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.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 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.
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.
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.
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.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.
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.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.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.
Annie Dressner online:
We Are Children (We Make Sound) online: