Tag Archives: The Pictish Trail

December 2015 – upcoming gigs, London & elsewhere – Serafina Steer & Bas Jan at Kings Place; assorted Others cabaret from punk to accordiana with The Bohemianauts and Bad Fractals; a Lost Map afternoon with The Pictish Trail/Seamus Fogarty/Tuff Love/Kid Canaveral at Daylight Music; Thumpermonkey, The Mayors Of Miyazaki and Lolita Laytex hit The Albany in Deptford; and the 2015 London Contemporary Music Festival part 1 (sounds for and from London, West Coast America and the time continuum). Plus the return of Mark Mulholland and Craig Ward in a Scottish village hall; Olga Stezhko in a Staffordshire chapel; and Rocket From The Tombs in London and Leeds.

6 Dec

The end of the month, and the year, is nigh – so what are we looking forward to this week?

Mulholland, Ward, Sissoko & D'Hoine @ Ford Village Hall, 8th December 2015

Mark Mulholland, Craig Ward, Yacouba Sissoko & Hannes D’Hoine (Ford Village Hall, Ford, Argyll, Scotland, Tuesday 8th December 2015, 7.30pm) – £5.00 minimum – information – tickets on the door

Back in 2012, two wandering Scottish singer-songwriter-guitarists – Mark Mulholland (ex-Two Dollar Bash) and onetime dEUS member Craig Ward – quietly released one of the finest records of the year. A compelling murmur of acoustic guitar folk, ‘Waiting For The Storm’ was soaked in the Scottish and British folk-baroque of Davey Graham, Pentangle and John Martyn but, in its settings of moist heat, tin roofs, typhoons and dark forces, it was also informed by the Haitian setting of Port-au-Prince, Mark’s home for the previous two years. Some of you may remember that I liked it.

With Mark now relocated to Mali and Craig settled in the little Argyll village of Ford, the duo are collaborating on a follow-up (provisionally called ‘The Darkness Between The Leaves’) on which they’ll be joined by Flemish double bass player Hannes D’Hoine – who played the Danny Thompson anchor-cable role on ‘Waiting For The Storm’ – and by Mark’s newest collaborator, the Malian djely and multi-instrumentalist Yacouba Sissoko, a master kora and ngoni player. The quartet have been preparing and recording in a number of different countries, and the end of the Scottish sessions will be marked by a Ford performance both taking place in and raising funds for Ford Village Hall, with prices set on a pay-what-you-like basis starting from five pounds.

In its quiet way this should be one of the gigs of the year, so if you’re in western Scotland and have a free Tuesday evening, consider heading over to Ford (at the south-western end of Loch Awe, north-west of Glasgow, with the nearest substantial town being Kilmartin.) If you miss this one, they’re playing again in Glasgow at 7.00pm on Wednesday 9th; a low-key gig at the Hidden Lane Gallery in Finnieston.

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After that – for me – the week doesn’t pick up until a very busy Friday and weekend. Too subjective, probably. Here we go, anyway.

Serafina Steer & Bas Jan (Hall Two @ (Kings Place, 90 York Way, Kings Cross, London, N1 9AG, England, Friday 11th December 2015, 8.00pm) – £9.50-£12.50 – information & tickets

The hitherto independent worlds of contemporary harp music and experimental kraut-pop will collide – or at least bump each other – in this concert of two halves by harpist/songwriter Serafina Steer and her new band Bas Jan.

After a few years of mainly only using the harp for her own writings, Serafina went on a roadtrip around Eastern Europe busking, discovering and rediscovering pieces along the way. The result of this experience will form the first half of the programme, which will feature compositions by Richard Barratt (‘tendril’), Benjamin Britten (‘Suite For Harp’), Stephen Dodgson (‘Fantasy’), Rhodri Davies (‘Aqcua Alta’) and Serafina’s own father Michael Maxwell Steer (‘Grovelly Wood’)

The second half of the show will be a performance by Bas Jan, Serafina’s latest collaborative project in which she plays bass guitar and keyboards and writes minimally arranged songs about the Essex coast, the Anglo-Saxons, sex, part-time work and love; with sound artist Sarah Anderson playing violin and OP1 mini-synthesizer and performance visual artist Jenny Moore playing drums (all three women also sing). Bas Jan’s first gig was to six thousand people at Brixton Academy and since then they have gone on – via support slots for Xylouris White and The Decemberists – to entertain smaller and smaller audiences.


