janggu (Korean drum) and traditional dancer Ji-sun Choi. This event is free but ticketed. Click here for more information.

 

Korean National Gugak Centre (Lilian Baylis Studio @ Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R 4TN, UK, Wednesday 30th September 2015, 7:30pm) – £15 + booking fee

The Korean National Gugak Centre is one of the great arts companies of Korea, and this performance concentrates on Sanjo – that’s a style of instrumental music accompanied by a drum and sometimes by dancers, starting slowly and gathering speed, with a structure that allows for virtuosic improvisation. This evening shows off some of the great traditional instruments of Korean traditional music such as the geomungo (large zither), daegeum (transverse flute) and haegeum (Korean fiddle). This is the last date on the group’s European tour, and provides a fitting conclusion to the K-Music Festival. More information here.

 

Tickets for all events can also be obtained from Serious.

Stumbling through 2014 – a year in flashes and in review (part 1 – the music)

18 Jan

photo-dann-01-15Looking for a little authority? I have as little as anyone.

However, in a year in which I personally failed to keep up with many things – developments, any number of fast-flying cutting edges, review promises – I can still offer a set of personal snapshots. I can’t tell you what was best, in terms of music – but I can tell you what I heard and saw, and how it affected me.

Embarrassingly, few of the recordings and events covered below actually made it into the blog on time as reviews. Many of them haven’t even made it in now. You can expect to see me working proper 2014 reviews into the blog during 2015, adding some belated tassels to the kite’s tail. For now, though, I hope that these retrospective mentions make up for my lack of effectiveness at the time; and there are so many playable tracks and videos embedded down there that it looks like a Tumblr account, or a drunken quilt. Enjoy.

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So… my 2014 as listener and attender, then…

Time-poor and money-poor in London, with heavy family commitments, I had to watch gig after gig slip by. In many respects the year has been defined by what I didn’t get to see. I missed Prince’s secret gig at the Electric Ballroom; I missed Steven Wilson, St Vincent, the Loose Tubes reunion and The Wolfhounds; I missed Henry Fool, Imogen Heap‘s Reverb, the Crimson ProjeKCt and the London Jazz Festival. I missed that shaky, defiant Henry Cow reunion at the Lyndsey Cooper memorial concert in November. I missed all of the TuesdaysPost gigs and the Drill Festival in Brighton. I missed #TORYCORE’s visceral jazz-doom-metal rage assault on the cruelties of government policy, a short bus ride away at the Camden People’s Theatre. Perhaps mostly painfully, I missed all of Kate Bush‘s ‘Before the Dawn’ shows. I missed the bands that I should have seen, and I probably missed the bands that you caught; and who knows how many classical concerts I didn’t even know about?

2014-live-variousWhen I did have the money for a concert, it was generally one which was off at the sides, but disproportionately rewarding. For instance – in a side room at the glossied-up Roundhouse, sandwiched in between Stars in Battledress and Arch Garrison (more on whom later), I saw Prescott. An unholy and hugely enjoyable alliance of Rhodri Marsden (currently with Scritti Politti, previously everywhere), onetime Stump bassist Kev Hopper and South London experimental drummer Frank Byng, they played a rolling, feinting game of improv-rock handball, like a post-punk take on Miles Davis groove gumbo.

On another evening I hung out underground in Dalston down at the Servant Jazz Quarters, dodging stuffed weasels. Slicked in purple light, I watched cuddly misanthrope Benjamin Shaw lay into Prince George, his girlfriend, his job, himself and most of the world, and then – from out of his cloud of slaggings – give his chuckling audience the doe-eyes to make sure that we still loved him. Also on the bill, Jack Hayter and son whittled us keen, humane songs out of musical driftwood, and the Superman Revenge Squad turned detailed geek-angst into pin-sharp bedsit art.

In October, I had reason to thank the five-quid standing ticket tradition at the Proms. Having joining a shuffling ticket queue that snaked from the Albert Hall past the Royal College of Music and practically to Queen’s Gate, I got into the concert by the skin of my teeth (the very last ticket) in time to see the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra deliver a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth which was so good that it made people in the audience literally scream with joy. Getting to hear Friedrich Cerha’s ‘Paraphrase’ (an eerie and nebulous deconstruction of the Ninth’s opening) as a companion piece was a delightfully sour cherry on the cake.

photo-oscar-the-butcherOut of sheer necessity, most of my journeys out into live music were via free gigs – generally, Ben Eshmade’s Daylight Music concerts at the Union Chapel on Saturday afternoons. This was a lifeline which I often shared with my wife and my three-year-old son Oscar, who continues to make his way into any resulting reviews as companion, unintentional critic and occasional disruptor (You’ll probably be hearing more from, or at least about, Oscar during 2015 – assuming that he gets over his current hatred of live music before I disown him). Yet I shouldn’t complain too much about being stuck with Daylight Music as a default destination. Every one of their gigs featured at least one act which traipsed out of Ben’s address book and won me over.

2014-daylightmusiclive-1As a result, I have plenty of Daylight memories. It was a good place to see instrumentalists (such as Dean McPhee and his smoky Yorkshire-via-Morocco loop guitar) and if you wanted to see a harp mixing it with a laptop or a percussionist moving from steel drum to typewriter – but still expected a tune – it was the gig to go to. The Ida Y Vuelta Ensemble offered explosive London flamenco and brought on a live, quick-changing dancer whose heels hammered hell out of a tabletop. The immaculately arty odd-couple duo Bitch ‘n’ Monk came with Yoko Ono’s endorsement, sang soprano, screamed flute, and offered us a melange of Colombian punk-jazz and beatboxing. Cross-cultural, mixed-instrumental families Flux and Digitonal took assorted cinematic, acoustic and electronic elements and blew them up into glowing paper lanterns, or drowned them five enchanted fathoms deep.

2014-daylightmusiclive-2Daylight was also a great place for songwriters – Clémence Freschard, keeping a chapelful of fans happy with a still, small, studiously cool performance; Daniel Marcus Clark telling us song-stories, muffing up a third of the verses, corpsing with rue and being warmly forgiven; Rachael Dadd skipping and clapping her band onstage and then capering from instrument to instrument to play her skittery folk. Via a soft-breathing, barely-there chamber-pop vision of strings and tantalisingly unfinished stories, Emily Scott unrolled her introspective vistas and promenades of solitude and reflection, like a James Joyce belle with a ukelele. Johnny Lynch of The Pictish Trail shed his lo-fi blip-boxes and courted us with a chalk-and-cheese mix of stand-up comedy and terrifying folk songs. Anchored by deep Pentangle-esque double bass, the Vespers trio offered three separate songwriter’s takes on the perils of loving.

Louis Barrabas plays Santa...

Louis Barrabas plays Santa…

And there was more… Robert Glover from epic45 turned up with his Field Harmonics side project, drowning pop songs in a bushy welter of chiming electronica. The Middle Ones travelled from separate ends of the country to gush, clang guitar, giggle, squeeze an accordion and deliver smart, unorthodox kitchen-sink songs of commitments, bicycles, romantic flutters and the interweaving of different generations. Franky & The Jacks charmed with smart suits, great barbering and a hot-jazz/Southern balladeer take on rockabilly; and while Crayola Lectern weren’t new to me (their debut album was a humble highlight of 2013), it was here that I first got to hear their waterlogged, beautiful Edwardian-esque melancholy in the flesh for the first time, complete with cornets, whispers and gentle lysergia.

Still, my attendance record was nowhere near perfect. I missed Bird to Beast‘s acid folk, Richard James, the classical triple-whammy of Oliver Coates, James McVinnie and Liam Byrne (complete with viol da gamba), Showman’s Wagon, and I’m sure that my old ‘Misfit City’ mate Vaughan Simons will be disappointed that I missed Louis Barabbas’ Christmas show – although I’ve now seen Louis’ Santa photos, and reckon that Oscar will probably thank me for not dragging him along to that one.

2014-mainstreamBack in the world of pick-up, plug-in-and-play music, I paid little attention to mainstream releases, but occasionally some things did get through to me. With ‘Unrepentant Geraldines’, Tori Amos left behind much of the heraldic esoterica that’s swarmed in of her work in recent years and turned out her most intimate and engaging collection of songs for ages. Back at the tail end of 1991, she’d made me cry, gasp, yearn and fall over myself when I first heard Silent All These Years: in 2014, she did the same thing with Invisible Boy. Another album which I’d looked forward to inexplicably failed to connect. Usually, Elbow’s Guy Garvey can sing about middle-aged men strolling through Manchester suburbs and make it sound numinous and heartfilling. Fuelled by the foundering of a long-term romance and by Guy’s inspirational sojourn in New York, ‘The Take Off and Landing of Everything’ took Elbow to the top of the British charts. Yet even as Guy sang about the magic of Manhattan, and invited us into dark metaphorical dreams of a coracle-frail love swallowed up in the Atlantic, all I could think about was how flat and grey these grand emotions sounded – and how Elbow’s gift for illustrating the extraordinary wonder of ordinary sights (and driving them up into the hearts and singing voices of arena crowds) seemed to have deserted them.

This was odd, considering the fact that quite a number of the albums which did touch me also mirrored my own greying state and the sometimes unsettling rollout of new perspectives that comes with it. Building workable compromises with age – or simply fucking it all off and being as honest as possible in what’s no longer, in truth, just a young man’s game – clearly had its own dignity, even its own triumphs. With ‘Double Chorus’, Michigan punk-poppers Kenny & The Swordfish delivered a semi-autobiographical record from hard giggers turned to compromised family men. Still holding to their noisy guitars and ska chops (like a two-man fusion of Fishbone and The Clash) they raged against the loss of youth’s freedom, shivered with the chill of fading targets and opportunities, and struck uneasy bargains with the new state of affairs, but never gave up.

A little extra gristle and grizzle also suited The Scaramanga Six and their ‘Scenes of Mild Peril’ DVD. Banged out rough and filmed live in a Brixton studio and in a commandeered Bridlington golf lodge, their cartoon-limned, carefully overblown tales of brooding everyday fury, murderous emotion and self-inflicted bruises were stripped of the elaborate visual wit of the band’s promo videos. Instead, they were gifted with an extra, claustrophobic grain; and as ever, the band kept up their reputation as the other kind of Yorkshire Gothic.

On a similar tip, as well as nursing a reissue of 1987’s ‘Unseen Ripples From a Pebble’ reformed C86 post-punk survivors The Wolfhounds slung out their first new album in twenty-four years called (with a sour, proud prod and a wink) ‘Middle Aged Freaks’. If I’m going to listen to clanging, sneering garage rock, I’m going to listen to some that’s been made by weathered old dogs like these: men with plenty of miles on their clocks, a bloody-minded attention to texture and the world’s complications, and a collective bellyful of acid-dipped wit whether they’re turning out disturbing precises of current day morality, mocking their own deluded shadow-selves (“you’re a tough old tenderised piece of meat / and your sage advice is on repeat… / A line of charlie while the kid’s asleep. / A chopped hog Harley with a baby seat,”) or soothing the frustrations with sympathy and stoicism. (“Sometimes in each life we all must fail – / but those weren’t the words of your father. / And into each life must fall some hail. / You know – like rain, but harder.”) Amongst the harsh punchy guitars, a whisper of samples even recalled front Wolfhound David Callahan’s other old band, Moonshake (another of my ‘90s favourites).

Moving into his fifties and making the best of an enforced band hiatus, no-man singer Tim Bowness pulled together some of the project’s stalled work as well as sundry other personal musings and ideas and come up with ‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams, an album of brilliantly-lit and beautifully played art-pop spanning muscular to delicate and dealing with personal histories, mid-life stock taking and the choices and chokes which go to form people’s lives. Many of the songs (while not quite Morrissey-esque tirades) had an underlying seethe of north-west English non-conformance and grit: a quality which perhaps had lain a little too softly on his previous work, and which now finally put the lie to the recurring (and unfair) Bowness reputation as a solipsistic crooner. Beyond these more plangent stabs, there was space for moments of peerless spiralling romance and even a spot of Northern classical-fusion collaboration with Andrew Keeling.

‘Abandoned Dancehall Dreams’ also spawned a brace of animated videos, including this one for rattling lead-in track The Warm-Up Man Forever. (For me, it suggests that in later life that skinny little candy-striped computer-graphic guy from Dire Straits’ old Money for Nothing video thickened into an embittered and flat-capped folkie; his polygons bloated, and Pixar never returning his calls. See what you think…)

I might have ignored – or simply missed – the pop music which most people were listening to this year but I found in other places. Bailey Cremeans – a teenaged keyboard balladeer from Missouri – offered me rapturously sad songs on ‘Celestial City’. On ‘Two Magpies’, hyperventilating clink-and-murmur Londoners Quimper burrowed into the toybox and assembled a manic play of fairy-tale shadows, fuzzy-felt and sexual menace. Stretched between America’s East and West Coasts, New York roots-polystylist Mama Crow and Ecuadorian player-producer Daniel Lofredo Rota teamed up as Liminal Digs – arriving with the playful and slightly scary ‘Dragonfly’ EP, which flitted between Latina acoustic acid-folk and electronica with wantonness, a wandering and salty female wit, and an occasional flash of teeth.

record-anawan-aTwo bands from Brooklyn, in particular, caught and held my enthusiasm. With a song called High Time, from their debut EP, Legs earwormed their way into my affections. It wasn’t that they were particularly new-sounding. That celebratory-sounding disco-pop – packed full of skatting, singable keyboard hooks – was pure ‘80s; part Prince, part Talking Heads, partly smooth Donald Fagen awkwardness (circa ‘The Nightfly’). So too, was their preppy shirt-and-tie look. But their songs were adorably infectious and cleverly layered, with lead singer Tito Ramsey sketching out a picture of a New York party scene raddled by insecurities, uptight resentful dancing, panic attacks, and unstable summer romances eaten away by drug habits.

Elsewhere in the borough, Trevor Wilson maintained his rickety, compelling psych-folk Vocal Ensemble by transforming them into a partnership of equals called Anawan although it was still his startling, deer-nervy songs that propelled them. If the renamed and, slightly repurposed band lost a little of their eerie incantatory fall-apart quality, they made up for it by strengthening their West Coast-inspired harmonies and sun-spattered glint. Imagine Syd Barrett directing The Mamas & The Papas and you’re partway there, though Anawan’s joyous mewl and trip-triggering song swerves are entirely their own.

One strand of music that I particularly enjoyed in 2014 was the sound of women, looping. There was Howlet, illustrating grand and dreamy obsessions on ‘Afraidarck’ by draping cavernous recording space with layered but minimal spider-silk vocal lines and the barest of beats. There was Georgina Brett, working with voice only to improvise spiralling spring-paths of call, response and return or detailed masses of counterpoint on-the-fly. Yasmyn Hendrix pursued the same method to decorate and festoon a capella pop songs, whether she was creating her own or working out a clever, rainy-day cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’.

Possibly the most outstanding for me was the spellbinding singer-songwriter-cellist Laura Moody, equally skilled at daredevil string playing and pyrotechnic performance-art vocal. She didn’t actually make use of looping technology; but her meticulous wreathing patterning, embedded minimalism and elastic poise suggested that it had had a strong impact on her anyway. Surprisingly, Laura’s ‘Acrobats’ album (released quietly in November) didn’t go for the same witty, barnstorming élan as her earlier work, condensing and reining in those extraordinary performance skills in favour of elliptical nu-folk songs: innerspatial and introspective, no less compelling.

In Seattle, the remarkable Kye Alfred Hillig pumped out two albums for free (‘Real Snow’ and ‘The Buddhist’), adding to an ever-growing catalogue coursing from genre to genre (this year it was synth-pop, alt.country and bare-bones sadcore). Unlike many of his sloppily prolific contemporaries, all of his work emerged diamond-clear, fully-formed and packed with striking, pungently-emotional songs. A better blogger than me would have been yelling about him all year: I suppose that I’d better be that better blogger in 2015.

record-va-cnpudOn another tack, it was good to see one of 2013’s lesser-known losses (that of promising Belgian art-punk Floky Pevée) commemorated and soothed by the multi-artist album ‘Ceci N’Est Pas Un Disque’. Here, the five songs which Floky recorded with his band Kabul Golf Club were restored and then revisited, turned inside out by eight different bands and a host of different treatments: indie-country, hardcore, electropunk, sludge metal, funk and post-rock. There was humour, but no cheap laughs; there was craft, but no sanctimonious genre purity. Instead, everyone involved did their best to show how far Floky might have gone, and just how much diverse potential already existed in the songs beyond the pummel and screams. It was the best of tombstones.

record-2014-psych1As has often been the case with ‘Misfit City’, much inspiration came from English psychedelic rock. Not in the shallow, easily-hyped mould of TOY or Temples (with their skinny young limbs, cloaking haircuts and by-the-book cribs of The Stooges, Hawkwind and Can) but in the high-and-low, the sidelines under the radar, the semi-secret pockets. Often, it came from men and women who’d already done several decades of growing-up away from the general public.

With little more than a nylon-strung guitar, a pair of archaic-sounding keyboards and a soft cracked voice, Arch Garrison’s ‘ I Will Be A Pilgrim’ delved into folk-baroque and folkways simultaneously. With equal amounts of airy beauty it unearthed and merged ancient English journey-ritual and personal soul-searching, its warm psychogeographic songcraft leaving the listener with nourished heart and aching feet.

Arch Garrison’s rarely-spotted cousins, Stars in Battledress, also broke cover; emerging under their own name for the first time in over a decade. With ‘In Droplet Form’ they provided an engaging, sometimes sombre record of pre-weathered, fully committed Englishiana, knitted together from the sound of antique wireless songs, bell-rounds, the water-dampened mustiness of old institutions, and eerie garden-shed-drones. Richard Larcombe’s cunning and tragicomic lyrics were the weft in the weave – feinting, bleeding, mystifying, bitingly literate and frequently hilarious.

2014-psych-2Descending from the same psychedelic cloud, Knifeworld’s ‘The Unravelling’ delivered flagrant horn-drenched excitements of guitars, tingling Rhodes and double-jointed rock punch, but was also drenched in hauntings and mournings which stayed with you long after the fadeout. One of Knifeworld’s members, Emmett Elvin (already a journeyman for innumerable other projects including Chrome Hoof) went on to build on the triumph of ‘The Unravelling’ with his own audacious ‘Bloody Marvels’ album, in which his own dazzling compositions built monkey-ladders to the stars and back. No less ambitious was Trojan Horse‘s ‘World Turned Upside Down’, in which four musically ravenous young Salfordians baked themselves a gigantic layer-cake of prog, psychedelia, hi-concept funk and Northern rock, laced it with history and hallucinogens, shared it around and then ate the rest, all with noisy gusto and generosity.

2014-psych-3If after all that you really and truly just wanted the motorik, you could always opt for the big, bluff, quaking noise of ZOFFF (a late-in-the-year Brightonian supergroup of grizzled sprites and younger heads with assorted Crayola Lectern/Dark Star/Electric Soft Parade connections). And having seen him spend much of the previous year creating an exciting, crabbed and roaring punk-prog with The Fierce & The Dead, it was still good to see that irrepressible loop-strummer Matt Stevens back in the solo saddle with ‘Lucid’, maintaining his upward progress with a set of instrumentals peppered by multiple looped-and-lashed guitars and with guest stars and influences drawing from black metal, prog and jazz. With ‘Curious Yellow’, airy Bristolians Hi Fiction Science delivered a near-perfect Krautrock-blended approximation of West Coast acid rock and English acid folk (not to mention being a big hit with Oscar, who’s dubbed the entire band ‘Ladyhorse’ on the strength of their cover artwork). From Rome, still pegging away at his winning fusion of light-touch prog and fuzzy Britpop, Sterbus offered a little in-between-albums grab-bag in the shape of ‘A Wonderful Distrust’. From Florida, Scott Miller and Anjie Skaya sent over ‘Liquid Days’, a spontaneous song-album of cracked, wonder-struck voice, wandering guitar and Russian violin which (in its own humble, crumpled-loons way) evoked the Incredible String Band, Van Morrison and The Bathers. A compulsive scattershot releaser of albums, Scott reckoned that he was onto something better with this one; and he was right.

2014-smith-reissuesTwo revenant records from another psychedelic hero loomed in the background. Six years gone from music, and still an invalid, Tim Smith continues to command a tremendous love from the surprising number of musicians who continue to claim him as a key influence. His presence haunted several of my favourite albums of this year; those by Knifeworld and Arch Garrison in particular. Two opportunities to listen back to the fatherlode came with a reissue of ‘Extra Special Oceanland World’ (Tim’s lone, wounded-sounding solo project from the early ‘90s) and with a grand double vinyl reissue of Cardiacs’ multiple-personality magnum opus ‘Sing To God’ (in all of its kaleidoscopic, childish inspiration).


Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra/Rita Novikaite/Keith Burstein: 'Keith Burstein: Symphony 'Elixir' & Songs of Love and Solitude'Apart from my encounter with Beethoven and Cerha at the Proms, my dips into classical music were few and far between. However, they were often pretty memorable. They began with Keith Burstein‘s evening at the Lithuanian Embassy on January 29th, at which the stubborn, stalwart neo-tonal iconoclast (veteran of numerous spats with both the musical establishment and the press) played and discussed the new Naxos recording of his ‘Elixir’ symphony and ‘Songs of Love & Solitude’ cycle. Despite ‘Elixir’s initial roots as a lambently romantic London concerto, Keith eventually had to make a long train journey to Lithuania and an appointment with the Kaunus City Symphony Orchestra in order to get the two works performed and recorded in full. He was rewarded for it. The KCSO’s velvety sound brought out fresh depth in the symphony’s lush nerviness (a nostalgic Brahms-in-Vienna majesty undercut and expanded by more contemporary slithering tonal planes and disruptive rhythmic upheavals) and the lingering, opulent reveries of the song-cycle (for the latter, see below). Keith Burstein’s life and work tend to be filled with metaphysical rumblings, whether sought out and attracted. This Lithuanian voyage, too, was suffused with both wonder and shadows as Keith reconnected with his own Baltic Jewish family history while stepping carefully around the last vestigial snags of Stalinism which once engulfed Lithuania, still haunt some of its old guard, and may have added to the darker tones in the recording.

More metaphysics were stirred up in May when Olga Stezhko released her ‘Eta Carinae’ album. The Belarusian pianist’s performance of idiosyncratic early-twentieth-century works by Alexander Scriabin and Ferruccio Busoni wasn’t just a set of vigorous and individual interpretation: it was a philosophical exercise, and a multi-layered education in itself. Olga’s programmatic intent (and her intriguing sleevenote essay) mapped the pieces onto the explosion of knowledge at the time of their composition, from mysticism to astrophysics, from the development of human reason to the first pryings into the heart of the atom.

Another marriage of the scientific and the numinous arrived in June, when Markus Reuter (best known as an art-rocker who makes evanescent experiments on electric touch guitar) asserted his own entry into orchestral composing. ‘Todmorden 513’ (performed by the Colorado Chamber Orchestra) was at root a cycling, shifting, algorhythmic curtain of mathematical haunts and oblique manipulations. Emerging into the concert hall, it transformed into something greater; far more moving and psychologically suggestive than this dry, blackboard summary I’m offering here.

It was also wonderful to see a long-overdue release compiling music by Richard Causton, whose underrated, thoughtful and mercurial composer’s catalogue remains treasurable to a growing number of music directors but still mostly secret to the public. It deserves more. On the NMC release of ‘Millennium Scenes’, some of this imbalance was redressed. The Hallé Orchestra and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group provided stunning interpretations of selected Causton works – the queasy alarm and anger of the title piece (which offered a stern critique of millennial triumphalism even as it set the cat amongst the party pigeons), the dense vigour of the Chamber Symphony, the nightscapes of Notturno, the suspended fever-dream of The Persistence Of Memory and the bright-flickering septet colourings of Kingfishers Catch Fire. It was an overdue reminder that (especially when set against the sleight-of-hand of much modern classical composition) Richard Causton’s vivid, surprising compositions have both a rare accessibility and a rare integrity.

Wedding music...On an even more personal note as regards classical music… in October I was best man at the Anglo-Irish-Japanese wedding of Michael O’Callaghan and Yukiko Kondo, which sprawled happily across north London between Islington, Holloway and Highgate. On its own, this would have been an ambitious and inclusive event. The reception made it even more of a remarkable occasion, becoming a loose-limbed, semi-spontaneous classical concert (with various incursions from pop, ukulele cabaret and jazz). Assorted guests, most of them members of The Learning Orchestra, stepped up and played – taking turns to deliver assorted solos, duets and trios by composers including Borodin, Elgar, Mozart, Puccini, Fred Godfrey and Swedish traditional sources. It was a welcome jolt – a reminder to me (so often the lone, semi-detached listener) that music is not just something which we purchase, drip-feed into our ears by speaker or bud or sit in front of; but something that lives and lifts in our own hands, a natural expression of community. Part soiree and part shebeen, the evening’s final coda was a nifty and playful French horn solo by Jim Rattigan in which he fused Charlie Parker, Wagner and Miles Davis, with Donna Lee merging into the Siegfried Horn Call.

Jazz, 2014Jim Rattigan’s own gigs (with variously-sized ensembles) were apparently one of the joys of London jazz life over the past year. Sadly, I played far too little attention to jazz in 2014. I was delighted to hear about the return of Loose Tubes (reconvening to blow up a juicy brass noise for the first time since 1990) but that was yet another one of the gigs I missed. A particular highlight on record was Billy Bottle & The Multiple‘s ‘Unrecorded Beam’ – a sumptuous, slightly Canterbury-flavoured extrapolation from Henry David Thoreau poems which drew on an inspired, solid-yet-shifting ensemble including Kate Westbrook, Mike Outram and Roz Harding (Producer-engineer Lee Fletcher added a stunning extra dimension to the album, weaving and whirling the listener’s perspective into and around the band, as if he’d fitted his microphones to a darting bee). Other than that, my encounters with jazz were fitful. There were downloaded dates with the cinematic torchy musings of Slowly Rolling Camera, and with the bouncing vocalese and spilling piano salad of the Lauren Lee Jazz Project‘s ‘Makebeliever’, but otherwise it was all about old records, or appreciated stolen licks appearing in other genres. I should have done better.

Hip hop, 2014I prefer hip hop when it questions, weaves and converses rather than just constantly retreading a set of brags. With the megalomania and Renaissance man posturings of the main players reaching delirous levels this year (and consequently leaving me cold), my hip hop experience was sidelined. In spite of that, I had my favourites here as well. I enjoyed Ice Cold Sophist; and El-P and Killer Mike’s second album as their continuing Run the Jewels team-up, in which their occasional lyrical brutality was counterbalanced by their quick-shifting skill and invention. Animator and DJ JayMcQ‘s ‘Tales From My Parent’s Spare Bedroom’ was another hit for me: a cheeky turntable mash-up from behind a Philadelphian white-picket fence.

Surprisingly, assorted efforts by Christian rap collective Humble Beast also rode high. Speaking as an atheist (however gentle) if anyone had told me that one of my favourite rap albums of 2014 would be Propaganda’s ‘Crimson Cord’ I’d never have believed them. Still, there it was: a wise, profound, slam-poetic album in which Propaganda’s religious faith never snagged his flow, articulacy or questioning mind but proved to be an integral part of his compassion, positivity, social responsibility and outspokenness. Beautiful Oddity’s lively, omnivorous production style (from shimmering respiring ambience to rock-guitar-edged corner-slams) proved to be the perfect frame.

Overall, however, I didn’t pay enough attention to hip hop. Similarly, although the density and discursive potential of contemporary R&B genuinely appeals to me I heard little that I actually liked this year. As with jazz, I heard a few things bubbling away in assorted underground strata, a world away from perfume-deal hyper-commerciality or from the constipated melismae being squeezed out on TV talent shows… but all those songs were from before 2014. I’m clearly not listening in the right places yet. I must do better this year.

Experimental releases, 2014In contrast to shortfalls in my hip hop and R&B listening, I did get to hear and engage with plenty of noise music, ambient material and post-rock. Although I’m not convinced that ‘Misfit City’’s avant-garde credentials are that predominant, I did receive a lot of music submitted from those areas, containing its fair share of gems. From Trondheim, there was the ferocious cosmic mood-rock of SVK’s ‘Avernus’; from Helsinki, the jazz-noise duo-roar of Good Romans’ ‘Open This Door, Never Look Back’. The far-flung Sontag Shogun collective made a virtue of each of its members being footloose on different continents; on ‘Tale’, they offered an aural world trek piecing together field recordings and accompaniments into a collection of pieces which pursued their playful “lullanoise” concept and also offered an essay on listening.

Experimental and noise releases, 2014From New York, Sufjan Stevens revisited 2001 and reissued his extraordinarily diverse album of poached’n’tossed electronica, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’. Back in Britain, Darkroom steered their flowing, beautifully etiolated landscapes of eerie guitar and airflecking synths into film soundtracking, via ‘Rhombus’.

If you were after purer noise experimentation, you could look to the overwhelming nuclear blatter and power electronics of Cthulhu Detonator ’s ‘Sucking The Blood Of Celestial Bodies’, the fuzz, breath, dazed piano and radiophonic space echoes of Con Rit‘s ‘Drawing Down Of The Moon’. One slice of noisiness which particularly appealed to me was the Herhalen label’s triple-artist cassette ‘Bourgeois Kerb Stomp’, which was split between the bouncing distortions, little mechanisms and samples of Splashy the Blame-Shifter, the torrential drum-machines-and-feedback onslaught of Lenina, and the downbeat Salford dole-life sound-paintings of Ship Canal (one of which was a lo-fi, dirty-Proustian ramble through the artist’s old takeaway food bills).

2014 - Fluttery Records, Hidden Shoal, Silber MediaThe enthusiasm and productivity of certain labels was inspiring. The longstanding wing-and-a-prayer avant-gardeners Silber Media were heroically popping out a little gallery of albums every month, of which ‘Absolut Gehör’ (Origami Arktika’s collection of scutter-and-drone Norwegian psych-folk) was a standout. So too was the gigantic ‘QRD – The Guitarists’ four-hour virtual box set, with no less than fifty-five tracks of experimental cross-genre players buzzing, strumming, droning, looping and mashing their instruments, accompanied by nearly two thousand four hundred pages of interview. (Talk about writing the book on something.)

Fluttery Records bombarded me with assorted post-rock promos during the year, including the expansive Anglo-Scandinavian sonic portraiture of Row Boat‘s ‘In Between’ and the mongrelised techno-rock of AL_X’s ‘Shunt’. Hidden Shoal continued to stake their claim to be releasers of some of the broadest, most accessible art-pop and avant-garde recordings. Some of my favorites were Markus Mehr’s ‘Binary Rooms’ (assorted interferences floating over majestic found sound) and Chloë March’s ‘Nights Bright Days’ (an art-pop songwriter cycle with a Eurydice twist).

Labelless, 2014The label-less and the isolated continued to prove themselves at least as good as the feted and celebrated. From deep in Sussex, Coriaplex offered an ice-dewed trip into space-rock with ‘One Way To Forever’. Perpetually unappreciated outside of certain small arty enclaves in Poland, David Hurn continued to prove himself much more than a London sadcore murmurer. His ‘Museum of You’ EP might not have contained a single syllable of his disillusioned and waspishly compassionate songwriting, but its eerie spacious chamber instrumentals impressed in other ways. Dank with air-driven keyboards, rattles, distant cellos and musique concrete samples, they rumbled like late Talk Talk or Bark Psychosis struck voiceless. Maybe it’s a coincidence that David lives in the East London regions, north of the Thames and east of the Lea, that spawned some of the best British post-rock in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; or maybe something’s rubbing off.

Another graduate of those particular times and places (former Redbridgian Ian Crause, once the creative force behind Disco Inferno) turned out one of the most outstanding experimental records of the year. Inexplicably snubbed by indie labels and small art endeavours alike, battling indifference and occasional homelessness, he gritted his teeth and completed ‘The Song of Phaethon’. We’d heard an early version of this piece back in 2012, but 2014 saw the whole uncompromising vision flood out as an EP. Like Chloë March, Ian drew on Greek myth, but in a far more immersive way. Using the legend of Apollo’s bastard son (whose sense of entitlement saw him wresting control of the sun-god’s chariot and carelessly scorching the earth before a thunderbolt brought him down) he wove it into a scathing metaphorical critique of neo-liberalism and the Iraq war. His “picturesound” technique melded a trudging bardic chant with a flooding rush of illustrative samples, the biting lyrical fable illustrated and orchestrated by the sound of screaming jets, whinnying horses, munitions, news broadcasts, snatches of other musics from Greece and the Gulf. The artful,vicious coda (Phaethon, lying prone and dying in the wreckage he’d created, still blithely justifying himself) was spiced with samples of Blair bluster. Slap. (Incidentally, right at the end of the year, and just when he seemed to have burnt himself out for a long time, Ian unexpectedly resurfaced with a couple of bright-sounding muttery pop singles, one of them in Spanish…)


* * * *

I seem to have started my look back across the year with a sense of shrunkenness and frustration. Getting to the end of it, I find that even in my own small subjective sliver of 2014 there’s a remarkable richness – and that’s comforting. All things considered, it was a surprisingly good year for music. Frequently, the only thing that really seemed to be missing was me. But more about that next time…

January 2014 – live reviews – half of a Lost Weekend: Daylight Music presents The Middle Ones/Freschard/The Pictish Trail @ Union Chapel, Islington, London, 18th January 2014 (“the weekend swallowed us”)

23 Jan

What a pulsating Union Chapel hangover might be like...

What a pulsating Union Chapel hangover might be like…

You reckon that lost weekends are just for drunks? Try parenthood. Joyous as it may be, it can also be a swirl of cash-and time-poverty, torn-up plans, and utter confusion, much of which homes in on the weekend and turns it upside down. It’s the same, I tell you. The smear of lost hours, the existential dread, the sensation that you’ve fallen into a pocket outside of the real world; not to mention the worry that you won’t make it through to the end…

Regular ‘Misfit City’ readers know that my family and I tend to use Daylight Music’s Saturday concert afternoons (at the Union Chapel, up in the neck of Islington), as a way of finding ourselves again and of giving our weekends a bit of shape. Child-friendly and refreshing – and free – it’s something of a life-saver. So here we are again, slightly blurred and bleary. On this occasion, Daylight Music are doing their own Lost Weekend, teaming up with musical-comedown club The Hangover Lounge (another cultured and kid-friendly free event a few streets away in Pentonville) for a concert which sprawls over two days rather than one. Sounds interesting. Let’s see what we can make of it, starting at the Chapel… and come on, I shouldn’t be moaning. Just in order to be here, everyone playing today has travelled a lot further than we have.

Take the two women who make up The Middle Ones. Originally from different bits of the north of England, Anna Nols (voice, guitar, knee-socks) and Grace Denton (voice, occasional accordion, sceptical warmth) met up in Norwich, over to the east. These days, they’re separated between east and west – while Anna’s stayed put, Grace now lives and works in Bristol. Any Middle Ones activity now must involve clambering into a bus, a train or a tiny car, then driving a couple of hundred miles (quite a substantial, exciting deal in a country the size of England), and piling straight into playing or recording.

Anna Nols of The Middle Ones.

Anna Nols of The Middle Ones.

They don’t let this slow them down. I suspect that they thrive on it. If it turns out that Grace and Anna are smart, economical and unromantic (the kind of band who just email each other soundfiles over their iPhones) I’ll be broken-hearted. I prefer to think of The Middle Ones as being as spontaneous and goofy as their onstage chemistry suggests, like a happy hen-party stumbling across a pier. Beneath the horseplay, just as affectionate and committed to each other as they ever were, even if they now live leagues and leagues apart.

On record Anna and Grace are artful, exploratory and spontaneous, recording ad-hoc and lo-fi in churches, kitchens and staircases. Wrapped and soused in ingenious bumblescapes and immediate invention, their songs embrace slopped kitchen metals, slurred kid’s-band horns, and drunken drones, staggering enthusiastically through their rumpled mixes. Live, The Middle Ones trim themselves back to semi-acoustica: just an enthusiastic down-strummed indie guitar, that accordion and the sweet undubbed snag of their paired voices.

That Faust/Raincoats side to their work takes a back seat as a consequence, but another strand from their skein jumps right up to take its place. It’s the post-punk folkswoman tradition: the one which ladders down through Marine Girls, Harriet Wheeler of The Sundays, the fizzing, intermittent charms of The Bush The Tree & Me and many others. Anna and Grace might be less finessed than any of the above, but they make a virtue out of it. Gawky and charming, they twinkle at the Chapel’s imposing space; chuckle about their own shyness; lose track of their thoughts, and make jokes about being hemmed in by the mikes.

Grace Denton of The Middle Ones.

Grace Denton of The Middle Ones.

If that makes The Middle One sound like a pair of simpering dollies, you’re getting the wrong idea. When they stumble and laugh, I see no defensive, please-like-me gush; no apologies for being on a bigger stage than they think they deserve. I see two women well aware of how ludicrous performance can be, and of the inevitable clumsiness of gestures under a spotlight. I see them accept and forgive it all, happy to be nobody’s stars and nobody’s muses. Here’s a particularly female state of mind in which everything is both serious and funny at the same time, and where fresh insight sprouts in fertile terrain far away from narcissism. (As a dogged, navel-gazing writerbloke I’ve got to confess that I envy it.)

Their onstage demeanour, in fact, reveals what they’re really about as artists as well as performers. As they gently josh or beam at each other – or bend double over a shared joke – their songs celebrate the spectrum of sympathy and friendship in all of its impossibility, unlikeliness, awkward junctures and rebounding. In Quite Something (an indie jig underpinned and smeared about with Grace’s wayward accordion), they chew this over, singing “My lover, my love in a hundred different ways. / Still, you’re right – we could never quite both be the same.” Another song deals with the fluttering nerves of a faltering first date: cutting rapidly between the viewpoints of boy and girl, it puts them and their choices into a perspective of unrolling time. “She is lying on the grass, with her arm across her waist, / she is trying to be brave but I know what she won’t say… I don’t want to look back and think ‘why didn’t I say that?’ / I don’t want to look back and think ‘I should have shown him that – I should have shown him more.’”

Anna and Grace sing about the saddest or sweetest of things with the same bright earnestness. It makes them look straightforward. Actually, it distracts from their complexities. Like plenty of songwriters (or short-story stylists, come to that) The Middle Ones deal mostly with variants of the same situation, but shift around the factors – characters, memory, the weather. “This is something like faith, but a bit more real-life,” they announce on Courage, a clarion call for passion on the upswing. “It is the rehearsal that will make this – / we were not born to fit together. / Sleeping side by side, occasionally entwined, / there is a design but it’s not so divine… I like to see your name written down, the warmth is folding round… / looks like you’re coming home with me.” As regards relationships what seems to fascinate them is not so much individual feelings but the way in which people overlap and merge, sometimes imperfectly, sometimes not. At one point, they sing “we are two thoughts that fade together,” and this idea of wobbly unity is reflected in the way their voices interlace: an untutored, empathic harmony.

In the lyrics, this can become an echo of overlapped, stumbling thoughts. Upbeat and enthused – positively illuminated – I Liked You Straight Away sees their singing become a shingled babble of thoughts and joy-jets. “I liked you straight away (who wouldn’t?) / I like to think I’d say (I suddenly) / knew there’d come a day when I would think of little… yes,/ but how the light (a miracle) / round your mouth and eyes (a miracle) / make me sad, and I will always find something… / In supermarket aisles I’ll see you / laugh to look like fire (I’m dancing). / Dearest friend of mine, you were a perfect stranger – / I wish that I could see / the moment when it first hit me.” As it peaks, the song races away in a delighted game of shifting grammar and ecstatic time-travelling adoration, while Grace and Anna frisk onstage. “Oh, love, I should have known it then. / Love, I should have known you then. / Oh, love, didn’t I know back then. / Love, if I had know you then.”

The Middle Ones.

The Middle Ones.

While The Middle Ones are great at sprinkling insight into this breathless, puppy-tumbling eroticism, they’re just as good when tackling other kinds of involvement. Portraying a younger woman’s friendship with an elderly man (on Young Explorer), they work out its strands and its development without ever needing to hammer home detail. They don’t reveal whether he’s friend, neighbour or relative. What’s important is that he’s one of her fixtures – one who’s about to be swallowed by time, one who’ll be missed. “I thought the old houses would all fall down / I thought the cobblestones would surely overturn / before they came and took and moved you out / to someone else’s road, / and someone else’s strange white clothes.” Over the course of the song, an initial childlike affection shades into deeper understanding (“your clever words struggled to be heard, / but your eyes still shine like in older times / when you were crossing borders, stranger waters … / With your luggage tied around the handle bars, / you don’t know where you’re going but you’re headed pretty far,”) and eventually an unexpected torch is passed as his long-ago young-man’s efforts inspire her own present-day awakening. Empathy blossoms like roses in the final harmonies: while the sentences tumble, the joy and fellow-feeling are daylight-clear. “The words, these are the words that you said. / Here we stand, up, up here, / and I can see you. / I can see you from up, up here. / I can see, oh / so much more now.”

Again and again, The Middle Ones’ songs delve into time – its chemistry and alterations, its revelations and decodings. In Hannah, they look at long-standing female friendships and how they simultaneously decay and sustain themselves: Passing years, marked through correspondence, see illnesses wax and wane, marriages arrive, and old bonds gradually fade to early chapters. “You’re the sweetest girl I’ve ever known… / I know you have shaped me, / just like I know we both keep changing, / but I’ll always be grateful – but I was twenty, and with you… I looked at myself and I saw you.”

Ironic, then, that Anna and Grace seem so untouched by time themselves. Edging towards their thirties, each woman still looks and acts like the half of the undergraduate duo they once were. Anna – pencil-slender, blinking and beaming through her glasses as she pecks happily away at her guitar – is the spit’n’archetype of the bohemian homespinner: all thrift-shop ingenuity, universally adored. Keying the accordion while punctuating the songs with delicate frowns and bursts of baffled humour, Grace is her unlikely travelling companion: the Thirties screen-queen lookalike, the one who’d frankly rather be Anna’s kind of bohemian. All of this might be camouflage for those keen songwriting minds – but I think not. For all of their onstage bumps and stumbles, they seem so comfortable in their skins that I can’t see it as anything other than genuine. They’re the odd couple who turn out to be the natural couple. They’ve come a long way. I can imagine them still travelling it, still chuckling along it, in fifty years time, with purple ribbons threaded into the accordion.

Plenty of hints are dropped today that most of the crowd has come for Clémence Freschard. I can see why. She ticks plenty of boxes for the kind of person who carefully, calculatedly chooses cooler brands of cigarette and songwriter. Her personal travelogue alone (which stretches from her beginnings in rural France through Parisian trottoirs, a spell in New York as a Brooklyner, and her present-day arty-émigré berth in Berlin) is more than enough to tickle the taste of a landlocked London hipster.

Clemence Freschard.

Clémence Freschard.

Added to that, there’s her lean, quiet singing – with its slight falling quality and its accented European English – and her eerie agelessness, in which those glints in her fall of bark-brown hair could be spotlight reflections or strands of early silver. Most of all, there’s her imperturbable presence. She delivers few, if any stage announcements. She doesn’t try to win us over with jokes. Whichever scenarios are played out in her lyrics (and, by implication, in her history) never ruffle her still expression. In both person and in song, she suggests an apparently blank slate – one which slowly and softly reveals its secret etchings.

Yet though she’s doll-like in her impassivity, she’s certainly not trying to be anyone’s toy. I couldn’t really call her Stepfordian (any more than I could call her Clémence – that “Freschard” mask is a perfect fit) but there’s an eerie automatic quality to her movements and playing, and to the mood that she projects. She smiles quite often. Her gaze maintains a bright, slightly absent sheen throughout her set, only warming a little when she spots a songwriter ally up in the gallery and invites him to sing along with her.

I remember that Laurie Anderson once described herself as a spy. It’s tempting to wonder whether Freschard might be following the same path. It’s certainly easy to imagine her sitting motionless in the same chair forever, with people coming and going around her in a shuffled, speeded blur, while all of the time she’s watching, observing.

Clemence Freschard.

Freschard – the impassive spy.

Sometimes she seems to be nothing but poise. Minus even the minimal arrangements of her records (the clipped touches of horn and mandriola, the bare and drowsy bossa percussion) she’s left with the classic, cloudy ring of her black guitar and those slight, faint-lined songs. Even these seem to have carefully combed and stripped before she came to play. Everything deemed surplus to requirement has long since floated away; unregarded; long stray hairs of songcraft coiling off, abandoned, on silent air currents.

It’s often difficult to make out what she’s left behind to hold on to. There’s plenty of falling rain, for sure, and plenty of inbetween moments. Too much of either, in fact. Aimless, distracted and lonely, I Miss You leans on First Avenue scenery for support, but does nothing with it. When Freschard murmurs about swamp water, dry whisky, Cajun stations and woozy kisses (on Sweet Sweet South) it feels as if she’s listlessly shuffling through antique Dixie postcards in a flea market before dropping them back, unbought. When she attempts to conjure the ennui of abandonment via a song about drumming fingers and staring out of windows, she skirts self-parody.

Angel finally tips the scale from delicate to dreary. Probably it’s a love song; perhaps something more morbid and sinister; but as its grey lines meander tiredly and tracelessly through my attention, it feels the same either way. That’s hard to forgive. Sometime it seems as if Freschard is no more than we choose to project onto her; and that if we really got bored, she might just cruise to a halt, staring blankly ahead until we had another idea.

Gradually, as better songs and better implications make a virtue of that impassive calm, she becomes more compelling. She begins to draw me into her unrippled world: one tune, mingling drowsy funk and Russian folk tune (dotted with hums and a languid hint of sex) curls insistently around my ears like a preening cat. Another – Boom Biddy Boom – maps eerie Eastern European folk inflections onto old rhythm-and-blues bop. It’s part-Diddley, part-John Lee Hooker, and either would have added a twist of salaciousness or solace to the swing. Freschard plays it as blank as a catwalk dancer, as a sleight-of-sashay, presenting fleeting and enigmatic visions of desperation in between the sways. “But’s and no, yes’es and no’es, / her hands on her hips, here she goes… / She’s a shout, she’s mighty fine. / Spit it out – she’s dynamite… / She’s sick sometime, / bound to lose. / Didn’t choose, didn’t plan. / Get the bouncing shoes… / It’s easy to start, it’s easy to let go. / Cross my heart, kiss my elbow.”

Wit and wickedness are welcome developments, and Freschard’s songs pick up when she allows herself to exercise them. Inside the thrumming pulse of Investigate, she probes themes of faithlessness and obsession with dry, vengeful precision. “When I’m not sleuthing, I’m gumshoe-ing, / I follow your every movement… / You think murder is my favourite crime, because it’s different every time / I have to tell you that’s not true / I just guess who loves who.” Fans and skeptics alike warm up a little. Her faint smile turns a little more mischievous.

But it’s two other songs that really slip out from beneath Freschard’s imperturbable gloss, fleshing out her stillness while making the best use of it. Where Did You Go – agoraphobic and lonely, absent and chilling – suggests that quietness is sometimes a deflated scream. “Household’s dry / like a river run dry… / I keep heading for the window like a locked-up fly, / with the birds buzzing in my head,” she sighs, with tired dysfunctionality seeping out from every line. “Didn’t make a difference – just to know,” she admits, before murmuring “I hit my head on the window pane” over and over again; a deadened mantra of acceptance. The song winds towards a conclusion of utter pathos – “if you come back I’ll put on an act, and you will never see / how I’ve fallen apart, and how sentimental I can be.” If you don’t pay attention, you’ll miss the vein of madness in the unmoving flesh, the pool of darkness spreading underneath the song. But then, that’s the point.

On her set-closer, High Tides, Freschard leafs through bittersweet recent memories, mapping the last dissolving phase of a love affair in which people fade from being ex-lovers to baffled friends grown thin and insubstantial. Shuffling disappointments without slipping under them, the song suggests a shaping, an accommodation; something to help with living alongside the letdowns. “You let salt water come between us. / We haven’t been wet; salt’s for peanuts,” she chides, softly. “But you know what? I don’t mind. / At least we cared, at least we tried.” Drawing happier times into the present, she lets them slip and fade away into a wistful dusk. “Told me, when you came around, my sun was sinking into the ground. / I found it cute, but it was true. / I thought of my first trip with you, / and the part I liked the most was the drive along the coast. / The driver’s jokes, the rear-view glances – / he called us ‘Mr and Mrs.’”

What’s left are those small signs of regret, the other small signs of tenderness, and in them there’s a kind of forgiveness. “Cleaning out my closet, I found your shirt / I wondered whose it was at first – / and when I go to bed, I wear it. / I know it’s strange, but I like the smell of it.” She breathes in and, at last, breaches her facade for us.

“There’ll be a lot of miserable songs,” warns Johnny Lynch, about a third of the way into his set. He eyes us – mock-beady, mock-bullish – over his tuning pegs. “I’m in a foul mood. I’m taking it out on you. If I’ve made one person cry, it’s been worth it.”

The Pictish Trail.

Johnny Lynch, a.k.a, The Pictish Trail.

We Londoners are happy to lap up Freschard’s blend of continental mystique and Brooklyn cool, but we’re also suckers for this kind of thing. Contrary to what you’d believe, we love being the butt of classic passive-aggressive Scottish wit… just as long as it growls at us with a twinkle in its eye. Johnny’s already got us in the palm of his hand, and he knows it. You’d expect the man behind The Pictish Trail‘s lo-fi folktronica to be shy and hunched. Instead, he’s ebullient – a natural, friendly showman who squanders half of his set on stand-up comedy and comes off none the worst for it.

The lone bloke on the bill today, he’s a manic sweating ball of cheerful energy: a short-legged fisherman figure, bobble-hatted, bristling of beard, remarkably charismatic. He’s dressed less for the Chapel’s mild wintery chill than for stiff sea breezes. He teases us with wry digressions. We tease him with friendly heckles, which he cheerfully fields and slings back at us. It feels as if we’re in a conspiracy together. He might want to make us blub, but he’s also got some bobble-hats to sell us; and, perhaps, some more things to share.

Having spent a heroic decade up in Fife (helping his erstwhile buddy King Creosote to run the D-I-Y folk initiative Fence Collective), Johnny moved on a year or so ago when the wheels came off Fence’s cart. Precisely what happened, and who’s in or out (or indeed, exactly what “out” means) is still a little vague – a gentleman’s disagreement, it seems, involving a metaphorical exchange of keys and a certain amount of clumping around before it was settled. Now Johnny’s on the other side of Scotland: settled on the Isle of Eigg, building his own house and his own new label, Lost Map. Expect no backbiting. Any scars from Fence seem to have been shrugged off. He’d prefer to show us his engagement ring, joke about London trains, and enthuse about Reeves and Mortimer’s bollock-tugging. He seems to enjoy sharing. Johnny’s come the best part of six hundred miles to entertain us for free. He seems happy with that too.

Cheerfulness – even that particular, mordant, Scottish cheerfulness-with-an-edge – isn’t something you’d usually associate with The Pictish Trail. On record, Johnny squashes cheap, startling synth-and-drumbox noises into his homemade recordings, ending up just as crumpled and experimental as The Middle Ones are. Suggestive and disfocussed, Pictish songs usually sound as if they’ve been recorded onto rubberized burlap. Blipping, spurting, gacking and murmuring from the shadows, they’re often both sinister and exhausted. When Johnny rolls them out in this more portable live setup (just voice and steel-string guitar) he has to steer them back towards traditional singer-songwriter territory. Fortunately, they make the crossing with some of their eerie magic intact. Settling back onto the barer uplands of acoustic folk, they touch down lightly but tellingly: a drift of plastic supermarket bags with freshly-scrawled stories on them.

Johnny’s voice – a high, carrying thing – comes across far better than it does when it has to wend its way through the fuzz and interruptions of his gizmos. It lifts and drops like a dying wind, going from thistledown-tender to elevated keen. While this wood-and-bare-wires version of his work has a few stray echoes of John Martyn in its brooding fingerpicking dynamism (and in Johnny’s own stealthy charisma) he shares with Alisdair Roberts a reluctance to play the polished singer-entertainer offering up something bonneted and twee, preferring instead to go and dig for ghost-songs and ancient patterns and to float them back into the present. I can also hear faint echoes of the Celtic impressionism which feeds, variously, Van Morrison, The Bathers and The Blue Nile – songs evanescing out into misty thinness without ever losing their emotional impact; or those deliberate, savouring steps that Johnny takes away from the expected path or the finishing point. It’s also there in that dusting of pervasive melancholia, settling without ever hardening into crude sentimental crusts.

Banter aside, Johnny’s working in serious territory. His songs carry plenty in them – much of it sorrowful – but much of it contained in verbal texture and suggestion rather than a straightforward lyric. He gives us deliberately blurred, inconclusive tales and narratives, dissolved down to elusive scraps and evocative fragments. Often, the songs seem to be rolling over in bed, as if driven by unquiet sleep. The Handstand Crowd, a sad soft account of isolation (“a party that everyone’s going to… / I’m staying at home… / you shouldn’t expect the worst, / it’s what you deserve,”) gradually deepens from its lonesome indie-folk mope and saturates with hallucinatory paranoia, like a napkin filling with dark water. “I can’t hide – / there’s no reason to your shadows closing in. /Oh, sordid silhouettes appear tonight… / he is tapping at my window.”

Johnny Lynch, a.k.a. The Pictish Trail.

Pictish brood.

Earlier on, Johnny’s been singing unsettling suggestions which spiral straight out of childhood nightmares – “You know what’s good for you? /To leave the puppets in their cupboard with white sheets around their stomachs, / like they’re standing up in bed – are you sure they’re not dead?” Getting through these hauntings seems to be the greatest triumph (“Good morning, I don’t care… / I’m still alive, / I’ve waited the longest night.”) A little later, Johnny will introduce The Lighthouse as a tale “about a lighthouse keeper – he starts turning off the light and watching people die.” We chuckle along with him at the cheesy Gothic suspense story this brings to mind. The song – when it arrives – is a vision of the paralysis which chews away at a person’s responsibility and sense of connection. “I collect these thoughts…, / my lighthouse keeping the sun switched on… / My days I sleep alone; my nights I turn to stone… / and I watch you struggle – oh, I watch you struggle.”

A fervent, thoughtful cover of Graham Coxon’s A Day Is Far Too Long fits right into this lowering milieu, like a stone sunk into a wet beach. “On sticks and sand, lost my money, lost my hand. / Blood on my brain, too much salt in my veins, / and I thought pain was clean, and I thought hearts were strong, / but bones aren’t sticks anymore, and a day is far too long.” On I Will Pour It Down, the story that Johnny’s telling meets a flood of rural imagery and blurs right into it – “to the edge of time, I ride my bike to the sea – the colours of the fields, the glow when they start burning. / I’m calling in the cows, the horses and the sheep; / I’m calling in the light and the years.” Merging into a psychedelic tributary to a mass of time and landscape, it doesn’t quite dissolve to the point where Johnny’s hints of reproach dissolve as well. “If I was the sun I would not hide behind the cloud. / If I could rain, I would pour it down, / I would pour it down. / I would pour it down on your town.”

The Pictish Trail, ensconced in the Chapel.

Lynch faces the mob…

This afternoon’s all-acoustic version of Wait Until is dedicated to Trigger from ‘Only Fools and Horses’. Another gag. We probably need it. It’s one of the first songs that Johnny wrote after the death of his mother – one which seems to mingle a helplessly dependent love song with a dreamscaped murder ballad. The original electrobeat-chiller version (with its stark, unsettling video of a stricken and glowering Johnny presiding over a basement full of hard-faced dancing schoolchildren) is almost too much to take on. Today, unplugged and unpropped, Johnny quietly underplays it; and while some of its furious edge melts away, its shifting painful core remains. “Wait until I arrive to tell me you’re going away / to tell me you’re so sorry. / Can we wait for water one last time / until the water covers our mouths? and our eyes, our eyes, our eyes. / Wait until your last chance to say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.” Grief and violence thread inexorably together, betrayal merges with extinction. “I’m pushing you over so I can’t get up, I’m pushing you in fast so I can’t pull you out… / Oh the crime, the crime – / cover for me, cover me in your love, your love. / Tell me of your love, stay here my love.”

If you’re listening to the noises, it’s no more than a sad and sorry breath in the heather. If you tune in properly, it’s a primal scream. Maybe Johnny’s stand-up act – all of that friendly swashbuckling wit – isn’t just charm, but necessity. Maybe the gags and the friendly buffets are there to stop him, and us, from falling into the songs. In between two numbers, he delivers another quip: we laugh, and he grins like a flying cannonball. In another song, he asserts “I will just talk behind my stories and tell my life, spill my guts / I couldn’t live more, feel nothing at all – I live, or not.”

On the other hand, maybe he’s bearing witness rather than using his audience as a confessional. Those Scots intonations, soft and human, are rolling over a greater darkness – rain-stippled postcard beauty hunched on top of frowning granite. As with Iceland, the Hebrides (and Eigg in particular) have a reputation for hard-bitten common sense coexisting with the numinous and dangerous. I don’t know how much of that is true – you’d have to ask Johnny, and what’s true for Eigg might be less true in Fife, where some of his stories were born. It’s certainly true that Pictish Trail songs, however vague or mumbled, have been striped through with a fearful beauty and with a sense of inexplicable forces. The characters within them, even when they’re from this day and age, seem to tread old grooves of ritual and remembrance, weather and wake. Their new sorrows fall, naturally, into ancient places.

As Daylight Music ends for today, Johnny’s out at the front doing the meet-and-greet. People – little children, grandparents, students, young mothers – flock around him like happy birds. Some of them seem to have bought his bobble-hats, some haven’t. He looks overjoyed either way, as if there’s nowhere he’d rather be than here, enthusiastically making contact. Whatever ghosts and forces may have reared up as he sang, he himself looks far from haunted.

***

What? Oh yes…

The other half of the Lost Weekend, in which three other bands played on the following day down at the Hangover Lounge? We didn’t make it. Sorry – the weekend swallowed us again. I could try to make some comment about conceptual continuity here, and pretend to be pleased with it, but I’m too annoyed and embarrassed that we didn’t try to travel a little further, just this one time. It’s not as if we didn’t have some good examples to follow. We chickened out. I’m going to have to blame it on those bloody weekend timewarps.

(What a lame ending for a review. I need a drink.)

The Middle Ones online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp

Freschard online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

The Pictish Trail online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud

Daylight Music online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud

The Hangover Lounge online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter

Thanks to Andunemir for all of the videos.

October 2013 – live reviews – autumn light, part 2: Daylight Music presents Annie Dressner/Buriers/We Are Children (We Make Sound) @ Union Chapel, Islington, London, 12th October 2013 (“the Daylight mixture of low-key quirk and put-you-at-yer-ease continues to work its magic”)

17 Oct
The Uke of Doom.

The Uke of Doom.

A fortnight on from our last visit to Daylight Music, my family and I are back again. Blame the warmth of the welcome, blame the homemade cake; blame my little son Oscar’s hopes of grabbing a set of hand-bells again. Blame a rare opportunity for us all to like the same kind of thing, but I think we’re hooked. If not hooked, we’re already used to that Daylight Music atmosphere: the occasional sound of a baby’s coo echoing through the cavernous vault of the Union Chapel, the slightly sleepy post-lunchtime ambience, the arts’n’crafts feel to proceedings; that gentle, polite undercurrent of London community ambience that’s getting more and more difficult to find in this time of mounting rents and bugger-my-neighbour.

Daylight family matters - Caitlin and Ben.

Daylight family matters – Caitlin and Ben.

A full-family, free-or-whatever event at a major London junction, Daylight remains something to treasure. Things do change here, of course. The autumn wears on and there’s less and less sun to slip in and kiss the Gothic brickwork, less physical warmth to rouge the stone. The lowering October light dims the room rather than illuminates it, so that everyone onstage seems to be performing inside an unrestored oil painting, beneath a filmy pall of soot and years – but the Daylight mixture of low-key quirk and put-you-at-yer-ease continues to work its magic. Compering the event with his usual pin-point fuzziness, Ben Eshmade seems more and more like a gentle young cousin slowly evolving into a beloved uncle. Caitlin Hogan (Daylight’s beaming, leggy factotum-and-mascot) not only plays the church organ but frisks cheerfully around at the interval with an usherette’s tray. We’re warmed – and when we aren’t, we just pull our clothes around ourselves a little tighter and wait to see who’s come to the show this time.

A short time ago, New York singer-songwriter Annie Dressner crossed the Atlantic to England, swapping the brashness of her hometown for the more reticent self-assurance of Cambridge. As part of the deal, gridlocks were traded for grass commons, skyscrapers for Gothic spires, the swarming of yellow cabs for the purr of passing bicycles. New York isn’t entirely left behind, though: Annie’s very first song today is called Brooklyn. Her soft strum sketches out an altogether quieter place than the ever-rising hipster centre we’d expect: more sideslip Bohemian ’50s than rattling, overcrowded Noughties. The art-life, though, remains at the core of the story in the passing images of painter’s hats and “whiskey in a broken glass”, in the sketch of flawed new lives, the talk of friends, the passing spectre of discouragement.

Annie Dresser - softness is deceptive.

Annie Dresser – softness is deceptive.

Annie herself seems winsome, demure, even folk-soprano cute at the start (Oscar, who’s something of a two-year-old ladykiller, is certainly intrigued). Her dialogue, as she chats to us in between songs, is a halting soft-voiced take on that scatting New York curl of rapid ideas and the slipping between subjects. She claims not to be used to holding a crowd on her own (“Usually my husband plays with me. He tells jokes about cheese,”) but she gives it her best shot: giving us North London travel advice, or revealing which of her songs is her grandmother’s favourite. I’m not sure that she’s quite as much the shy ingénue as she implies. For all her easy-going, soft-cheeked charm, and for all the hushed and humble tones to her singing, she’s got a subtle self-assurance as she stands up there: for all the world like a Modigliani model who got the joke.

I’m not sure how much difference Annie’s Cambridge relocation is likely to make to her songwriting. Her songs don’t need backdrops of big cities or the hungers of creativity in order to work or to find focus: they can work anywhere. In fact, her quiet songs seem better suited to quieter rooms in quieter towns, or just to moments in which people’s reactions are contained in reflection – delicately muted regrets, a steady and accepting love.

Annie seems to write songs like other people read books – pulling in her attention, quietening; becoming stiller, gently illuminated. She’s mastered small, telling, understated images and the knack of placing them, lightly, in the best passing places. Something innocuous like a picture of a turtle becomes tinted with significance, as if caught by a stray beam of light at just the right moment.

Dressner in detail.

Dressner in detail.

Rather than being dramas, Annie’s songs are filled, unobtrusively, with little details of life’s motions. When the blows fall, as they must, they fall softly but decisively, like the moment in Lost In A Car where she sings “the wind was high / and your candle blew out.” When she sings about death, she sings about it in a series of aftershocks or in that slow repetitive rub of mingled grief, guilt and simple wishes that silently burnishes the pain: “if I had come / out in the cold dark night… / I can’t forget, even if I tried: / I can’t forget the night you died… / If I had come a minute sooner…”

Heartbreaker (which, like Lost In A Car, is from this year’s spring EP, ‘East Twenties’) picks over the memory of love lost by running over domestic details, slowly working around and creating the sketch of a man (“your father was a painter and your mother was a teacher – I remember all the things in your house”) but never obsessing over the man himself. Instead the song becomes a gentle, telling rebuke: the testament of someone who cared enough to notice all of the small building blocks of a loved one’s life; the account of someone who cared enough to remember. Annie doesn’t wreak obvious and horrible revenges in song. She’ll just tack you to the scene of your crime – once, with one expertly- and regretfully-placed pin – and what’s worse, she’ll stay sympathetic.

A band of Buriers.

A band of Buriers.