 

On the same night, one of ‘Misfit City’s favourite classical musicians is spreading her own particular musical gospel up in Staffordshire:

Olga Stezhko (Abbotsholme Arts Society @ Abbotsholme School Chapel, Rocester, Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, ST14 5BS, England, Friday 11th December 2015, 8.00pm)information – limited number of tickets available, phone 01543 263 304 for details

Olga Stezhko, 2015Following up her recent debut performances at both the Wigmore and Bridgewater Halls (at which she performed full or partial versions of her ‘Lucid Dreams‘ assemblage, a programme of music exploring people’s changing perception of reality from childhood through to adulthood), classical pianist and multi-disciplinary thinker Olga Stezhko is bringing her sophisticated, metaphysical perspective and repertoire to the audience at Abbotsholme.

On this occasion, her choice of music is a little more conventional (leaning on well-established favourites by Mozart, Bach and Prokofiev rather then stretching to the Sophia Gubaidulina pieces she was playing last month). However, there’s still room in the programme for work by one of her compositional touchstones, Alexandr Scriabin; and you can be assured that whichever pieces Olga plays will have been carefully thought out and put into context as part of a programme intended to inspire thought and broader conceptual connections as well as straightforward musical enjoyment.

Programme:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Sonata in B flat major, K.570
Johannes Brahms – Six Pieces, Op.118
Alexandr Scriabin – Two Dances Op.73; Five Preludes Op.74; Vers la flamme Op.72,
John Adams – China Gates
Sergei Prokofiev – Sonata no.4 in C minor, Op.29

Back in London, meanwhile, there’s cabaret afoot, plus breathless press releases.

Bad Fractals vs Bohemianauts @ The Others, 11th December 2015

The Bohemianauts + Bad Fractals (Bohemiocracy @ The Others, 6-8 Manor Road, Stoke Newington, London, N16 5SA, England, Friday 11th December 2015, 8.00pm) – £8.00-£10.00 –  information & tickets here and here

An epic face-off between two amazing, unique and bizarre bands.

Bad Fractals are shaman gangsters shooting bullets of love, tearing their way through acid punk, malevolent music hall and trailer-trash blues in a world gone mad. Join us at the crossroads, in a theatre of the absurd: hear story and song shift with the wild wonder of fractals! Watch psychedelic punks get drunk with clown kings! Glare at artificial angels dancing with deadbeat demons! Gasp as astral travellers gather in galactic taverns!

The Bohemianauts are decadent divas of demi-monde carnivalism, playing weird waltzes, pithy polkas and rollicking rhumbas: they will take you on a theatrical musical journey through strange landscapes with absurd humour, exquisite noise and songs of unrequited dread. Tonight they will unleash their female alter-egos, as they parade in their geezer-bird finery, performing for your pleasure as the rarely-seen Bohemianauts – Drag-ed on Stage. (Trigger warning: Bearded Drag.)

PLUS – Visuals and projections from Jaime Rory Lucy‘s Rucksack Cinema and half-time performance interventions from Oleg the Mystic.


 

Friday also sees the start of the London Contemporary Music Festival, which (as if it were part of a conspiracy theory) is lurking in a giant underground bunker near Baker Street…

LCMF 2015: ‘Collective Capital’

LCMF 2015: ‘Collective Capital’ (London Contemporary Music Festival 2015 @ Ambika P3, University of Westminster, 35 Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5LS, England, Friday 11th December 2015, 6.30pm) – £11.25 – information – tickets

London takes centre stage in our opening night, as we celebrate the exploratory fringes of the city’s music scene and the collective imperative that has been a spur to some of the capital’s greatest experiments. The proliferation of collectives among young musician-composers is reflected in new commissions from some of the most adventurous of these musical laboratories. The night will include premieres from Charlie Hope and Jamie Hamilton   (a.k.a. Topophobia), Neil Luck (performing with his Squib Box ensemble) and John Wall & Tom Mudd (Utterpsalm and Contingent Events). We hear recent work by composers Edward Henderson (Bastard Assignments), Shelley Parker and the artist duo Claudia Hunte. We welcome an iconic figure and chronicler of London’s musical edgelands, David Toop, and offer a live improvisation from Poulomi Desai (Usurp), who started the Hounslow Arts Co-op at the age of 14.