For the most part, this kind of subtlety is the sort of things Buriers just trip over – or more likely, stride over – while their eyes stay fixed on a savage, lowering horizon full of stormclouds and junk. A thunder-tommed, string-heavy vehicle for the splintered, semi-apocalyptic ramblings of poet-songwriter James P. Honey, superficially they seem to be snapping at the heels of Godspeed! You Black Emperor; intent on seizing the title of house-band for the Grand Collapse. Despite eschewing electric instruments (this time out, at least), they’ve certainly got most of the necessary ingredients. Cello and viola, droning menacingly or carving the air with dark, bitten post-romantic melodies; a smoggy aura of passive-aggressive ferocity with a hint of tragic, tender despair leaching through; war-drum rumbles and a close relationship with the dystopian spoken word.

Their first piece sets the scene and nails it – an unsettled English almost-rap layering slashes of scene over lowering, growling string drones. Hollow wood, full of heavy weather. Looking beyond those easy Godspeed comparisons, though, Buriers have a voice of their own – one with a distinct purple tint. Post–rock parsimonies be damned: chivvied on by James’ welter of words, Buriers continually thump up against their disciplined constraints in search of something which sprawls or potentially brawls. They smudge and crumple the lines between booze-spattered vignettes of romance (emerging wearily from behind nicotine stains and inertia) and violent Ginsbergdelaireian flowerings of collaged, surreal imagery.

Laura Mallows of Buriers strings us along.

Laura Mallows of Buriers strings us along.


On Slides By, for instance, James and the band spin out loose-jointed low-rent vignettes. Passion that accumulates itself from tawdry scraps and spontaneous moments of visual poetry, hungrily seized upon. “Glass of bourbon, a poorly rolled smoke, / then it’s time to go home. / Spend my whole night chasing your eyes – two flakes of burning coal… / And so I say to you, I swear / nowhere could ever seem so dreary. / Within your palm a lock of hair is smouldering and rising up, oh so lightly. / Snaking upwards, coiling along the ceiling. / Rebuild our cynicism there, / abreast to all my mighty, misty, misplaced feelings.”

On Stuffing A Chest (led by Jamie Romain’s ominous cello figure) James blurts out a kaleidoscope chant of cut-up impressions and intimations – “A skin like flung paint on a window… / Head on to the edge of the night / residing in a western crockery plantation… / Material plenitude, / seraphim skin, / sexually potent media and humour hanged and left silhouetted through a dazzling stained-glass window to wither.” As his portents pile up, the song seems no more than a few loose images away from disemboweling itself. The anchoring string growl of Jamie (and of violinist Laura Mallon) holds it together, like coarse sail-thread.

It’s a shame to deny the atmospheric power of the Buriers ensemble as a whole, but the attention is constantly caught and held by the febrile James. No slouch as a guitarist (he contributes a beautiful, rippled nylon-string finger-picking part to Dim Half Light, and intermittently wrings delicate sprawls out of a ukelele) it’s as voice and emoter that he shines; or, rather, smoulders with a dark discomfort. His vocal is crisp and doomy, brooding and fastidious. He doesn’t mince his words: he snaps them off, shifting agitatedly between politics and abstractions (a snarled “well-heeled” is rapidly rhymed with a distracted “old film reel”), but snipping each phrase clean.

By nature James sounds fey, even effete, but voice and song are transformed by the ferocity of his words and convictions as they slide over each other. In attitude, if not in tone, his performance carries with it a labyrinth of echoes – Cohen, Reed and Patti Smith among them – but there’s a stubborn Englishness in there as well. Not just in the way that his verbal flashes of fang, whisker and dissent recall modern English songs’ own crepuscular, compelling rank of anti-heroes (Curtis, Hammill, Mark E. Smith). There’s also that porcelain gnash of thwarted, inward-turned privilege that hangs around him. Sometimes he could be a harried, half-deranged young schoolmaster, trapped in a staid public school while dreaming of freedom in the slums; one binge of words and absinthe away from fomenting revolt.

James P. Honey in flow and frenzy...

James P. Honey in flow and frenzy…

Then there’s his physical presence. Trapped in position by his microphone, James squirms and chafes against the necessity like a bug stuck on a pin, while haranguing us with hellfire intensity. His head rocks and bobs; his eyes and teeth lock; his feet sway and twitch in tiny shuffles and anxious hops. When not constrained by guitar or uke his elbows flail, as his forearms move in frantic twists and swivels. While he declaims his words, his hands accent them in frantic conduction, clasp in desperate spasms, or pluck savagely at his T-shirt as if trying to scrape their way through to his vitals.

Set against his rolling, literary imagery and precise, mannered diction, James’ tortured physicality almost looks comical – less Cave or Iggy than a Rowan Atkinson vicar possessed by the spirit of a rabid weasel. What sells it to us is his naked fervour. Maybe it’s a willing possession: James’ surrender to his bursts of words suggest that poetic discipline will always be less important to him than channeling (or reviving) an epileptic torrent of meaning.

Not everyone is sold on this (including the scattering of toddlers in the Daylight audience – Oscar toddles determinedly off to the colouring-in table during Buriers’ set, and stays there) but there’s no denying the commitment onstage and the band’s sustained grind of shimmering intensity. By the time Lynch Mob Hero rolls around, facing off against a time “when the city kills off the poets”), James is increasingly wracked; stumbling to the front of the drum-kit to hammer at the cymbals with a pair of beaters. Wriggling in a fury of words, he lets them shake him out as they will. On Buriers’ final song, he pleads for a kind of mercy – “God be kind – my ship is small.”

* * *

A change of act and a change of mood. I retrieve Oscar from the crayons and felt tips. There’s another short break. Let’s go back a bit…

In November 1973 (when I was barely three years old, and missing most of the significance at the time), Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ was nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is today. While there was a growing buzz about its fusion of rock technology, ’60s conservatoire minimalism and folk textures, its all-conquering grip on record players, planetaria, whistling hippy milkmen and (by degrees) pop culture in general was still some way off. Nonetheless, at that point it had enough momentum for a reluctant Oldfield to be cajoled into playing a version on television. To reproduce what had previously been a mass of overdubs, Oldfield was joined by an diverse dream-team.

For those who are interested, here’s that original telly performance (courtesy of YouTube). A sizeable chunk of Oldfield’s broadcast band came from Henry Cow, touchstone avant-rockers inspired by Mao, blues, free-jazz, performance poetry and fearsome contemporary composition, who’d been organising their own cross-genre Explorers’ Club events. (The Cow’s work is worth a whole article in itself: their questioning collective spirit led them to challenges which still lurk in the musical undergrowth to this day, still challenging any halfway-political art musician prepared to kick at the wheels of the applecart). With remaining spaces to fill, Oldfield pulled in musicians drawn from a wide but sympathetic spectrum – from Gong; from Soft Machine; from The Rolling Stones; from folk and classical woodwind-playing.

To put it mildly, it was a crowded podium that evening, pregnant with cross-genre possibilities and implicit predictions. Karl Jenkins blew oboe – a Soft Machine member at the time, it was twenty-two long years before he himself would grow grand on his own wave of chart-storming cross-genre malarkey, via ‘Adiemus’. A few years before that one of the Gongsters – Steve Hillage – would stage his own later-life transformation, returning with System 7’s ambient techno to woo and wow a 1990s generation of dance freaks. Even the most obscure contributor, Ted Speight, was a musical journeyman: his own career would map from Lol Coxhill’s avant-garde fusion jazz to the artful punkified pub-rock of Kilburn & The High Road (at the side of Ian Dury) and, by the millennium, back again to London jazz.

That one-off broadcast wasn’t the end of the story, either. By the following year David Bedford (Oldfield’s friend, and a burgeoning crossover composer) had written up an orchestral version of Tubular Bells to perform and record with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In doing so he joined further significant British culture dots to the puzzle. The Royal Albert Hall – where the concert was recorded, and where high art meets broad public a stone’s throw from London’s royal palaces. Thomas Beecham, the RPO’s belligerent founder, conductor and impresario – eight years dead by the time his orchestra was playing Oldfield, but with his own legacy of revitalising English concert music still very much intact. Lastly, Worcester Cathedral, where Oldfield eventually re-recorded some of his Tubular Bells guitar parts under the soar and shadow of five hundred years worth of evolving English architecture.

The reason that I’m bringing all of these things up is that the Tubular Bells events were, in their way, high-water marks in post-war British music. In terms of that era’s art-music fusion they might have been at the easy-listening end, but their tunefulness and canny textural appeal allowed them to poke their heads right up into the mainstream. For a brief moment, they trespassed over those stubborn cultural divides which separated music into sullen and defensive camps muttering stale arguments about high versus low, fossilized versus spontaneous, conservative versus radical. It wasn’t a moment which lasted. With a few honourable exceptions (most obviously in jazz, such as Mike Gibbs and Keith Tippett) few musicians maintained those crossing points.

Many British musicians (Henry Cow among them) ultimately had to look to Europe or America if they wanted to cross-fertilise, at that level or a higher one. Back at home, most of the genres subsided back into their cramped little stockades to percolate and evolve separately. It was as if, as a musical nation, the British had given up on inclusiveness in favour of more miserly joys. They swapped the possibilities of crosstalk for more limited experiences of belonging – being in on an exclusive clique, the petty rivalries of defining your own group against another; the footie-fan logic and competing crunch of pop tribes. A proud Mod might argue that this was a good thing; another reviewer might argue that the friction between scenes and identities provided sparks of its own, and they’d have a point. For me, though, disappointments came with the choice. It’s not that all the opportunities vanished, but for a long time it was as if many of us had gone into our houses and shut the doors.

We Are Children (We Make Sound).

We Are Children (We Make Sound).

This is turning into a rant. Let’s get back to 2013, to the considered, warm inclusivity of Daylight Music, and to where a ten-to-fifteen strong We Are Children (We Make Sound) are onstage, picking their way through a note-perfect version of Tubular Bells, revelling gently in their own tender, communal sound; and gently blowing away not just the years, but the resistances. I can’t call them revolutionary, especially in the light of what I’ve just written about memories of early-’70s icebreaking. I can’t even claim that they’re the only barrier-crossing ensemble around. But it’s great to be able to peg them as an indicator of how Western music culture – and, narrowing the scope, British music culture – has softened its adolescent stiffness, relaxed its intolerant bark.

Born from after-hours jams between students and staff from the Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, over in Kilburn, We Are Children come from a fresh generation of musicians (most, but by no means all of them, are still in their twenties). Within the lineup, I spot some half-familiar faces from various London gigs and cellar-jams. Here’s the sensual feline pout and mussed-blond curls of Chinese Missy rocker Richard Bond, today dividing his time between guitar and clarinet. Here’s dreadlocked guitarist Niels Bax from groove-players What?!. Here are singer Gyongyi Salla and flautist Abi Murray, both of whom hover around the capital as songwriters (Ziaflow and ABI, respectively). As individuals, as part of smaller groups, as gigging and communicating musicians, these and other We Are Children members continually work and learn across a wide range of music throughout London, and they don’t thinking twice about doing so. That genre permeability which was ground-breaking in 1973 (and which was subsequently scorned as a betrayal of the tribe) is reestabished within a broader perspective; a healthy, heterogeneous fabric taken for granted, and casually encouraged.

Assorted Children...

Assorted Children…

Having said all that, We Are Children are playing a little bit safe today, perhaps in friendly deference to Daylight’s sleepy early-afternoon babies. Happy to work with both driving rock pulses and dance-and-dubstep mixology experiments, they bring neither to this afternoon’s live party. While they’re nominally a composing and arranging collective, this afternoon’s showcase is a little more conservative, focussing on a couple of familiar classics of melodious minimalism plus a solid pair of pieces from the leadership. For now, though, this gentler, more doctrinal taste is fine. The ensemble sets up a cool October glow, breathing a loving life back into the familiar and working up some new tunes of their own. As they carefully, unfussily work their way around what were once crusted old encampments, We Are Children have a tender communal feel to them. Nominal leaders Dan Gaylard and Alastair Beveridge both look as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. Meanwhile, Audrey Riley – the veteran strings sessioneer and the band’s tutor-cum-guiding-light – oversees proceedings and provides some silent backbone. She glares protectively from behind her cello, a determined mother-hen with a steely glint.

Audrey might provide the anchor, but it’s Alistair who’s responsible for today’s Tubular Bells treatment, leading from the grand piano and providing a remarkably faithful arrangement for We Have Children’s smaller forces (centred predominantly round a quintet of clean electric guitars, bass and a string duo of Audrey and violinist Richard Jones). Imperceptibly, and with great skill, he shaves down Oldfield’s ringing repetitions and multiple layers to fit a ten-minute piece and a thirteen-person ensemble (the core bolstered by glockenspiel, by Abi’s flute and by the voices of both Gyongyi and fellow London songwriter Jo Kelsey. The piano anchors with that familiar dancing, pulse, and somehow all of the missing textures are masked. If anything, the original piece emerges refreshed, especially after two decades of intermittent and questionable reworking by Oldfield himself. Earlier on, a somewhat reshuffled We Are Children (flute, glock and voices out; drumkit and a second bass guitar in) have already taken us on an immaculate trip through Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint – less trippy-disciplined than the original, with the opened-up instrumentation and acoustic-electric sound bringing out intimations of both folk-round and disco pulse. The music is replete with examples of the mutual sympathy and interaction which We Are Children have built up over three years of jamming and unlikely pub gigs – violin and flute blend for a second, then cycle smoothly apart: guitars ravel into a delicate thirty-string mechanism.

Cell-out...

Cell-out…

The ensemble’s original material fits in seamlessly with the regroomed, revitalised Reich and Oldfield warhorses. Circles (written by Alistair) slims down We Are Children to the string duo, a quartet of guitars and a single bass. It manages to be many things – a neo-minimalist declaration, smooth and detailed. Riding on a Satie-esque continuo, the melody line passes in a ripple through the players: an oscillated hocketed sway with a tingling, conversational counterpoint. A fourth piece (for which I don’t catch the name) has a murkier quality. They’ve shuffled the lineup again – the electric guitar quartet against the string duo; a return of bass, piano, drums and female voices; a returning flute this time joined by clarinet. What emerges from this configuration journeys through a set of moods, interlocked like a meshwork of paper rings. A Scottish/English border folk air filters through string duo and piano, dissolving into string noise. Drums and piano pick up and point a beat in three-time. A dawdling sensual theme passes from violin to clarinet; as flute is worked in, the drums become jazzier, stretching and moulding the rhythm around the weaving melody instruments.

Viewed as a whole, We Are Children’s pieces (whether adopted or originated) build up a utopian sound-picture, part rural and part urban – they’re both verdant woodlands and immaculate ductwork; warm sunsets on glass; the patter and pulse of working cities overlaid with their parks, borders and spaces to dream. Sitting on my lap, Oscar listens quietly and thoughtfully, his attention held. I was ten before I first heard ‘Tubular Bells’; sixteen before I heard Reich. In this band’s inclusive space- itself enveloped by Daylight Music’s easy welcome – my son’s getting an earlier and much more natural introduction than I did, untroubled by tribal antipathies. When Ben Eshmade first brought We Are Children into Daylight Music – much earlier in their concert series – he described them as “what I imagined a Daylight band might sound like.” He’s righter than he knows, and it’s a credit to both ensemble and event.

Arrow of welcome...

Arrow of welcome…

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September 2013 – live reviews – autumn light, part 1: Daylight Music presents Directorsound/Candythief/Jack Hayter @ Union Chapel, Islington, London, 28th September 2013 (“decency, enthusiasm, a place to gather and music’s qualities of balm and binding”)

30 Sep

This way in...

This way in…

In some respects, when you’re chasing music, being broke is easy. Almost everyone sympathises with it (not least the musicians themselves). A bigger challenge is to keep up with both music and a young family: neglect either, and you feel sick at heart. Chances fly past and it sometimes seems as if, whatever you do, someone’s going to get disappointed.

My own, fairly recent family is typical in this. Getting us all together behind one piece of music, at one time, can be tricky. Regular readers will already know that I like music in all its forms – from scream to coo; from four-square pop craftsmanship to impulsive tangle-ups; from stroke to slap, from massed strings to static. In the face of this indiscriminate barrage, my wife prefers her music to be more ordered and comfortable. (We did enjoy a freak one-off bonding over some Belgian avant-jazz six years ago – marriage always has its surprises). As for Oscar, at two-and-a-half years old he hasn’t settled on absolute likes yet; but as he hones his toddler free-improv skills and makes up scrambled songs about the Gruffalo, making musical noises with any convenient object (or watching other people do it) fascinates him.

Well, if you’re broke, you track down free gigs – as for the other challenge, go looking for something family-friendly. Hiding in plain sight in the middle of north London, Daylight Music offers both, hosting fortnightly pay-what-you-like triple bills beneath the piling, bounding Victorian-Gothic rooftops of Union Chapel. Persuading Clare and Oscar to go is easy. It’s a single bus ride away; it’s in the early afternoon; it’s mostly acoustic. Apparently, there’s cake. I think that’s the clincher. We go.

Inside, we find something like a church fête. The merchandise stall nuzzles up against Christian Aid posters; and yes, there’s cake – people volunteer to bake and bring it in. Beneath the Chapel’s bold and cavernous octagon of elevated brickwork, a gentle, meandering throng of people criss-cross the aisles like drowsy autumn bees, settling gradually into the wooden pews. Children’s faces are dotted around the audience – happy or distracted toddlers, anxious infants who’ll be smiling at the thumps and arpeggios later. During breaks in performance, a strikingly tall and kind-looking lady called Caitlin cat-steps over to the grand pipe organ and plays us a weave of half-melted pop hits and memory-songs. Despite the Chapel’s imposing scale, this is all remarkably cosy.

In recent years, unfriendly rumbles have rattled round the woodwork of the more family-friendly, acousti-folky end of music. Certain commentators have been drawing ominous conclusions about a resurgent conservatism, the rejection of multiculturalism and the stealthy rehabilitation of a rigid and stratified Britain strapped into place by ersatz traditions. It’s an uneasy picture, not least because the distaste drives so many things before it – farmer’s markets, bespoke festivals, the parodification and commodification of working-class folk culture, even the innocuous folk-rock of Mumford & Sons are all rolled up into a looming kipple-spectre of incipient English fascism. You could imagine the same questionable bile being aimed at Daylight Music – at the grand church setting, the tea-and-cakes, the shortage of outright punk and smoke, the Mothercare cups, even the efforts to make people comfortable.

Look a little more closely, and the cheap shots are belied. There’s a faint fray of urbanism to Daylight Music and to the Chapel – a slight scuffing and engriming in the Victorian iron and woodwork; a dash of non-conformism (both with and without the capitals) to the gathering and its setting. There are glimpses of more lived-in faces punctuating the young professionals, yummy mummies and cultured grandparents (hard-bitten elderly hippies, tattooed ex-bruisers; that nervy look which struggling musicians get, two decades into lean times). There’s that mingling of quiet anxiety with generosity which hangs around the trestle-table food counter, raising money for the homeless. Indeed, there’s even something of the trade union fund-raiser to Daylight Music.You sling your voluntary contribution into a plastic bucket at the door; you’re smiled at; you feel like part of something bigger and more inclusive, and a little more generous.

Daylight Music's Ben Eshmade - making us an offer we won't refuse.

Daylight Music’s Ben Eshmade – making us an offer we won’t refuse.

Although plenty of people are involved, Daylight Music is primarily another outcropping of enthusiasm from Ben Eshmade: broadcaster, promoter, occasional French horn blower and the man behind Arctic Circle, Chiller Cabinet and other warm-spirited musical things with cold names. Ambling onstage to introduce acts and deliver Daylight parish notices, Ben’s the gentler kind of presiding presence. Despite his amiable, bumbling manner (part distracted curate, part Sunday scholar and part walk-leader) it’s clear that there’s expertise and resolve hidden beneath those layers of fuzz and softness. I suspect that he knows everything that’s ticking over throughout the afternoon. Ever so slightly, there’s a sense that Daylight Music are holding off the darkness of ignorance in a matter-of-fact way and with the simplest of tools – decency, enthusiasm, a place to gather and music’s qualities of balm and binding. If London was flattened by meteorites or missiles tomorrow, you get the impression that Ben and the rest of the Daylighters would be dusting themselves down and going around afterwards – knocking at the fragments of doors; rigging tarpaulins and mending guitars; ensuring that everyone was given a flapjack while we put society back together.

Jack Hayter, at work.

Jack Hayter, at work.

Today’s first act seems as if he’s already been through a little war or two. Looking like a man carved out of driftwood (and dwarfed by the Chapel’s glowing rose window) a slightly battered Jack Hayter is suffering, though not on our account. He’s got toothache, and he might have managed to give himself organophosphate poisoning this week from accidentally squirting dog-flea killer in his eye. He’s taking it well, though: downbeat afflictions and mishaps seem to suit him. Later on, he’ll be singing “I’ve got teeth like tombstones, skin like clay – / well, it could be the scurvy, but anyway.. / The symptoms will fade if you come around / tomorrow – well, I was thinking, I’ll impress you somehow…”

Despite twelve years of on/off solo work (plus bandwork with Spongefinger and Dollboy) Jack seems perpetually fated to be known from his Jack-of-all-trades period with Hefner – when he was Darren Hayman’s handy sidekick, the have-a-go guy playing pedal steel and anything else which the others couldn’t manage. Watching him up there by himself with just his acoustic guitar (and a voice that’s not so much husky as husk), I can’t think of him as anything else but his own man. Both he and his songs are of a part: stubbed and illuminated by poverty and handiwork, scraped down to the bumpy grain and crafted to the true.