We also offer a world premiere from artists Richard Wilson and Anne Bean. In the 1980s, Anne, Richard and Paul Burwell formed the legendary Bow Gamelan Ensemble, enthralled by the aural poetry and parallel visions of the Thames. Now, Wilson and Bean enter the territory as W0B. Theirs is a world that cracks and splinters and grinds into being as it races backwards and forwards through friendships of forty years. ‘NALEMAG’ becomes the totemic incarnation of their endless scrabbling around boat-yards, scrap-yards, gas depots, pyrotechnic munitions, voyages on many rivers in countless vessels and a frenzy of carrying, welding, investigating and making across the planet. The trajectory culminates with a landmark new AV performance from south London’s Visionist, whose singular language emerges from the fragmentation of dubstep and grime.

Programme:

David Toop – Many Private Concerts
Anne Bean/Richard Wilson – NALEMAG (world premiere)
Poulomi Desai – Vermillion Sands (world premiere)
Neil Luck – Via Gut (world premiere – LCMF commission)
Jamie Hamilton/Charlie Hope – New work (world premiere)
Edward Henderson – Tape Piece
Claudia Hunte – The Elephant In The Room Is Afraid Of Dying
Shelley Parker – Live set
John Wall – Live set
Tom Mudd – Live set
Visionist – Live set (AV)

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On Saturday, there’s what looks like a particularly engaging Daylight Music afternoon, with the return of a familiar face…

The Pictish Trail & other Lost Map artists at Daylight Music, 12th December 2015

Daylight Music 210 – The Pictish Trail + artists from the Lost Map label: Seamus Fogarty + Tuff Love + Kid Canaveral (Union Chapel, Saturday 12th November 2015, 12.00pm) – free (suggested donation £5.00) – information

Wrapping up this season of Daylight Music are Lost Map; a loose-knit DIY label/collective from the Hebrides founded by alt-folk troubadour, Johnny Lynch, a.k.a. The Pictish Trail. For this special Christmas show, Johnny will be ice-skating back to the mainland, bringing a selection box of pals from his Lost Map roster, for a cosy festive afternoon of stripped back acoustic merriment, frost-bitten Casio hymns, and mulled-tea fuelled carols.

While The Pictish Trail often comes across on record as an eerie digifolk creation (like a Scottish oil-town-and-fishing-port David Lynch, with that surreal supernatural undertow suffused by Gaelic angst rather than Americana), anyone who’s caught one of the live acoustic shows will know that Johnny has an altogether more joyous side as unplugged strummer. Many of his tales may be based on shyness, grief and confusion, but I’ve seen few people who take such unalloyed pleasure in warming up and including an audience the way he does. For a reminder of this, have a read of my review of his last Daylight Music appearance back in January… and see below.

Mayo-born but London-based, Seamus Fogarty plays and sings his own soulful version of contemporary Irish folk, dabbled with electronic found sound. His output’s been described as “songs about mountains that steal T-shirts, women who look like dinosaurs and various other unfortunate incidents” and as “summoning all manner of odd noises and audio ghosts”. Taken from his current album ‘God Damn You Mountain’, here’s Rita Jack’s Lament, which showcases all of his various tendencies to the maximum.


 

Glaswegian fuzzy-pop duo Tuff Love represent Lost Map’s more-out-and-out indie rock side, although their cottage-industry approach (recording and producing everything at home themselves rather than chasing studios and jaded professional engineers) reflects the label’s d-i-y philosophy. Julie Eisenstein and Suse Bear (augmented for concerts by Phantom Band drummer Iain Stewart deliver “dazzling, sun-streaked guitar pop songs with mesmerising lyrics, heart-wrenching vocals and dreamy melodies like the sound of pure summer.” Over a scant few years of existence, they’ve already supported Paulo Nutini and Ride and played several overflowing handfuls of rock festivals. ‘Resort’ – a not-quite-debut album pulling together the three EPs that Tuff Love have put out so far – is out in January, but meanwhile here’s what will either be a reminder of their existing delights or an introduction to their world: somewhat shoegaze-y but with mischievous glimpses up through the eyelashes.

Edinburgh four-piece Kid Canaveral (whom Lost Map described as “ADHD pop splendour”) met at university in St Andrews and have been playing together ever since. Imaginative alternative pop, they manage to recall the early-‘80s cleverness of Postcard Records pop or the ramshackle poignancy of Belle & Sebastian without actually sounding much like either. It’s more a matter of spirit, a discreet but inclusive sophistication which reaches out, brushes your arm and invites you along. Two albums in, with a third in preparation, they’re a delightful discovery whenever you happen to encounter them. Their clever videos are a treat, too – here are a couple of tastes below, the first of which had my four-year-old son continually tapping the replay button.


(For anyone who wants a more substantial dose of Kid Canaveral, note that they’re playing a full set at the Shacklewell Arms on the evening of the same day.)

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On the Saturday evening, you’ve got your pick of twisty London rock and West Coast American art music (plus Rocket From The Tombs, but I’ll come to them shortly…)

Thumpermonkey @ The Islington, 30th July 2015

Thumpermonkey + Mayors Of Miyazaki + Lolita Laytex (Something’s Gonna Happen @ The AlbanyDouglas Way, Deptford, London, SE8 4AG, England, Saturday 12th December 2015, 7.30pm) – £3.00-£5.00 – information – tickets on the door

Welcome back everybody: and once again we have two superb outfits centre stage, Thumpermonkey (heavy progressive music) and Mayors Of Miyazaki (DIY 3-piece based in south London, guaranteed to spit and sweat on us at close quarters). The lovely Lolita Laytex will be joining us to add the flavour of burlesque. Yes, people of the universe, with all those ingredients in store, you know the score: £3.00 concessions and a fiver on the door. Bring ya skin!

I’ve said quite a bit about Thumpermonkey over the course of the year. Grand, clever and atmospheric, they also have enough sly, self-aware wit and humour to undercut all of the previous. They’re also tricky to pigeonhole – a band who create intricate catastrophe epics (part Radiohead, part Van der Graff Generator) but also trill the occasional Mastodon cover in the style of early Kate Bush; a prog band with a singer who sounds like an old-time theatrical knight, but also a noise band who happen to wrap their wildness into tightly-composed structures; geeky popcorn information omnivores drawing from Jodorowsky to Lovecraft to William Gibson, but salting it with Chomsky and science magazines before whipping it up into artful tornados of song. This little sample here is both characteristic and unique within what Thumpermonkey do, which in itself probably tells you all you need to know.


 

I don’t think Mayors Of Miyazaki have been in here before, but they should have been. In their way, their music’s as grand and complex as that of Thumpermonkey and even more enthused by its options. It’s punk with all the chains blown off, joyriding math-rock, de-Ritalined bratprog. A typical song sounds like both chase sequence and protracted explosion: spiky, switch-and-swap assemblages of guitar parts doubling back through alleys and charging halfway up walls, over which sibling team Gareth and Claire Thomas declaim a punky boy-girl barkathon, a speaky-drawl of sparking thoughts. Fugazi and The Fall both might be in there, though you could also pull Bis and long-lost ‘90s psych tanglers The Monsoon Bassoon out of the root cluster.


 

I don’t know much about Lolita Laytex except that she’s a fetish model as well as an alternative burlesque performer and fetish model. Not much information about a third-stream digression into music: so perhaps you should expect something sensual and mobile, which squeaks a little when it flexes. (UPDATE, 10th December – Well, that’s that laboured gag wasted. Lolita’s off the bill, replaced by Deptford punk-poppers The Kill Raimi’s. Some video evidence below…

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The second London Contemporary Music Festival night sees the series take a broad stylistic and historical sweep across twentieth and twenty-first century California (with one digression to Alaska, so it’s not all sun.)

LCMF 2015: ‘West Coast Night’

LCMF 2015: ‘West Coast Night’ (London Contemporary Music Festival 2015 @ Ambika P3, University of Westminster, 35 Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5LS, England, Saturday 12th December 2015, 6.30pm) – £11.75 – information – tickets 

The second night of LCMF 2015 is dedicated to the music of the American West Coast, an exploration of 100 years of musical non-conformism, from the piano insurrections of Henry Cowell to the deep listening of Pauline Oliveros (performing her own music on v-accordion). Oliveros is joined by another founding legend of the pioneering San Francisco Tape Music Center, Morton Subotnick, who presents a solo Buchla set and the UK premiere of a 1960s Tape Center composition with a film by Tony Martin. Another composer associated with the Tape Center was Terry Riley, whose ‘Keyboard Study No. 2’ gets a rare outing.