His Devon-gone-Estuary accent rattling against his throat, he sings movingly – even elegaically – about the come-and-go of Margate seafront, capturing in fingernail sketches hints of dereliction, the sweep of world currents, and the ongoing business of life: “Seahorse eggs, bladder wrack, / starfish in the sand, / and the Balkan girls on the West Beach with their prams.” With wryness and fellow feeling, he sings about being short of money (“it just sits in my wallet / rehearsing its final goodbye…/ Every letter that hits the welcome mat / is a fancy shade of brown,”) and shifts seamlessly between the metaphysical and the bare-boned personal. (“Trust is just belief without evidence. / Faith is a river that leads to the light. / So I’ll write songs… / so we can sleep better tonight.”)

Jack Hayter - songs of tall ships, peeling paint, old aircraft and weathered people.

Jack Hayter – songs of tall ships, peeling paint, old aircraft and weathered people.

While there’s a soft centre to his songs, Jack’s a long way from that breed of walking-pullover songwriters who fluff up the average acoustic night. I mentioned driftwood earlier, but perhaps weathered garden sheds are better comparisons: those unintentional brittle monuments to ordinary men’s lives and their fumbled, uncompleted dreams. Gaps and splinters in the planking; fugs of memories of hard work and shaping, of small private failings and imaginary wickedness.

There are snags in these songs. In one rippled, helpless brooding on love and mistakes Jack casts wildering, dissonant chords in amongst the slash and finger-picking. He passionately rasps fragments of revealing (“your freckled arms wrapped around to drag me under or set me free… / She puts her trust in lucky charms… / Every time we go to pieces, every time we go to war,”) with his bleached, crumpled vocals making them sound like damaged photographs held fearfully at fingertips, their significance lingering even as their colours and clarity parch.

Where Jack truly comes into his own, though, is when he blends these roughened surfaces and threadbare textures with a broader scope: the hauntings of memory, perhaps, or a drunken fantasy. I Stole The Cutty Sark is the latter, a boozy-dream-come-lover’s-bet in which Jack’s decrepit old soak of a narrator imagines commandeering the famous old Greenwich clipper and sailing it (topgallants filled with drunkard’s breath) across south London parkland and streets to serenade his girl at Lee (“I bet she’d sleep with a man who’s got a tall ship…”). It snatches romance from the brink of the ludicrous – even restores a little dignity and life to its own shipwrecked subject.

'Misfit City' Jr. at play - Oscar enjoys the show.

‘Misfit City’ Jr. at play – Oscar enjoys the show.

Another antique vessel – this time a plane – haunts The Shackleton: a post-war sub-hunter haunting the north-eastern coast in the 1960s, droning overhead while lonely Cold War teenagers pursue the wrong people, go through pregnancy scares and flinch from dreams of the mushroom cloud. From these elements, and from two tales of shredded correspondence in sorry little boxes, Jack spins out an aching kitchen-sink ballad of how people repeat their mistakes, neglect their cues, fail to be protected; in the end, how they come to miss what they feared and learn (too late) to love what they once only took for granted. He calls all of this time-travel. Oscar, too young to understand any of it, is still fascinated by the plaintive bony man onstage with his exhausted face and his air of dessicated kindness; the songs lolling from his guitar.

A few things about Candythief take me back to that wrangle which I mentioned earlier – the one about the politics of folk music. Superficially, they seem worlds (and perhaps a property band or two) away from Jack Hayter. As driving force and songwriter, Diana de Cabarrus has learned to be flexible while leading a Lego-flexible band lineup which clicks and pops available members into place as and when possible. This afternoon they’re a duo – Diana fronting on lipstick-red guitar, with Jason Dickinson’s vigorous fiddle playing and vocal harmonies adding some friendly sinew to her songs.

Part of a Daylight Music experience - baby cups, toys, Victorian woodwork, and Candythief in the background.

Part of a Daylight Music experience – baby cups, toys, Victorian woodwork, and Candythief in the background.

There’s nothing wrong with Candythief’s craft – it’s their cleanliness that jolts a little, after Jack’s scuff and scrape. Diana’s taste for adding a little crunch to her guitar is offset by her occasional dashes of loopage – choir-lady codas, little ziggurats of arpeggios – while Jason’s all-around virtuosity is further buffered by his beaming, ready-to-please showmanship. Their cheerful confidence extends to each other and to the audience; they deliver updates and clear intros at every opportunity, they’re nicely turned-out… They could hardly be more iconic of the modern, middle-class, tech’ed-up professional folkie if they tried.

Still, it’s churlish to snap at them for their impeccable diction, or for the fresh-faced, well-brushed aspect which they bring to their music and manner – after all, no-one snaps at Kate Rusby for making the effort. A songwriter’s voice finds itself while working through all manner of factors – family, shoes, regions, songs caught up from records or by ear, the day-jobs cadged on and survived, the places traveled and the things seen in passing. Diana’s own background (taking in a desert childhood and links with King Creosote and lo-fi Fence Records folk) suggests that there’s more to her than the assured, well-groomed perpetual-debutante which she presents as. Listening past the image doesn’t necessarily reveal all of this, but it does reveal a songwriter of thoughtfulness and impact behind the cool tones and bright sounds.

Candythief-in-chief - Diana de Cabarrus

Candythief-in-chief – Diana de Cabarrus

Not just that, but Diana proves to have a taste for mournful reflection which parallels those scrappier, plangent Hayter regrets. Her songs are windows onto other lives, onto which her own feelings overlap to etch away the politeness with a soft, stubborn acid. Many of the subjects are other women; such as the young girl at the centre of one particular time-blurred song, in which you can’t be sure whether Diana is looking at a daughter or niece, at a stranger, or at herself. Whoever it is, Diana appears to be both looking towards future journeys and looking back on them from that future, her responses a mixture of concern, solidarity and trepidation. (“Your face was so smooth – / you had no idea.”)

In the sleeve-plucking Time In The Tin Diana protests at how everyday lives are pecked away and blurred by the waste and distraction of marketing: “Please don’t spend the hours staring at the distant shrines in shopping malls, / the speechless saints in magazines and city walls… /With our minds thus occupied / we didn’t see our hands get tied… / Who dares tell you good enough / means buying into all this stuff / while the thoughts inside your head / are dismissed, remain unsaid?” As with the best political songs, the polemic is tempered by the personal, reflecting “summer was discovery – now the slightest wind chills me, / and I’ve set nothing aside. / I’ve only scattered thoughts to hide / from quicker clock face hands, from rain that turns it all to sand. / A bit more life is in the can: with hands outstretched we try to cram / every last taste and scent and breath / that rings of life, but every pledge / holds its promise and the line / towards home is hard to find.”

Jason Dickinson (Candythief's fiddler).

Jason Dickinson (Candythief’s fiddler).

Also buried beneath that clean surface and Diana’s own still, bright-eyed presence (like a guitar-toting reedbird) is Candythief’s taste for the cunning disarrangements of psychedelia and of folk – the flicks in the beat, the wrong-footing rhythms which inspire thought and dance together. Several Candythief songs skip between multiple paces, stirring up the barbs and challenges in the narratives. “We thought we were walking, making our own path… /You can’t close your grip ‘cos your hands are cold… / You ate up the insults, described them as fate. / Rattling the cage, / rewriting the same page – / footprints on your skin / where the robbers all crept in.”

They end – joyfully – on a new single, The Starting Gun, which takes this practically to prog levels. Leaping from a scrum of guitar and violin up to a stepped and spiky arrangement, it’s a stirring wake-up shout. “Your heart’s a roaring furnace underneath the evening news, / a mighty engine longing for the chance to be the fuse… / Draw the curtain back, join what was once apart, / scrape the grease from your beating heart. / We are bullets of pure light unraveling in time / through damage, loss, theft; the darkest of each other’s crimes.” Jason and Diana end on a confident crash, grinning at each other – clean sparks.

The soft armoury - Directorsound in action.

The soft armoury – Directorsound in action.

It takes a while for Directorsound‘s pool of mostly acoustic instruments to be assembled onstage. A nylon-strung guitar and a bouzouki, an autoharp and an accordion, a Tibetan singing bowl; dangling hammers, sticks and strikeables; sundry pedals; a miniature gong the breadth of a hand. Most vividly, there’s a compact and jutting array of hand-bells painted in bright toy-like colours, pointing outwards like clown-car klaxons. Apparently, this last item is a belldalabra.

If you’re still determined to think about things politically, there are a few options. Should we be expecting an admirable, inclusive world-music approach, or just the spoilt, self-indulgent tourism of an inveterate instrument collector? Is all of this wood, brass and hollow space about a love of open sound, or is it simple acoustic puritanism? I have to admit that I’m musing on something completely different – Daylight Music’s family atmosphere and the band name mingle lazily into a daydream of Thomas the Tank Engine, the Fat Controller hiding himself away from squabbling trains in order to piece together steampunk tunes in his bedroom. (Of course, it turns out that someone’s already beaten me to this…)

Idle speculation is rendered moot by the ambling arrival of Directorsound himself, Nick Palmer. Far from being any kind of poser – or any kind of prover – he’s a sweet skinny haystack of a man for whom any hints of ego or preciousness dissolve into the air with his music. He communicates with us via friendly mutters and the occasional warm, shy peer-out from between tousled fringe and beard. From the off, he engrosses himself in the business of stroking sound out of bells and strings and drum-skins, beginning with a ruminative solo on Spanish guitar but soon progressing to a smooth shuttling between instruments (an assured, hands-on craftsman, moving between tools).

Accompanying Nick on his explorations are two ghostly, gentle-faced women: one on harmonium, one on flute. Standing on either side of him, like handmaidens or like muses, they mingle an air of the slightly worn with one of peaceful contentment. Neither of them speak: instead, both softly watch Nick as they play, possibly picking up cues, most of which are invisible if they exist at all. While it’s Nick who initiates most of the patterns and melodies (and who rides swap-shot on the reliable single-instrument drones and figures his companions provide), no-one onstage appears to be in absolute charge. Instead, music happens as a mutual pass-around, shifting its focus equably between woodwind, soundbox, reed-buzz, string and chime. Three pieces along, Nick is picking up his piano accordion, playing his own take on a café reel and punctuating it with horn-honks and stomps of foot-tambourine, until the trio are summoning up strolling, bobbing images of fairground and French sidewalk.

Directorsound spread out...

Directorsound spread out…

The belldalabra (which has been sitting tantalisingly in plain sight throughout the set) finally comes to the fore on the fourth piece. “It even sounds good when you move it,” Nick chuckles in passing, bringing it in closer even as he’s strapping on a pair of leg-bells. What follows is a stirring, flurrying one-man duet. Nick’s autoharp lies flat on a chair, his beaters ringing softly off its strings when they’re not rapping and fluttering across the belldalabra in exquisite slithers and chimes, a full flow of musical counterpoint from harmonium and flute turning the ringing into glints on the tide. In time, Nick sets the beaters aside in favour of the bouzouki; but his strumming hand still makes regular, hawk-talon lunges back at the autoharp as the piece blossoms into a Celto-Grecian tapestry of stamps and zings. When it’s going at full tilt, Nick is racking belldalabra, tambourine, leg-bells, gong and even a set of box-hinges in a continuous weaving sweep.

If this prolonged and frequently ecstatic dream-folk reminds me of anything in particular, it’s The Incredible String Band, though that’s a tenuous connection at best. Nick’s sunlit tunefulness and his enthusiasm for quilting diverse and divergent instruments into the mix certainly recalls the ISB’s “grab-anything” psychedelic enthusiasm. Yet he has no pretensions towards following their wildly cluttered and creative songcraft, nor any interest in emulating their engaging cracked-crow vocals. Directorsound’s music stays all-instrumental, and comparatively edgeless. Rather than being the product of quirky scattershot individualism, it’s both evasive and welcoming. Nick and his fellow players seem content to summon up broad, bright, impressionistic blurs of scene and culture (a ripple across a wheatfield, a Mistral gust, or holiday memories of a drift of indigenous evening music winding down a warm street) rather than dig into their roots or to challenge them.

Oscar explores the belldalabra.

Oscar explores the belldalabra.

In spite of this, Directorsound remain honest – and, frankly, loveable. Simultaneously introverted and inclusive, the music absorbs musical ideas and feelings like a sponge, but breathes them all back out without a hint of selfishness or self-consciousness. The other Incredible String Band component that’s missing is the alpha-male jockeying for position which both fired up and benighted the latter group. With Nick as the lone (and unchallenged) Directorsound member in the studio, the project was never going to be anyone’s wrestling ground, but even with this in mind, the courtesy, the mutual kindness and the shy, unassuming generosity of the band is palpable from the moment they set foot onstage to the moment that they finally wander off, instruments in hand, into the Chapel’s shadows.

Before that, while Directorsound are still packing up. I bring Oscar up for a closer look at the instruments. Those previously silent women are now happily animated, smiling broadly, chatting to people from the stage. With an open smile, Nick shoves the belldalabra and a beater over towards us. Encouraged, Oscar taps out some ringing notes of his own, briefly making himself part of the band and part of the afternoon. It’s very much a Daylight Music moment.

(To be continued. We went back again two weeks later..)

Someday all 'Misfit City' reviews will be written like this.

Someday all ‘Misfit City’ reviews will be written like this.

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June 2013 – live reviews – Liam Singer/Foxout!/Sealionwoman (with Laura Moody) @ The Dentist (33 Chatsworth Road), Homerton, London, 26th June 2013 (“a gig in a bottle”)

30 Jun

As I get off the bus in Clapton, the midsummer evening sun is giving the neighbourhood a lingering kiss. It brushes across the Clapton Portico (a bewildered, disinherited classical remnant, grafted onto a school at the end of an abbreviated road), takes away its sadness and helps it in its lonely loom. It limns the shopfronts of convenience stores and barbers and closed-down shops, and perks them up. It lends soft glows and sends little licks of shadow chasing around the stonework of the Round Chapel, and it brings out the last sleepy cheeps of the day from the local sparrows as I head down Glenarm Road towards Homerton.

Waiting for someone to sing..

Waiting for someone to sing..

Thirteen years ago – when I was living a lengthy stone’s-throw to the west, over in Stoke Newington – this part of east London was a soured inner suburb with a brooding, bullet-ridden reputation. The length of Clapton Road was tagged as Murder Mile – an edgy and angry place beset by resentments, drive-by shootings and unprovoked beatings. Flickers of anger sometimes still plague it. Almost two years ago, the second night of the 2011 London riots kicked off just a few minutes walk from here: a churn of flames, looting and outright war between police and estate kids. Barely a block away in Clarence Road, Pauline Pearce delivered the impassioned harangue which would establish her as a Hackney heroine. Now though, all is peaceful: and it gives me the chance to reflect that, as with people, the hair-raising reputations of many places come only from their occasional spasms.

The biggest fuck-you I get tonight comes from a house painted in a shocking purple and gesturing out from an otherwise cream-and-beige Victorian terrace, like some kind of bolshy architectural remix. As I’ve come to know in recent years, this part of London is a place where a very diverse set of people get on with living: it’s also the kind of area where people get out of doors not to go hunting but to break that pesky London reserve and meet their neighbours. Pubs become sitting rooms; sitting rooms and armchairs spill onto streets – another embedded global village. While people are a little thin on the ground tonight, this late-June evening (just beginning to show the mottlings of dusk) is suffused with an easy warmth. Later in the evening, Liam Singer will chuckle from behind his keyboard and gift the neighbourhood with a more welcome tag than it’s had in years. “It’s like Brooklyn, but if everyone was really friendly.”

Lampshading.

Lampshading.

Sitting on the border of Clapton and Homerton, The Dentist is nothing if not hopeful. A former drop-in surgery a little north of the hospital, it’s a genial wreck of a building. Crumbled, scarified and grime-smeared, it stands like a worn, chewed tooth in a shopping parade halfway between old London main drag and international souk. An enterprising guy called Phil calls the upstairs home, while using the downstairs for pop-up gigs, shoestring theatre, and scratch-and-strike art gallery exhibits. The back garden is full of splintered wood and earth hummocks, plus a makeshift tabletop bar. The wine is rolled up from the cellar via a scary ravine. The whole place thrums with friendliness.

Inside, crowded into the front room and sharing its atmosphere of ravage and reclaim, we’re part of a show. In a place this small, within breathing or patting range of the musicians, it’s hard not to feel that way. Behind the players, the curving plate-glass façade of the old shopfront runs across and around: over their shoulders, we look out at the street life. It looks right back at us, sometimes with suspicious flicks of the eyes (a man in a shalwar kameez, hurrying past to the makeshift mosque next door), sometimes with a bemused acceptance (a local geezer ambling along to the chippy) and sometimes with outright delight (younger locals on a stroll, pointing and celebrating on their way to and from the Hackney bars further into town).

Sealionwoman - Tye and Kitty as the daylight fades.

Sealionwoman – Tye and Kitty as the daylight fades.

To them, this must look like a gig in a bottle – the audience in full view, the musicians upfront but backs turned, the music bleeding out in faint enticing vapours. Speaking of which… cue musicians.

Tye McGivern slumps over a double bass, plucking, bowing and sometimes wrenching his notes: a man with strong, thoughtful butchers hands and the face of a weary rabbi. To his right, Kitty Whitelaw sways barefoot – grubby toes, blue nails, a jazz pulse, a little black dress and a feel for the taut sinews of a song. There’s no-one else. About five years ago Tye and Kitty were two-thirds of Kitty & The Drowning Bag, were a lot noisier, and had a drummer. For the couple of years that they’ve been Sealionwoman they’ve been drummer-less and bring their own extra noise in their pockets.

Sealionwoman deal in blurred versions of jazz and torch, and they’re perfectly suited to the smear of dusk that’s coming on as they begin to play. As influences, they’ll cite the crepuscular – Nick Cave and Morphine – but also cite the vivid, iconoclastic enactments and reinterpretations of jazz songs as carried off by Mina Agossi. There’s something in that. While they deal with plenty of old jazz standards – passed from hand to hand, worn smooth like wooden heirlooms – Sealionwoman share a trace of that Agossi rebellion against jazz performance manners and form, preferring to draw out song essence and perhaps a thread of history along with it.

Sealionwoman - Kitty Whitelaw possesses another standard.

Sealionwoman – Kitty Whitelaw possesses another standard.

However, what I’m hearing is something which shades Peggy Lee with Patti Smith. It’s partially that everything they do sounds a little bit like Fever – songs carried entirely and by necessity on the honk, creak and slide of Tye’s bass and the teasing dance-around of Kitty’s voice. It’s partly the lazily assured flutter of Kitty’s demeanour, and the way that it can quickly shift and escalate to an incantatory yell.

What they do has little to do with straightforward theatrics, and still less to do with diva drama. In his hands and on her lips, the songs turn as wayward as blown smoke: dip in and out of ritual; become stretched-out, yammering versions of themselves; go from breezy cool to swimming, waking dream. Sometimes Tye leans over to prod at a laptop or a fuzz pedal, furring up those woody bass notes to turn them into air-horns, or a sweep across concrete. Sometimes he drums with a pair of brushes on boxes and chairs. At other times his hands drum vigorously on the wood of the bass, booming out ritual and conversation, a vigorous and physical lover teetering on the border of tenderness and violence. Kitty sways, stands on tiptoe; brushes against the songs as if stretching for a passing kiss. Her voice folds around the melody line and uses it as a jumping off point, springing into the air, hanging, returning. Every so often a familiar tune and lyric slides through the circling murk. I spot Night And Day.

Mostly, though, it’s all about mood. Strangely blissful, narcoleptic – although by the end of the set and the dip of the late sunset they’ve risen in a slow heat, culminating in a Dionysiac frenzy of bass-drumming and banshee wails. It’s probably enough to put the wind up the Muslim congregation next door, praying their way through Asr. If they’re as Hackneyfied as everyone else around here, though, they’ll just shrug it off.

Foxout! 's Daniel Merrill, bowing against the dusk.

Foxout! ‘s Daniel Merrill, bowing against the dusk.

The gloaming has well and truly arrived as Foxout! settle down and begin. Perched opposite each other on a couple of stools, Daniel Merrill and Jeremy Young hunch over a network of effects pedals and rummage through what looks like a box of yellowed prehistoric teeth: these they mouth and mumble, blowing into a microphone to build up a warm, rambling noisescape of notes, feedback and harmonic buzz before they even pick up an instrument.

In fact, the teeth are reed tubes gutted from an old harmonium. Foxout! enjoy rejigging bits and pieces of antique musicality, and they’re extraordinarily good at it. Some more history might be useful, before we go any further. Essex-raised but with feet made for journeying, Daniel is the fiddler in Dead Rat Orchestra. Despite his youthful looks, he already has a decade of improvised folk music behind him, plus tours all over the globe (some of which were in the company of Godspeed You! Black Emperor (from whom he may have filched Foxout!’s abrupt exclamation mark). Another young veteran, Jeremy’s from Brooklyn music – he once played bleakly beautiful post-Godspeed chamber music with [the] slowest runner [in all the world] and limpid post-rock atmospherics with Sontag Shogun before moving on to solo experimental tonescapes and spoken word as szilárd. Both men wander; both men curate the work of others. Both men mingle.

Foxout! - Jeremy Young.

Foxout! – Jeremy Young.

Right now, both men are studying here in London. As their orbits have converged, Foxout! has emerged – immersed in the tributaries of Celtic folk but flowing through some crafty filters as it contributes to the journey. Certainly the prime stamp and weft of the music is Celtic – reels and pibrochs; plangent, sad melodies. Yet it’s Celtic music folded back over itself, cross-cut with experimental sounds and processing, and by strands of improvisation from elsewhere.

Daniel is one of those musicians who looks extraordinarily sad while he plays. Concentration renders his long, bearded face into a subtle mask of tragedy until you expect lock-gates to burst and for three hundred years of folk laments to come pouring out of him. His fiddle is the main melodic phrasing voice, with Jeremy’s acoustic guitar serving as a taut, bounding dodging rhythm source. Jeremy himself is constantly watchful and supportive, his eyes fixed on Daniel, holding up his partner’s passionate forays.

Speaker.

Speaker.

What emerges is remarkable, not least for the way in which it shape-shifts between different disciplines, experiments and sound-art tricks with neither seam nor strain. At times Foxout! broil with a heated minimalism or take on a grain of compulsive, systematic Futurist patterning. At others, a flexing bough or current of history catches at them and pulls them back to direct expression. One piece is a sensitive plucked-and-bowed air-ballad played (for half its length), over the sound of a draining straw, but with neither bathos nor disruption. Strips of noise sometimes bluster through the wood and strings, like another conversation passing through. Another gorgeous ballad tune sounds as if it could have be minted yesterday, simultaneously fresh and ancient. In the latter, there’s a moment of perfect meshing as Daniel and Jeremy briefly sweep into lockstep, rolling out a near-telepathic unison of notes before dancing away from each other again.

Night begins to settle in properly. Shades of indigo, of dulled London brick and of gaudy shop-front neon sift in through the window. The Dentist’s front room starts to take on something of the air of an Irish lock-in – nothing rowdy, but with the same sense of deep involvement in the music. As Daniel announces “a new ditty”, a couple of guests step up. Usually, Laura Moody’s a mischievous classical renegade or an acrobatic singer-songwriter when she’s not a fizzing cocktail of both. Right now, though, she and her cello are demure and thoughtful – the sober and quiet accompanist providing deep, cloudy strings while Liam Singer (just a few minutes away from his headlining set), sits in to sing.

Foxout! - strings against the dying light.

Foxout! – strings against the dying light.

The song all four share with us in semi-darkness- which may or may not be called As The Wind Turns Away – is a perfect closer. Sombre and gripping, there may not be too much too it (certainly Liam’s softly yearning tenor seem to be making much with fragmentary, cycling sentences) but they make a virtue of that.The song builds softly and inexorably with the dying of the light: a folky threnody for something a little out of focus, something over your shoulder, waiting to be picked up on. Listening to Foxout! gives you the dreamy and welcome impression that if you didn’t have roots before, you’re growing some now.

Liam Singer - songs against the sirens.

Liam Singer – songs against the sirens.

Sat behind a borrowed piano, and minus the sophisticated ornamentations that colour his chamber pop and detailed modern-classical minatures on record (those strings, mandolins and marimbas; those sundry twists and shifts of sound), Liam Singer runs his own set on a shoestring, and runs it well. As the delicate instrumental fantasia of On Earth A Wandering Stranger Was I Born unspools itself, it’s tenebrous but increasingly shot with hopeful illumination. While Liam performs, police cars occasionally sail up Chatworth Road in search of trouble, passing behind him in a quick welter of blue-and-red lights and siren-wail. They rock his soft resilient bubble of song, but don’t burst it.

Easygoing and enthusiastic in person, Liam ripples his own depths when he sits down to sing. Even when stripped down to piano-and-voice, his songs grow their own bosky Edenic atmosphere, filling out his excursions into classical minimalism with deeper shadings. I’ve noticed, previously, how he dips into American antiquity and draws it up up like well-water. His high, open tenor brings freshness and a glow of innocence, but older things lie in wait in the shade to snatch that away. At times, Liam’s like a young scholar running assured, fascinated fingers over the scuffed and scraped covers of ancient leather-bound books; but when the mood deepens and takes him, he sings like the man who’s been spat back out of the faery mound – fully aware and alive, but displaced, crucially out-of-joint with his times.

Still life at The Dentist - mixing desk, lollipops and scarification.

Still life at The Dentist – mixing desk, lollipops and scarification.

This is not just down to the tinge of Edwardian parlour song within Liam’s work, nor yet the occasional antiquarian “thou” or “thee” in his lyrics. There’s a mildly febrile quality to his songwriting, a flicker of Blakeian hallucination to add to the forays into classical piano and the Tennyson tint of mediaeval inflections. His song world is notable for its permeability – the mythic or the supernatural soak through into it, adding piquancy to his sharply edged portraits of involvement and solitude. On The Brief Encounter, Liam can bump into swarms of gentle slacker ghosts, massing there to comfort him as he heads up the coastal road. In the middle of Oh Endless Storm he can cite a rock-chained Andromeda, looming spectrally above him and disdaining rescue as he veers towards a break-up.

Liam immerses himself in the story-swirls, homing in on the core as he sings, “Love is a wind, rips through our hearts, that takes control / We long for a language to lose ourselves, / or for a way to let go.” Later on – as his piano notes spiral in a stately, panicking dance on One Breath Out – he’ll clutch after disappearing chances. “Never could I know as each one passed, / that the last would be the last… / Just one breath out and the world grows colder; / fight the war, but not the soldier. / And one hand moves to protect the other now – / but we’re falling anyhow.” Yet none of this is mawkish or precious – in between songs, Liam is relaxed, gently self-mocking and friendly. Two songs played with Laura Moody on cello (a snatched opportunity before she catches the train back to West London) become affectionate tickles and tussles, ranging from childlike warmth to a rousing gamelan jig.

Liam Singer

Liam Singer

Even his solo piano miniatures, potentially an excuse for indulgence, carefully balance their romantic invention with a pucker of thoughtful modesty. The Dance of Cupid and Psyche pays subtle passing visits to Chopin, Satie and Air On The G-String, flushing its economy with a dash of vigour. On Hannah’s Dance (a lone flash from his decade-old debut, ‘The Empty Heart Of The Chameleon’) Liam displays a Tori Amos drive and fluidity but rounds it off within a single minute. The sweet cascading single, Stranger I Know, slips out of its crafty Shaker-gamelan arrangement and breathes easier, now less of a revelation than a relaxed celebration: “suckers, speeches, they can keep ’em all.”

In one week’s time, Liam’s new album – ‘Arc Iris‘ – is released, yet already he’s moving on from it. Half of the set is songs so new that they’re not on any record, and at least one of them – Three Songs – is fresh out of the notebook. “I’ll fuck it up tastefully,” promises Liam, shuffling his sheet music into place.

What emerges suggests that the drift away from Liam’s earlier experimentalism into fully-fledged romance (as promised by much of ‘Arc Iris’) is accelerating. Here is a beautiful but unnerving love-song, holding strong on the edge of wreck; swimming with gas-masks and cruelty and an unsettling Saint Sebastian gasp. “Someday I’ll see you sideways, / your pretty words are opening like arrows in the middle of my chest / ’til petals fall from my mouth / and I, I gasp for air / ‘cos something inside is pressurized… / When you feel it, you will know / that I was not crazy when I had to let it go.” Running through the words are hints of fairytale transmogrifications; always restlessness. Liam’s heading east after this concert, travelling over to play more gigs in France and Belgium. In another new song, with a vocal line like a perilous descent down crags and scree, he muses “from one skin to another we slide endlessly.” Perhaps he’d like to keep wandering on, heading to the edge of the world.

Ceiling.

Ceiling.

Sitting beside the mixing desk is a jar of lollipops. By now, the contents are making the rounds among the audience and consequently Liam’s playing is being punctuated by furtive, respectful cellophane rustles, which he takes in good heart. Someone else is passing around a copy of ‘Paradise Lost’, which seems more appropriate, as the prowling monsters name-checked back in Oh Endless Storm are resurfacing in Love Me Today (“”There are dark things in the earth / soon they’ll be twisted / up for air /… as the ground gives way.”) Maybe I’m a being little suggestible, but it seems to me that there are also shadings of the twenty-first century ghosts which haunt Liam’s adopted hometown of New York. For over a decade the city’s romantic signifiers, once brash and confident, have been haunted by the shock of sudden and brutal dissolution. While Liam’s not one for hammer-blow songcraft, much of what he sings enfolds an onset of loss, from the counting to (ominously) the banking aircraft. “In the shadow of the moon, as our planes spin away / You know my eyes may tell you lies, but love me today.”

Under the cheerful coloured bulbs strung across The Dentist’s battered ceiling, he offers us a last dance. This’ll be to Unhand Me (You Horrid Thing), from ‘Arc Iris’, a brief, deliciously rueful song which sketches out the mixture of hope, awkward embarrassment and careful blundering steps that make up an ordinary, flakey relationship – prickles and all. “They’re playing our favourite song, the one that makes us both dance for a dare / ’til our feet turn to air / and our hands come apart, / as the guitar solo starts. / And that is the part / that breaks my heart.” It’s a different, generous note to end on, for a gig that’s felt like a cosy but inspiring house party. As I say my goodbyes and slip out of The Dentist, it looks as if the party will be going on for a while longer. Not only sound carries. Warmth does, too.

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May 2013 – live reviews – Chaos Theory presents ‘Jazz Market’ @ The Luxe, Spitalfields, London, 29th May 2013 (featuring A Sweet Niche, Macchina del Tempo, What?! – with guests Yasmyn Hendrix, Moo Clef, Chloe Herington) (“tunes and stutters and babels”)

30 May

Walking into the Luxe, I feel even shabbier than usual. I fear those spotless white napkins and wooden counters; I look sidelong at the pricey menu; I sidle off to the side door as soon as possible. Like most of the rest of Spitalfields, this place has gone upmarket and left me behind. Until about a decade ago, it was the Spitz – another restaurant, another bar, another venue. Much loved, and more boho-genteel: I’d come here for electronica, for rock of the post- and mathy variety, and for the occasional off-centre songwriter.

Occasionally I’d come for jazz – something which, as a language, still sits oddly in London’s mouth. It’s not that the city spurns jazz – enough London musicians, venues and festivals give the lie to that. But I feel that sometime it seems a little deracinated here, even in a town where more recent arrivals like reggae and salsa now seem like part of tradition. Supper jazz might be healthy, foyer spaces still welcoming, but outside of grants or outright corporate sponsorship, it’s mostly a tribute to the tenacity and dedication of London’s jazzers that the music keeps its personal, inventive foothold here. The old Spitz was a place which welcomed jazz in plenty of its diverse strands and split-tongued digressions. When you were at a Spitz jazz event, you could feel the music striving, feel its life; and when all of that ended London jazz was diminished.

This picture’s a little too gloomy. There were – and are – other venues, and for those who still want it, the displaced spirit of the Spitz lives on elsewhere as a jazz collective. But it’s heartening that Chaos Theory Promotions (that mobile feast of wide-spanning musical interest, springing from place to place across London) seem to be paying a little homage to old times when they drop their Jazz Market night into the Luxe. Some things stay changed, sadly. I’ve not been here in years, but in Spitz days the music owned the top floor (and a Shoreditch panorama, such as it was). Now it’s down in the basement bar, sharing with the comedy and competing with the toilets: sidelined. Never mind. The Chaos brokers themselves are brimful of enthusiasm, and three jazz trios have come to chat.

What?! sway and chop through something (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

What?! sway and chop through something (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

If jazz is a language, What?! keep it as handfuls of sentences plunged into a deep baggy pocket, mixed up with anything else they’ve found during the week. Everything in the pocket is regularly hauled up for inspection, to be chucked and scattered casually across a table, just to see how it will fall. The boys certainly aren’t purists, although their taste for locating comfortable licks and riffs in whichever genre they’re toying with does keep you guessing as to how much of what they do is serious. In keeping with this, they’re acting as class clowns tonight. In fetching scarlet dressing-gown and shades, his white-man dreads spilling from a Rasta cap, guitarist Niels Bakx is part-Trustafarian and part-trannie. Bass guitarist Ago Collura, his back turned to the audience, is Reverse Man – a white mask strapped to the back of his head beneath his Tyrolean stovepipe hat, a collar and tie sprouting from the nape of his neck. Having apparently lost a bet, sparky drummer Raphael Lanthaler performs stripped to the waist and down to his underpants (though he’s been allowed to keep his hatful of bright rainbow-dyed feathers as well as his delighted grin).

On record, What?! strut and step like a cool-jazz function band about to be warmed-up and overcome by a sly sense of mischief. Both of their recent singles make a showing tonight – the Brubeck reggae of Tikka Masala (now with extra curlicues from Ago’s bass and curves of wah on the rhythm guitar); a spiked-up, rockier version of Schwaffelen, passing a swaying cats-cradle of jazz and ska touches over and over the tune. This kind of music is what they’re most at home with. It’s not, however, what they’re most drawn to doing. What?! like to stray – prancing into diced-up, chequered rock patterns dominated by the thwack of Raphael’s tom; laying out a sun-stroked Caribbean hiccup for a minute; or suddenly picking up and pelting through some driving motorbike music. Still very young (at an age where anything and everything can be hysterically funny), and still drunk on the musical options that surround them as busy session players and broad listeners, What?! can certainly groove: but they won’t settle.

What?! - unexpectedly naked drummer... (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

What?! – unexpectedly naked drummer… (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

It’s unclear how many of the band’s disruptions, false halts and oblique quotes are written rather than improvised, but their sense of fun constantly overpowers their artfulness, and every so often their humour dips towards novelty territory. When they slip into a quick strum through Happy Birthday for a friend, it’s warm but a touch too crowd-pleasing. I doubt that What?! wouldn’t care if anyone told them that. An easy-going and sociable band, they’ve invited buddies up to play and clearly thrive on it.

Like a dayglo Tom Waits in his checkered-tablecloth bowler and green tints, the jazz-prankster Moo Clef sits in for a couple of songs. One he plays straight, blowing a fiesta trumpet over a reggae section, fluent and cool-fired. For the other, he adds various sung, rapped and chanted interjections that he tweaks and filters into cartoon oddities via effects pedals. At one point, a chipmunk-voiced cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit takes over, the band smoothly slipping into light-touch Nirvana riffage. The joke wobbles somewhere between Battles and Zappa: disarming romp, or sarcastic cheese. (Or lounge act. Ha.)

It’s a different story when Yasmyn Hendrix and her flower-child headscarf step up to front the trio for Stay With Me. Usually she’s found in unlikely venues, crafting herself castles out of her own vocal loops. Here she plays it straight and soulful, her light but bluesy vocals lounging and skittering over What?!’s skein of tango-funk and Come Together dub-shimmer. For a while, the band sit back and enjoy playing as accompanists. For a while, they stay rooted. They’re good at it. Those quick-cut style shifts and the metafoolery are just part of their choices, not their only option.

Still, in between clear individual pieces the band improvise loosely, and as much with genre as with anything else. They’ll roll out a strolling lunar echo (Raphael sighing and gusting on the drums with near-silent brushstrokes while Niels caresses out wide chords), or crawl through a fragmented, broken-backed jazz ballad that they’ve deconstructed to the point of disintegration. Once they spit out a talking-blues bossa (with Niels on vivid slide guitar), only to refit it midway and produce a tumbling complex skeleton of arpeggiated notes, traveling from Elmore James to Gilberto to Robert Fripp’s League of Gentlemen in a matter of minutes. Towards the end, they throw in a grunge-rock climb complete with punk screaming. Raphael (tonight’s head joker) continually tosses in triggers: false stops and starts, or stalking who-blinks-first contests with Ago.

Again, how much of this is quick coin whipped out of a trick-bag is unclear. What is clear is What?!’s breadth of reference, be it a midsection of shoegazing-summer guitar-echo, a little reggae chip or a mass-less bridging passage of math-rock brewing like a disappearing wreath of mercury fumes. Sometimes their work is a puzzle; sometimes it’s cut-and-shunt. Sometimes, though, it seems as if they’ve scattered themselves out a bit too far, becoming a set of waggling jazz-hands where they should be a breathing, scatting jazz lung. They could do with a little time to breathe in and rethink, maybe.

On first sighting, Macchina del Tempo are raw-boned, hard-faced men. They look like the kind of band that shows up at remote and friendless small-town gigs, purely to prey on other bands. You could imagine them cornering some other, more hapless group in order to swipe and swig their beer in front of them, shake them down for their gig money and then steal their van, all without cracking those stony expressions.

Stocky guitarist Walter Fazio, glowering above his inverted Slayer goatee, looks particularly fearsome, purposeful and frowning – the kind of man who’d grunt one word and unleash hell. Then you see him play. As he smiles, broad and unguarded, while one of his liquid runs of notes hits the spot, then you understand what Macchina del Tempo are really about. Jazz Market regulars, this fusion trio made common cause a few years ago. Two Brits and an Italian, forged in and scarred by the grim working heat of innumerable cover bands, they made a leap to somewhere they could flower.

Macchina del Tempo heading towards fusion temperature (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Macchina del Tempo heading towards fusion temperature (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

What Macchina del Tempo provide tonight is a strong contrast to What?!’s permanent state of playful. Effortlessly inventive but tightly-drilled, they roll out four long and muscular pieces of driving jazz-rock ,each with a gritty core which suggests that there might be something to that initial hard-man appearance. If you’re imagining the kind of shrill sterile tech-wank that afflicted jazz-fusion when it gulped down the wrong bits of synthpop and heavy metal at the end of the ‘70s, think again – and think further back. There’s certainly plenty of rock in here, but from the organic end, in which sweat and texture add body and warmth as well as disrupting any shop-fresh sheen.

Certainly Macchina are as much Motorhead as they are Mahavishnu or Metheny (and, given the choice, they appear to be more Rush than Yellowjackets). One of their offerings blends a long-throw fusion funk with creamy jazz metal, a tight seethe of musicality with a laddering, gibbon swing to it. Another starts as a swinging Jimmy Page-meets-Sonny Sharrock hydra – tremendously fluent, ribbed with dissonant slashes but full of tight prog-rock pounces of unison guitar and bass, with a strong rumbling taste of Ace Of Spades (and a final united scurry like La Villa Strangiato).

However, Walter’s persistently inventive guitar playing ensures that the band’s music never boils dry. There might be a bit of Hendrix in his floating horn-wail of lead line, continually playing a push, stroke’n’stretch game with its envelope. There’s probably a pinch of Allan Holdsworth ripple, some dirty Mike Stern blues or Foley McCrearey whumph, an occasional trilling coil of fretboard tapping… whatever there is, it’s subsumed into Walter’s own voice. For the forty minutes he’s onstage, he’s playing almost continually and never once puts a foot wrong. For the full set, he wraps you in the ins and outs of his conversation, his pauses for thought, his gently brooding reflections, frowns and unspoken implications. Guitarists this compelling and fertile are rare – and they’re a pleasure to encounter.

Macchina del Tempo - Jamie McKenzie nails a scale (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Macchina del Tempo – Jamie McKenzie nails a scale (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

From the start, it’s also been clear that Macchina have an utter mastery of the flexible groove. While drummer Mick Claridge can certainly swing, it’s only part of his vocabulary as the band drive and chivvy through their smooth shifts of time and tempo. On bass guitar, Jamie McKenzie plays neither the great soloist nor the staid, conservative backliner. Instead he firmly unzips the chords in all their glory, then fingers his way around and across the scales in a continous springy roam. A dextrous fretted fingerstylist, he knows where every note needs to go. His playing creates a webbing of involved, swung-baroque bass-line, over which Walter’s guitar can flicker like a sly chameleon whenever it needs to. Mick subtly supports the arc; swirls under it, drums cruising and lifting like a river-rise.

A prolix music blogger lurks in the shadows... (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A prolix music blogger lurks in the shadows… (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)


They’re certainly making an impact – around me, bodies rapidly lose their reluctance, peeling up from the Luxe’s dark faux-leather sofas to sway and wave to the Macchina percolations. A third piece, though it starts with a crabby rock sidle strangely similar to You Really Got Me, soon turns into electric-chicken jazz funk. Mick slides greasy rhythms from hand to hand even as he pins the piece to the floor, a human nail-gun. For the last in their foursome of amplified groove, the band’s funk turns a little Mahavishnu: full of tensing stops, bullish balance and hot scraps sliding unregarding from that smouldering guitar. Even now, deep into their set, the three Macchina men seem transformed by their playing. Seeing those tough faces softened and gentled into something resembling reverence – it does the heart good.

What?! have the playful end of things covered tonight. Macchina del Tempo have so convincingly laid claim to solidity and substance that they’d be tough to follow with something similar. It falls to A Sweet Niche, then, to stagger splay-armed along the edge; to rake their nails down the rough wall of art and shout the appropriate odds.

A Sweet Niche drive forward (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche drive forward (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Ben Handysides drums with dainty motions but powerful strikes. He looks like a handsome public-school rugger star who’s thinking about becoming a poet; he can play jazz, folk, progressive rock, kletzmer and sundry permutations of all of those and more. This makes him a shoo-in for A Sweet Niche when they play live. While they’ve already got an established drummer for composing and recording, he lives, rather disobligingly, far off in Cornwall (where he can presumably maintain the freshness required for their studio sessions). Everyone else in the band besides Ben seems to have intense sidelines in film, or theatre, or the spiky world of contemporary classical. Perhaps this explains the open-marriage, flyaway feel of the band; and why Ben currently seems like a blond bridge linking the two remaining poles of A Sweet Niche together.

A Sweet Niche - Oliver Sellwood's baritone lecture (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche – Oliver Sellwood’s baritone lecture (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

One of these two poles is Oliver Sellwood, on baritone sax. He’s a fluid rippling player (with plenty of bassy skronk in him whenever he needs it) and he’s as well turned out as his playing: neat haircut, neat glasses, unflappable demeanour. He can blow like a demon, but he delivers these storms coolly and professorial, as if chatting from a podium. The other pole is on the other side of Ben and looks as if he’ll rattle himself to bits at any moment. In his agony-scarlet sweat top, Keir Cooper is spindly and driven; bristle-bearded, and playing a guitar as if someone will nail him to it at set’s end. Everything about him screams “art lifer”. He’s the filmmaker. He probably sleeps once or twice every five years, if someone else talks him into it.

A Sweet Niche cast off with a clutch of snaking instrumental wiggles. Oliver’s baritone sax tattoo soon settles into a blaring drone, around which Ben casts up a ticking construction set before the band blaze up into distortion. Keir is clearly going to be the splinter in the jam – his face crumples into walnut creases as he drives shattered howls out of his guitar. Ben looks loose in comparison, his drumsticks dangling like plucked lilies. Oliver disregards them both, ripping off a sax solo as if he was wrenching a seam from a jacket: it’s a little Arabian in tone, a reproving and arrogant ripple of grace above the chaos, of which there’s plenty more to come.

A Sweet Niche - Keir Cooper, about to bounce off another wall (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche – Keir Cooper, about to bounce off another wall (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Their second salvo, Eye Music II is crash noise from the off. Their third begins as a kind of minimalist ska, then becomes Yaketty-Yak re-imagined for math-rockers. After Ben delivers a burst of horse-clopping rimshots, they break for another swirl of Arabian saxophone, heavy on the romance, before heading back towards the ska armed with hammer-swipes of noise. To top it off, the coda is a lullaby pop tune.

As a band – or, perhaps, as a spasm – A Sweet Niche seem to crouch somewhere between John Zorn (in his more impish Naked City moods) and the wracked, Maoist judders of English free jazz. Moments where a passage of brittle swing mutates into a kind of thrash samba could be put down to dark humour, but it’s difficult to calculate the shape of the band’s intent when a cheerful passage of saxophone sleaze is overtaken by screeching guitar alarm and then a taut, distant game of musical tag as Keir and Oliver dot each other with single notes and with silence.

It’s tricky to pin down whether what they do is political, or disruptive for its own sake, or just a natural expression of brain hiccups; or whether all of these options are equally valued or dismissed. Besides their wary body language – which could be a deceptive feint anyway – they give little away personally. There are no arcane jokes at the microphone, and few wacky titles (although the choppy ta-ta-ta and carousel echos of Bananagirl inspire even more confusion, as if Bagpuss had joined Slayer).

A Sweet Niche - Keir Cooper plays another agonizing chord (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche – Keir Cooper plays another agonizing chord (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Ultimately A Sweet Niche’s aim seems to be to blow their education out of their minds, like a bolus of brain-snot. Chunks of structure regularly whiz past our ears (Oliver, in particular, has a knack for hurling fervent and compressed musical dialogue) while Keir is ceaseless in shaking off his thoughts as an urgent, committed racket. At one point, following a particularly intense bit of guitar wringing, he blinks with astonishment. For a few seconds, he looks relieved, with a surprised smile and the hint of shy laughter fluttering round his chops, and a “where did that come from?” shrug lifting his arms. As they head towards the end of their set, though, their disruptive peace-destroying turns into a dotted bounce. Bit by bit, they’re turning to a dance even if at the next song they’ll be trying to squash us against the wall with ripped slices of metallic thrash-hop.

They end with a thunderous, purging blast through Duodecimal. Then, bizarrely, they’re back for an encore, augmented by Chloe Herington (the unflappable reedswoman from Chrome Hoof, VALVE and Knifeworld) who suddenly pops up to moonlight and to add a new factor to the band’s unruly chemistry. There’s plenty of muttering, subtle stares and subliminal eyebrow gestures before they get started. It’s unclear whether they’re cueing each other, playing chicken or attempting some kind of disguised wink-murder.

A Sweet Niche with a pensive Chloe Herington (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

A Sweet Niche with a pensive Chloe Herington (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Just as I’m losing interest, they reel out a tremendous length of jazz-thrash-turned-sludge-metal. Her alto sax hovering, Chloe stays silent for most of it before jerking into place right at the pell-mell coda. She blows ten or fifteen seconds of twisting Coltrane overblowing over the roar, and then everything crashes to a halt. The night’s over, and so is A Sweet Niche’s psychological shell game. The strains and strange focusses slough away like last month’s bandages: with the instruments down, they’re suddenly warm with each other.

Chloe Herington waits for a cue which only she knows about (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Chloe Herington waits for a cue which only she knows about (photo by Magda Wrzeszcz @ http://magdawrzeszcz.com)

Ten minutes later, sleepy and stumbling, I’m making my way south-west of Spitalfields and I’m ever so slightly lost. Trying to find the tube, I’m wandering past the cluster of City skyscrapers by Bishopsgate – pushy assertions, half-formed nubbins and works-in-progress, garlanded by lights: and the finished statements, shoved heavenwards. Appropriate really.

Around my midnight bleariness (and as I’m passing the arrested concrete stump of the Pinnacle building, humiliated and frozen by market forces) I’m thinking dimly about language again, about tunes and stutters and babels and temporary silences. I don’t come to a conclusion, but as the last echoes of the gig swirl away in my mind I’m feeling glad that this part of town’s got some of its more unusual dialogues back.

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November 2011 – live reviews – RoastFest music festival @ The Unicorn, Camden Road, London, 12th November (featuring Arch Garrison, Matt Stevens, Stars in Battledress, Redbus Noface, Thumpermonkey, William D. Drake, Knifeworld, Sanguine Hum, Admirals Hard) (“trailing bright scraps of music”)

18 Nov

It’s a bit like coming home. My first venture out into gigworld for a while, and I’m walking into a rough-looking rock pub out on the elbow of Tufnell Park. Not so many years ago, the Unicorn was a genuine trouble dive in the industrial frownage north of Kings Cross – just a spit away from the troubled estates around Caledonian Park. Reinventing itself as a part-time heavy metal venue a few years ago turned out to be its salvation. Now it’s been turned around to become a friendly local. The only blood’n’guts making an appearance is on the death-metal flyers by the door.

Today The Unicorn is packed out with a warm crowd of allsorts-people whom you could never easily pin down as a clear scene. Arcane T-shirts stretch around comfy bodies; hairstyles range from metallic red to casually balding, The people here are as likely to be agricultural workers or car-hire operators as hipsters or metalheads, and they’re almost as likely to have flown in from Italy or Poland as have driven or walked in from Worcester or Camden Town. In between acts, the PA spits out recordings as diverse and potentially divisive as John Adams, The Melvins, King Crimson or early ’90s agit-samplers Disco Inferno. Nobody seems in the least bit disorientated, nor do they pester the DJ for Kasabian. In any stylistic sense, confusion reigns. In an emotional sense there’s the warm, scruffy feeling of a tribe who coalesce only occasionally, but always feel very much at home when they do so.

I’ve been here before. This is the Cardiacs flavour. Although Cardiacs as a band are now several years gone-to-ground, as a culture their rampaging jigsaw of unorthodox sensibilities and connections survives – even thrives – through a network of enthusiasts and musical heirs. Uber-fan and hitchhiking hero Adrian Bell is bouncing around the Unicorn swapping stories, spilling his beer and enthusiastically flogging his Cardiacs book. Snooker star-turned-prog champion Steve Davis is here, proving once again that his enthusiasm stretches much further than simply supporting ’70s legends over at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. That silver-tongued James-Bond figure also doing the rounds (plugging a dedicated Cardiacs disco at “battle volume” for next January) turns out to be Dominic Luckman: he’s evidently taken plenty of lessons in suave since his gurning, flour-covered years behind the Cardiacs drumkit. Other former Cardiacs will be performing in various permutations throughout the day: although to be honest this is less to do with tributes or fan-service than it is to do with the tendency of certain musicalities to continue beyond the brand name.

The whole kit and caboodle of Roast Fest itself has been put together by Kavus Torabi. Recently a Cardiac (and before that, in The Monsoon Bassoon) he’s currently heading up both his own band – Knifeworld – and the Believers Roast label that’s hosting the event. This also means that he’s today’s overburdened one-man juggling act. When I first catch sight of him, he’s boggle-eyed with worry, stapling a merchandise board together and hoping that everything will stay together. A self-styled (or self-slandered) psychedelic flake, Kavus seems to half-expect chaos round the corner and for all of this to come tumbling down around his ears. As ever, he’s doing himself down. While he’s relatively new to the full weight of carrying a cottage industry (let alone two, plus the bottled randomness of a mini-festival), his instincts are true and his audience sound. This feels as if it’s going to go well.

It also starts quietly as Craig Fortnam makes his first appearance of the day in Arch Garrison, a solo project which has a tendency to flit between one man-band and acoustic trio. On this occasion it’s a duo, with Craig joined by James Larcombe (today’s man-of-many-bands) on a variety of reedy little keyboards. Initially their sound is ornate and a little introverted, with James drawing angular pipelines of awkward tune across the artful spinning cogs and involved strums of Craig’s acoustic guitar. Together they build up a succession of gangling, summery blueprints; intricate and skeletal folk-baroque miniatures which scroll across time and pitch like attenuated Heath Robinson gizmos.

Some of the wedding-cake decorativeness of Craig’s main project (the retrofitted chamber ensemble North Sea Radio Orchestra) is present and correct, as is a taste of the baroque side of Michael Nyman. Yet Arch Garrison is less formal than either of these, and although seemingly delicate and fey to the point of flimsiness, the music is actually underlaid by an assured, precise musicality. Craig’s acoustic guitar-playing, in particular, is tremendously strong: part Renaissance lutenist, part gutsy Nick Drake fingerpickery, and part atomic clock. Sometimes he also sings – in an easy and distracted murmur, as if daydreaming in his front room.

In spite of this air of detachment (and with the help of an audience that’s warm and receptive from the start), musicians and crowd move closer together as the set progresses, and as the songs take on life from their elegantly quilled and tapestried beginnings and shamble out into the room. Arch Garrison’s music clambers off the Unicorn’s shabby stage like a hung-over peacock emerging from a cardboard box – bedraggled but with flashes of finery. Wreathed in compassion and energetic flourishes, a sweet-natured, gently chiding call to art and arms called Six Feet Under Yeah comes across especially well. Borderline precious they may be, but by the end of the set this band’s earned the kind of affection you’d give to a battered family heirloom.

I’ve heard plenty of loop musicians in my time. Once you’ve seen one they’re like gateway drugs to hundreds of others. (I’m sorry – I’ve battled my addiction for years, but it keeps coming back…) Most of them are sit-down sound brewers: reserved in aspect, slowly adding detail to their patterns, absorbed in their banks of effects pedals.

Matt Stevens cooking up a loopstorm, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Matt Stevens cooking up a loopstorm, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Matt Stevens isn’t like that. A hulking figure – wild of hair and beard and with the imposing build of a rugby forward – he’s also afire with nervous energy, hailing his audience with a delighted sportsman’s roar. As regards potential gear-fiddling, he looks more likely to hurl himself onto his pedals and roll across the stage, wrestling with lashing cables and flying components, rather than indulge in prissy fondling. In the event, he settles for stabbing owlishly at his pedalboard as he hacks into his set with furious enthusiasm, attacking a battered acoustic guitar with the energy of a born-again busker.

Even if Matt is an extroverted bear in a loopers’ community of aloofness, he’s still obliged to spend some onstage time engrossed in loop-science. This he does both with earnestness and the air of a smouldering volcano. Bashing aggressively-strummed chords into the loop in order to build up his layered compositions, he crams in his extra details later, subverting his acoustic noises with wah-wah or strange compressions which bring out new instrumental parts like falls of slate or torn hunks of burnished copper. Throughout, a powerful rhythmic momentum is key (whether it’s expressed via out-and-out rockiness, a stuttered systemic pulse or a slither of percussive noise) as is Matt’s total involvement in what he’s doing. If he couldn’t squeeze the next loop idea out, you feel that he’d burst. His joy when things fall into place is palpable.

That said, Matt’s seasoned enough not to dissolve into petulance when things don’t go right. There’s not an error that can’t be turned into an opportunity, not a glitch that can’t be an excuse for a new bit of fun. Even when a string snaps with a whip-like crack, its echoed ghost is built so assertively into Matt’s wall of sound that the piece would ultimately have been less without it. Plenty of loopers reference the more academic touchstones of the genre – Shaeffer and Stockhausen, Fripp and Eno. Matt Stevens has some of that too, but he most definitely grabs us by the scruff of our collective neck to drag us back to the roughneck folk days of John Martyn and his rattling Echoplex (now there was a man who knew something about chance and hazard…) And as he tears us off a Moebius strip, we love him for it.

Fighting an unsympathetic sound mix, Stars in Battledress aren’t having it easy. Of course, life isn’t generally easy for massively over-educated brothers who form art-rock duos, mix up rolling minimalism with genteel English folk and a jigsaw of elaborate lyrical conceits, and then act as if they’ve teleported in from a 1930s gentleman’s club.

If Stars in Battledress were, in fact, playing all of these factors up for laughs (as if they were some kind of parody lounge act), they might be quids-in for a while. The problem is that while they’re flushed with a vein of dense and playful humour, they’re also entirely sincere. Almost everything that makes them remarkable – even wonderful – also makes them hard to sell in England. It’s probably one of the reasons why their gigs are rare these days.They’re willfully out of time; hothouse blooms in a climate that doesn’t favour greenhouses. Even the reviews they inspire turn artful and drip sepia.

The precision brotherhood: Stars In Battledress, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

The precision brotherhood: Stars In Battledress, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

As ever, Richard Larcombe cuts an intriguing figure – a pocket-sized handsome devil, part scholarly fop, part English pop eccentric (as if the two have never been known to overlap). Occasionally, you feel that his air of genteel amusement will slip away and he’ll suddenly go for your neck. Until then, he plays master-of-ceremonies with mixed breeziness and nerves, darting his head like a kestrel, picking fastidiously at his big jazzman’s guitar. His wicked grin and arched eyebrow seep into his vocal tone – a well-spoken tenor, moving between rich warm folk-drone and spooked falsetto. Smiling kindly behind his keyboard, James Larcombe is the obliging laid-back Swann to his brother’s sardonic Flanders: playing fluidly, bringing the solidity to support Richard’s genial spikiness.

With the audience on their side despite the sound flutters, Stars In Battledress treat us to a five-song set, forging a path through shellac-scented easy listening, deep English folk music and Canterbury-esque whimsy, all laced together with strands of Chicago art-rock, cycling piano lines and a dab or two of prog-rock glue. On spec, this sounds like a pile-up. In fact, every song is carefully thought through: lovingly hand-crafted and loaded with the kind of shrewd, floridly verbose lyrical wit that plays a circling game with its listeners. A blowsy chunk of psychedelic antiquarianism, Come Write Me Down references both copperplate and the Copper Family. If Morrissey had been forcibly cut-and-pasted into an Ealing comedy, he’d probably have riposted with something like Fluent English (in which Richard spirals defiantly through levels and levels of social awkwardness, a passive-aggressive cad-seeking missile).

More touchingly, Richard dedicates the brand-new Matchless Bride to his own wife (clambering over and dismissing both Cleopatra and Helen of Troy en route) and behind the dry theatrical wit, the Larcombes occasionally demonstrate a more elusive side. Pinocchio Falls In Love takes Disney and pulls it somewhere towards Syd Barrett in chapel, losing itself in hypnotic circles. The roaring distorted guitar fanfare of Remind Me Of The Thames Or Else, meanwhile, reminds us that this is a band that listens to Battles and Voivod as eagerly as it does to Northumbrian bagpipe reels.

Though it’s been nearly thirty years since Mark Cawthra was a Cardiac, you could still describe him as the band’s second severed head. In early lineups he’d hop around between keyboards, drums and singing, egging Tim Smith on to greater and greater heights of manic invention. These days, he’s still multi-instrumental, but the jibber and twitch of the early years has been replaced by something more relaxed and thoughtful.

Mark Cawthra of Redbus Noface plays a wry and mournful chord, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Mark Cawthra of Redbus Noface plays a wry and mournful chord, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

On record, Mark’s Redbus Noface project stretches slightly askew of classic English mainstream pop, ending up like a slightly more psychedelic Chris Difford. Live (with a pickup band of assorted Cardiacs and other friends) Redbus Noface are considerably chunkier. They present a drenched crash of solid rock musicianship, run through with a soft vein of melancholy – and, on this occasion, substantial technical hitches. Mark, fronting the band on guitar, deals with his setbacks with patience; which is something that could also be said for the majestically glum music.

It’s not that the band are miserable, per se. It’s more that they’re operating under a glimmering halo of resignation; of acceptance, of carrying on. Hard to put your finger on, though if you’re carrying a few more years it becomes easier. Compared to the jumping-jack of the Cardiacs years, the current Mark is soberer, but if the energy is reduced, the wisdom is broader. The Redbus cover of an early Cardiacs song, Let Alone My Plastic Doll, takes the stubborn heels-dug-in-tone of the original and fills it with grime, sand and saturated weight. In the process, it makes it weightier, more substantial. Mark Cawthra is not what he was. He’s more – and it’s neither show nor tell. It’s feel.

Usually Thumpermonkey can rely on various supports. On record, it’s the studio playground in which Michael Woodman can shore up his ambitious musical constructions with assorted sound trickery. Out live (and minus the gracings of harmonies, samplers, mandolins or keyboards) it’s at least helpful to have a bass player to pin down the foundations of their brooding new-prog grind. (Think Killing Joke meets Van Der Graaf Generator meets Tool, and then get frustrated at how poorly that captures their music’s sly muscularity and brainpower.)

Tonight they have neither of these things. Instead, Thumpermonkey are appearing as a two-guitarred power trio with the basslines covered by octave pedals and a Rush-like determination to dance their way over the personnel gaps by sheer skill and musical ingenuity. Fortunately Michael and his main foil, Rael Jones, have this in spades. They also have a batch of complex, restless songs which roar out from the stage: a slowly swirling mass of ever-altering metallic riffs in shades of grunge-baroque, hardcore punk and ermine cape, all staked into shape by Ben Wren’s needle-sharp drumming and topped off by Michael’s rich baronial voice.

Thumpermonkey get mean, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Thumpermonkey get mean, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

The latter’s a sound which demands attention. Scorning both sterile heavy-metal strutting or the self-righteous monotone screech of hardcore (though he can roar and scream with the best of them) Michael unleashes a vocal ever bit as striking and expressive as his Escher-knot of instrumental patterns. As he and Rael crash and chisel out the guitar lines, Michael treats us to a series of hard-rock soliloquies: heady declamation, musings, ominous mutters and runaway wails adding the muscle to his intricate lyrics.

In turn, this fits neatly into the undulating, stuttering landscape of Thumpermonkey’s music. Even when the band’s stripped down, the music thrives – catching at your ears, presenting tantalising gaps of rhythm and tension. Thumpermonkey know that if there are enough good ingredients in the stew, then there’s no such thing as overcooking. They may have always been a band with too many ideas, but they’ve become brilliant at blending and poising them all. They also visibly enjoy their arch humour, a witty blend of pastiches from cyberpunk to Gothic melodrama to art cinema oddity.

It’s got to be said that as metallers (even of the brainiac kind), they don’t quite look or act the part. Few obvious tattoos are in evidence; and they could shed their roles as easily as their T-shirts. Rael – part bespectacled boffin, part spindly golden eagle – prowls the stage with the barely-suppressed excitement of a toddler at Christmas, while Michael – even in full yell – has the cuddly softness of a plush-doll Paul McCartney, complete with smile and shaggy moptop. Look them in the eye, though, and see the twinkling confidence of men with total self-belief and the humour to enjoy it all the way to the end of the set and home. Ultimately it’s the music which sets Thumpermonkey’s ranking, and on every bit of evidence here, that’s pretty high.

William D. Drake comes complete with a throng of “So-Called Friends”, including the Larcombe brothers, Mark Cawthra (back behind the drumkit) and the Trudy’s Jon Bastable on bass. With singer Dug Parker and clarinetist Nicola Baigent also squeezed in, there are almost too many people to fit onstage. Richard Larcombe has to comically mountaineer his way back and forth between songs, a guitar swivelling around his body like a slapstick plank – you’d almost expect a Spike Jones soundtrack of thwacks, boings and yelps.

Such is the geniality onstage, however, that any clouts from a straying instrument would be taken in good heart. Squeezed they might be, but the seven-piece band do some sprawling justice to the clutch of Drakesongs on offer tonight. Each of them spring gently open when played, an overstuffed old trunk full of homemade melodies and worn-down reeds. Another onetime Cardiac, Bill Drake used to exude jollity and warmth around a chubby smile even when he was slathered in smeary slap and rolling out a convulsed fugal organ line. Two decades on, the freak trappings have long since washed off but the warmth has blossomed.

William D. Drake (and the Larcombes throwing shapes), RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

William D. Drake (and the Larcombes throwing shapes), RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Upfront at his piano, Bill’s like the avuncular monk in charge of the brewery. For a while, the November evening turns to a leaf-strewn end-of-summer afternoon as he sings in his split, woody voice – a kind of innocence in itself, straining heartily against its natural restrictions to break out into a flattened earnest roar or into a conversational softness. His songs thrive on ripples of piano and clarinet, on the hoppity bounce of half-forgotten novelty records; on hushed moments of old English reverie. It’s as if they’ve sprung up from a snowed-in village, put together by a group of people enjoying the warmth of companionship. One of the newer songs – Homesweet Homestead Hideaway – travels sedately from happy plonk to sea music, and from chamber music to music hall, all in a single unrolling skein.

The So-Called Friends nearly overwhelm the stage: Knifeworld transcend it. Tonight, they’re the only band that really do. Maybe it’s because they’re Kavus’ own band, briefly releasing him from organiser’s headaches, letting him take up his white Gretsch guitar and fire off a little compositional lightning. At any rate, Knifeworld take their set at full-tilt, as if they’re playing on excited tiptoe prior to leaping through the ceiling. Even the sonic missteps or rough patches don’t slow them down – any occasional keyboard plunk or fluffed vocal note is scooped up and along to fuel their energy.

In more than one respect, the band bristle. Grown to a six-piece (and swallowing up a couple of Chrome Hoof members along the way), they now have electric pianos and bassoons poking out of them like crazy hairpins. Kavus’ veering and breathless songs need no less these days. Crammed with escapologist riffs, abrupt time-changes and flagrant decorations, they’re like manically accelerated conversations complete with excited table-bangings. They’re also like mashed-up city traffic – dozens of different ideas like wandering cars, edging into narrow streets, getting squeezed into a bigger and more diverse picture, but somehow managing to manoeuvre and thrive.

Knifeworld roar into action, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Knifeworld roar into action, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Up at the front Kavus’ gruff and friendly bark of voice mingles with that of his vocal foil Mel Woods. They sing with a chatty roughness which almost, but not quite, disarms the furious musical mechanisms churning away behind them: part prog, part Rock-In-Opposition, part surreal shanty. Chloe Herrington’s steely bassoon playing is the newest Knifeworld ingredient, as tart as molasses and threading a new dark vein through the songs, most of which are newer work, including the benign lurches of In A Foreign Way and the chittering pump-riffage of Pilot Her.

The best comes last. Fully warmed up, Knifeworld lock in a few more gears, summon up a few more notches of the power and launch into The Prime Of Our Decline, a piece so new that it’s still glistening. It rampages past our ears and through our brains in a blizzard of lights and joy. It’s a streaking Mediterranean storm of flamencoid prog pulse and haul song, flashing out memories of John McLaughlin, Yes and Fred Frith (each at the peak of their communicative powers), but it also sustains along its entire length, the heart-racing punch of a top pop hook. I feel my jaw drop. For five minutes, the entire band seem to be leaning into an ecstatic curve; or levitating an inch above the Unicorn’s scruffy stage carpet. It’s not often that I see a band suddenly move up a level, right in front of me. It takes my breath away when it actually happens.

It does strike me that, were most of these bands American, they’d be getting proper respect. All credit to them for coming together to light up this obscure little corner of North London, but they’re still running along in a distant neglected parallel, some way out of the club of the British musicians who are properly celebrated, who are held up as the exemplars of what we ought to be doing as a musical nation. Some of them have been at it for years in one form or another, and to see their clear talent unrewarded is hard.

It’s something to do with a pop aesthetic worn down to a neurotic sliver, I suppose. An idea is always easier to sell if it’s been pre-formed and pre-warmed; and not only does the emphasis on the shape of the British pop song often end up as a straitjacket, British musical jingoism has a flipside of fawning insecurity. From a British perspective, it often seems as if it’s only Americans who are allowed to experiment, to embrace their own whimsy to the hilt, to draw in something less urban and less in cahoots with fashion; and in Britain it’s only American musicians who are allowed to be celebrated for this. The Roastfest roster – profoundly British, without a pop art flag in sight – flip a cheerful collective finger at this notion.

Still, I have to admit that coping with Roastfest’s rich stew of acts in relentless succession does eventually take it out of you. I’m flagging by the time Sanguine Hum arrive onstage. Not too long ago, they were called The Joff Winks Band, and they used to lie to people. Travelling under a classic-pop flag to mislead people, they played beautifully, wrote intricate Canterbury-mellow prog-rock songs while pretending not to, and made the kind of tasteful support-band ripples you’d expect if you spent your time opening for people like Joseph Arthur and Regina Spektor.

Prog of a more delicate stripe... Joff Winks of Sanguine Hum, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

Prog of a more delicate stripe… Joff Winks of Sanguine Hum, RoastFest 2011 (photo by Ashley Jones @ Chaos Engineers)

In parallel, Joff and his bandmates also had alter-egos. They explored a lighthearted, Anglicised post-rock as Antique Seeking Nuns, and pegged out some spacey textural music as Nunbient. Maybe proving themselves in these fields has given them the confidence of finally making themselves over as an overt prog band. Hurray for that.

During the course of their set I drift around the pub, a little dazed by standing and by keeping myself fuelled on bar snacks. Consequently Sanguine Hum’s airy prog blend – in which Rhodes-propelled Camel mellowness blends with occasional Zappa seizures – doesn’t grab enough of my wandering attention. By the end of the evening my impression of the band is hazy, and my notes too vague to be of much use. Sanguine Hum seem cleaner and more polite than anyone else on offer – they’ve kept the classic ’70s pop sheen, for certain – and I have to nod to both Matt Baber’s bright, dazzling keyboard touch and Joff’s sweet-natured frontman work. The rest of what they are will have to wait until we next cross paths. Sorry, Joff. Not your fault. I just wasn’t quite up to it this time.

The evening ends with a big, scrappy folk noise. Admirals Hard don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are – émigré Plymouth art-rockers gone acoustic (plus a few London friends), indulging hometown roots with a string of traditional sea-shanties. The affable Andy Carne fronts this busman’s holiday, but both of the Larcombe brothers are back onstage too, along with chunks of The Monsoon Bassoon (Dan Chudley on bass and fur cap, while Kavus, letting his hair down at the end of the night, jangles a mandolin). Onetime Foe drummer Paul Westwood plays harmonium and hammered dulcimer; Tungg! singer Becky Jacobs joins in too.

In fact, everyone sings – not just the whole band (with the affable Carne performing as much as an MC as lead vocalist) but the audience. While Admirals Hard have been known to fling in shipworm-friendly covers of Cardiacs and Iron Maiden (their take on Stranger In A Strange Land is surprisingly convincing as well as funny), these aren’t needed tonight. At the end of a day of invention, the trad songs cheerfully mop up. An international audience of music obsessives let down hair and inhibitions, drink the last of the bar dry and sing along to All For Me Grog, Eddystone Light and Thou Hast Drunk Well Man; the roaming Janners and honorary Janners onstage let their accents broaden, strum out a sound like a skinny Pogues and imagine a rolling deck. With the bar drunk dry, that’s probably not too much of a stretch by now.

Finally we disperse into the November night, trailing bright scraps of music as we go. I head for Archway, humming something complicated, or something simple. Something warm. Something welcome.

Buy a memento:
Various Artists: ‘The Central Element’ (compilation album with one track from each Roastfest band) – available from Genepool.

Arch Garrison online:
Homepage MySpace

Matt Stevens online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM YouTube

Stars In Battledress online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

Redbus Noface online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace

Thumpermonkey online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM YouTube

William D. Drake online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp LastFM

Knifeworld online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp

Sanguine Hum online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace Bandcamp LastFM Soundcloud

Admirals Hard online:
MySpace

The Unicorn, Camden online:
Facebook Twitter

June 2004 – live reviews – The Cox Cruise @ MV King Arthur, floating along the River Severn, Gloucestershire, early summer 2004 (featuring Earnest Cox, Ghosting, Charlie Says, Michael J. Sheehy & Paddy McCarthy of St Silas Intercession, Datapuddle) (“a self-propelled music bash”)

30 Jun

All we can see outside in the dark are moving, ghostly fronds – foliage bleached by the passing light spilling from our boat, nodding in the gusting winds above the lap of water. We’re on the river at night. We can’t see where we’re going, and we’ve entrusted our safety to a group of people with the seedy, ingratiating collective name of Earnest Cox. Things look bleak.

“It’s ‘Nam, man!” some joker screams suddenly. “Charlie’s out there, and he don’t surf! We’re all gonna die, man!”

He’s greeted by laughter. It’s all far, far too English for any of that: those nodding leaves we’re passing are in quiet Gloucestershire, and the River Severn isn’t winding us towards the heart of darkness… not unless Bristol’s having a really bad Saturday night. The double-decker boat we’re riding – the MV King Arthur – has been hired from the National Waterways Museum, and in under four hours we’ll have looped back to its safe berth in Gloucester. On the way, we’ll be enjoying a self-propelled music bash featuring the aforementioned Coxers and a little circle of related bands from Gloucester and London. There’s even a raffle. Cosy.

Had we set out a little earlier in the summer, and during the day, it would have been picnics and beer all round by now. As the red and gold lights of a jolly riverside pub bob past like a luminous Johnny Walker bottle, it’s clear that any actual weirdness will need to be handled by the bands. Crammed onto chairs on the makeshift band stage wedged into the top deck, Datapuddle do what they can. Alex Vald (who once played filthy guitar for Dream City Film Club) cradles an electric mandolin across his chest like a sulking cat. When not distractedly plucking and strumming at it as if he were plucking a chicken, his hands dart restlessly towards a litter of electronic gizmos on a table: a virtual theremin, a cheap sequencer, a plastic voice-changer and other bits of toy-box guts. Stephen Huddle plays sketchy acoustic guitar and pushes broken murmurs and mumbles of song up into Alex’s cobwebs of sound.

Datapuddle at The Cox Cruise

Datapuddle at The Cox Cruise

What ultimately emerges is a lo-fi cat’s-cradle of strung-together and slightly strung-out elements. Tidal dub; debris and dusty notes swept out of an Irish-American bar; bits of memory and reaction scattered like dandruff – all glued by static electricity and misfiring synapse energy to the guitar strings of a long-fried singer-songwriter. “Here’s a little sea shanty,” says Stephen brightly. A water-blip of electronics merges with a Lloyd Cole chug of guitar, rocking it on its rhythmic base. Alex buzzes a harmonica into an overlapping backwards loop, transforming it into a reversed melodica.

On the next song, trip-hop snare-drum smoke merges with psychedelic space whisper like the first skunked-out collision between Portishead and Hawkwind. Alex’s mandolin maintains a relentless, disappearing clang like a freight train bell, while Stephen mutters like Tom Waits ruffled from deep sleep. Peril – another shaggy-dog shanty written especially for tonight – namechecks the Severn amidst its steam-train chunter of knocks, old-school electro breaks, and harmonica rasps. “Don’t buy the brown acid,” Stephen sings, channelling up the confusion of a different party as ours sways cheerfully along the river.

Datapuddle come to a purring end with lashings of electric theremin wibble and a lengthy musical chew on a genuine melodica which has surfaced from their box of battered goodies. Watching them was like watching someone scrabble a shack together out of estuary trash and flotsam. In its way, it was just as raw and triumphant.

Paddy McCarthy & Michael J. Sheehy at The Cox Cruise.

Paddy McCarthy & Michael J. Sheehy at The Cox Cruise.

While the upstairs audience return to conversation and shore-spotting, Michael J. Sheehy and Paddy McCarthy are down below decks mopping up the leftovers (along with any beer that’s available). Cuddling a pair of honey-blonde acoustic guitars, the brothers from St Silas Intercession (and, previously, Dream City Film Club) have wedged themselves into a corner to hammer out rough’n’ready London-Irish punk blues as brutal as paving stones and hard-luck sneers. Eventually they’re joined by a wandering harmonica player and by a growing crowd of boozy party stragglers. Before too long, the corner turns into an enthusiastic trash-music shebeen (staggered over the changeover times between the acts upstairs) during which everyone’s treated to rattling, spat-out’n’spattered takes of the songs from the debut St Silas EP, starting with the vicious roar of You Don’t Live Here Anymore.

St Silas Intercession’s music is a London echo of the brutally direct and bluesy garage noise still spilling out of Detroit (and all of the little Detroits that have sprung up in the wake of Jack White or The Dirtbombs). Venomous as a dirty flick-knife and as blunt as masonry nails, it’s some way down the evolutionary tree from the corrupted sophistication of Sheehy’s recent songwriter albums, or even from the trawling sleaze of his old work with Dream City Film Club. Obviously the man himself couldn’t give a shit about all that: judging by the twinkle in his eyes and in Paddy’s, as they face each other off over sprawling riffs and hollers, they’ve rarely been happier with their music than now.

Paddy McCarthy at The Cox Cruise.

Paddy McCarthy at The Cox Cruise.

The brute-blues meanness of Get My Share has a good hard whiskey sting to it; as does the defiance of Caravan Rock (“me and my kids and their mum, / living in a caravan, moving on, moving on…”). A lacerating spurt through All About The Money sets people bobbing, scrambling and bouncing as well as a seven-and-a-half foot deck ceiling will allow. But as Paddy’s permanent goofy cartoon grin indicates, the St Silas brothers never take themselves too seriously. “It’s always about the money!” Michael protests, through a cheap megaphone. His voice suddenly jumps tracks from Louisiana bawl back through his London grit to an ‘EastEnders’ stage-Cockney. “You sla-a-a-g!”

Back upstairs, a dirty blonde in a cute plush cap is hammering a comradely nail into Mr Sheehy’s coffin. “Michael slags me off in his songs, and I slag him off in my songs,” explains Charlie Beddoes. Then she bowls us the rapaciously scornful putdowns of Vitriolic Alcoholic which kerb-kicks a snarling addict with a series of offhanded verbal wallops, culminating in “do I look like I give a toss? / It’s not my problem, not my loss.” It’s good to have friends.

The determined, diminutive Charlie is both the figurehead and the core of the shifting cult-of-personality that calls itself Charlie Says. Tonight, they’re three boot-babes and a moll-boy. Backed up by sidekick Ben Fisher’s car-crash guitar and by Lian and Kim Warmington’s ice-diva backing vocals and cool basilisk stares, Charlie plucks a remarkably articulate bass, sings like a breezeblock with lipstick and thuds out middle-weight girlpunk. Not short of charisma, Charlie holds the audience in the palm of her hand. The trouble is, she then rolls them around as if she doesn’t quite know what to do with them.

There’s a big difference between true punk and mere punk-ertainment, and Charlie Says wander a bit too close to the latter end of the scale. While Charlie’s former background in hip-hop art-rockers Rub Ultra is promising, discovering that both she and Ben are recent refugees from the touring band of tech-rocker Martin Grech pokes some suspicious holes in their lo-fi rebel stance. It just makes their music seem a little contrived. Not that the songs always help: It’s All About The Music is just another me-and-my guitar anthem, and Hey Leadfinger, Why You Gotta Keep Putting Me Down? is a foray into garage-blues which is far less interesting than its title is.

What pulls the band up out of fun-punk poseur-world are Charlie’s bright flickers of blunt humour and determination. The girlpower swagger of Venus Envy suddenly flings out “if the balls are in our court, then at least we have some,” while This Is Not My Story claims “whichever way it lands, my heart will keep on beating.” Little gems of lead-pipe wit and guts like this are what will make Charlie Says special; not desperate attempts to hitch onto whichever punk or garage soul flits past next. For the rest of the evening, I see Charlie perched here and there around the boat – beaming with life, always as if on the verge of delivering another breezy wisecrack. Let’s have more of that.

For all their efforts, Charlie Says don’t make me want to riot. Ghosting do… but I’d be rioting on their behalf. Five more minutes of hearing boozy party blabber drown out their beautiful, beautiful songs and I’d be flinging bottles around myself. Ghosting are heartbreakingly soft – as vulnerable and resilient as fresh grass bending underfoot. Unlike any other band this evening, they create little pockets of pure songcraft which you need to crane your head into to find out what’s going on.

Upfront, Dan Pierce picks out gentle acoustic guitar arpeggios which ride up into the atmosphere like thermals, and lets his voice follow suit. In the corner, wedged into a little cage of half-drumkit, laptop and miniature keyboard, George Moorey handles the rest. Intent and anxious-looking, he peers at his screen like a nervy microbiologist watching a virus proliferate. In fact, he’s just making sure that the sounds arrive on time – making tiny triggering adjustments to a mouse, reaching out one hand to roll off a gentle peal of Blue Nile piano, or swivelling to make precise soft taps on cymbal and snare with the single drumstick he holds in his other hand. It’s like watching someone play a one-man-band suit and conduct an orchestra at the same time. Yet even more impressive than this deft and diffident juggling act are the way Ghosting’s songs pool in the atmosphere – gradually, quietly filling up the space.

Dan’s big genial frame contains a songwriter’s spirit of rare and seductive delicacy. Faced with a chattering crowd, he simply shifts his guitar in his hands and sings soft, warm and open… and slowly the chatter drains away as the spell begins to work. Gently, Ghosting explore topics spanning all the way from frayed love songs (Your Love Don’t Make Sense) through thoughtful disillusion all the way to ending up being fingered as a murder suspect (Someone At The Door). Hopefully not as a natural progression – but if it was, you’d suspect that they’d’ve illustrated even that story with colossal and convincing sensitivity.

By the time Ghosting are midway through the exquisite, naked plea of I Want You To See Me, the crowd is hushed and half of them are hooked. Dan’s flexible and heartfelt singing – mostly a feather on tremulous breath, but rising to a swoony peak of intensity – sometimes recalls Mike Scott or Robert Forster at their very softest. In a fey, English, breathy way, he even has flashes of the fluttering abandonment of a Van Morrison or an Aaron Neville. Like them, he’s singing songs of real people grasping out at the intangible – unsure of what to believe on Anything That Might Be True, or “waiting for the one thing which really might have been some help,” on Good Year, only to wait in vain. Intangible desires, tangible heartaches. They’ll probably rise like damp rather than rockets, but I suspect that within a few years Ghosting will be very important to a lot of people.

Having put the whole cruise together in the first place, Earnest Cox get a well-deserved heroes’ welcome once they arrive onstage. They respond with perhaps their most energetic and assured set to date. It’s the third or fourth time I’ve caught the Cox, over a time when I’ve watched their sturdy intelligence getting to grips with lacing together their multiple influences. It’s taken a while for their mixture of old Memphis R’n’B, ’60s lad-rock, ’80s indie textures and prowling street poetry to gel.

Tonight it does with a vengeance. Hello Stranger sweeps out of the gate with a swagger of rogue testosterone coupled with a smart and beady eye, as Cox singer La Windo immediately takes on the audience with his particular blend of strut and twice-burned wariness. Perhaps it’s recent honeymoon rejuvenations or perhaps it’s the side effects of squabbling over their current recordings, but Earnest Cox are smouldering tonight. Still looking like a disparate houseful of mature students (the band’s a bewildering range of types from motherly to mysterious, from rogue to stockbroker) they continue to draw on what’s in them already rather than trying to squeeze themselves into an image.

The rhythm section used to be little more than agreeably white’n’slightly-funky: now it’s moving towards a lubricious slippery groove, with bass player/occasional MC Simon abandoning cheese and cheeriness to join drummer Shane in seriously flexing the pocket. Nicola parachutes in flights of piano, springs of Booker T. Hammond organ or splurges of synth when she needs to, while Marc buries himself in the middle of the band, cooking up lightly-textured mats of funky guitar texture to fly blurs across the gaps.

Up front, where you’d expect to find a preening Rod Stewart lookalike, La continues to prowl like a Gloucester merging of Shaun Ryder and Lou Reed, delivering his narratives of edgy small-town life like the most restless man in the pub and shaking his percussion as if testing the heft of a throwing knife. He looks pretty handy: yet the Cox don’t exactly trade on casual violence, even when La hurls out scathing fighting talk on You’re Not Fit To Lick (The Shit From My Shoes).

Rather, they seize on restlessness in general, whether it’s randiness, boredom, the unease as your parents age towards death, or the bumps in love’s road. There’s swagger, vengeance and one-upmanship aplenty in songs like Two Can Play At That Game, Baby and Scratching The Same Old Itch: yet in spite of this Earnest Cox’s songs are about survival if they’re about anything. No More Happy Endings treads the ashes of hopes and securities with the dogged, battered trudge of someone who’s had the knocks, has sagged, but won’t go down yet.

The Cox’s musical cockiness almost makes them part of that line of lad’s bands dipping in and out of pubs, taverns and speakeasys (and finally Royal Command performances). Yet the way the bruises on the songs never entirely fade (and the way that La quietly retreats into himself, gaze distracted, mid-song) hints at a band who’ve accepted, even embraced, the dragging baggage of personal history rather than saturating themselves in adolescent posing. Marc’s refusal to play the role of the strutting guitar stud (keeping his back almost entirely turned to La and the audience as he brews up his noises) confirms it and heightens the internal dignity beyond the Cox’s miscellaneous looks.

Perhaps it’s this mixture of getting by, getting on and getting on with it even within limited horizons that makes Earnest Cox local heroes on the Gloucester scene. The familiar tastes of that stew of pop ingredients they serve it up with, plus their band’s anti-glorious English universality and their bumpy everyman charisma should win them friends around the country, whether or not they bring their boat with them.

As the Cox set hits its climax, we look up and find ourselves back in the Gloucester lock. Hometime, Charlie.

Datapuddle online:
Homepage TwitterMySpace Bandcamp LastFM

Michael J. Sheehy online:
Facebook MySpace LastFM

Miraculous Mule (what Sheehy/McCarthy/St Silas Intercession did next) online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud LastFM

Charlie Says online:
Homepage

Ghosting online:
Homepage MySpace Bandcamp

Earnest Cox online:
MySpace

MV King Arthur online:
Homepage