Alongside this we zig-zag through the experimental landscape, calling on John Cage‘s concussive ‘First Construction (In Metal)’, which premiered in Seattle in 1939, John Luther Adams‘s monumental ‘Among Red Mountains’ and Catherine Lamb‘s subterranean ‘Frames’. We excavate two gems from California’s 1980s computer music scene, Maggi Payne‘s ‘Flights Of Fancy’ and Carl Stone‘s ‘Wall Me Do’. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Watts Uprising we present an extremely rare performance from Otis O’Solomon, whose collective The Watts Prophets emerged from the rubble of that uprising and helped lay the foundations for hip-hop.

Programme:

Henry Cowell – The Banshee (for piano) – performed by Gwenaëlle Rouger
John Cage – First Construction (in Metal) (for percussion ensemble) – performed by PERC’M and Serge Vuille
Morton Subotnick/Tony Martin – PLAY! No. 3 (1965) (UK premiere)
Terry Riley – Keyboard Study No. 2
Maggi Payne – Flights of Fancy
Carl Stone – Wall Me Do
John Luther Adams – Among Red Mountains (for piano) – performed by Gwenaëlle Rouger
Catherine Lamb – Frames for cello & bass recorder (UK premiere) – performed by Anton Lukoszevieze/Lucia Mense
Otis O’Solomon – Selected poems
Pauline Oliveros – Pauline’s Solo (1992)
Morton Subotnick – solo Buchla set

 

 

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On Sunday, the third LCMF event has a polycultured and temporal feel:

LCMF 2015: ‘Five Ways to Kill Time’

LCMF 2015: ‘Five Ways To Kill Time’ (London Contemporary Music Festival 2015 @ Ambika P3, University of Westminster, 35 Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5LS, England, Sunday 13th December 2015, 6.30pm) – £11.75 – information – tickets 

Time is stretched, bent and finally dissolved in ‘Five Ways To Kill Time’. Sound artist Ellen Fullman opens the night with a UK premiere of The Watch Reprise, which will be performed on her 50-foot Long String instrument that one writer compared to “standing inside a giant grand piano.” Ethiopian composer, pianist and nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou makes her first visit to the UK to perform a selection of her intimate piano miniatures that seem to drift through space. Plus Minus Ensemble, meanwhile, offers up the intricate and disorientating world of Bryn Harrison‘s ‘Repetitions In Extended Time’ (conducted by Mark Knoop and featuring strings, organs, piano, guitar and clarinet). Mixing spoken text and music, theatre maker Tim Etchells (Forced Entertainment) and violinist Aisha Orazbayeva offer a set of fragmentary improvisations in ‘Seeping Through’, a work fresh from a critically acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Fringe. We end with a time-obliterating live set from doom pioneer Stephen O’Malley, whose work within and beyond his seminal group Sunn O))) exists in a kind of transcendent stasis.

Programme:

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou – selected piano works
Bryn Harrison – Repetitions in Extended Time
Tim Etchells/Aisha Orazbayeva – Seeping Through
Ellen Fullman – The Watch Reprise (world premiere)
Stephen O’Malley – live set


 
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And finally…

Rocket From The Tombs, 2015

Rocket From The Tombs + Luminous Bodies (Baba Yaga’s Hut @ The Brewhouse, @ London Fields Brewery, 369-370 Helmsley Place, South Hackney, London, E8 3SB, England, Saturday 12th December 2015, 8.00pm) – £19.25 – informationtickets

Rocket From The Tombs (Brudenell Social Club, 17 Brudenell Road, Leeds, LS6 1HA, England, Sunday 13th December 2015, 8.00pm) – £17.60 – informationtickets

In their initial lifetime they never got past a series of scorching mid-‘70s gigs in their Cleveland hometown (plus a handful of demos and radio sessions). Yet Rocket From The Tombs have long been counted as proto-punk ancestors, kicking up a frumious Velvets-and-Stooges racket long before every other garage band was doing it. These days, onstage rock rage is quotidian; when Rocket From The Tombs brought it to the gig, it was a revelation. Following a headstrong and punchy split, they even spawned several other key bands. Main ranter David Thomas, doomed-and-driven guitarist Peter Laughner and soundman-turned-bass-player Tim Wright would create the first lineup of Pere Ubu. Second guitarist Cheetah Chrome and drummer Johnny Blitz hooked up with Stiv Bators and others to form hardcore punk pioneers Dead Boys. The rest was bootlegs and rumbling mythology. Rocket From The Tombs became one of the ur-bands, a surviving impression holding its ghostly mark but pushing onwards, providing inspiration above and beyond its initial ideals.

Rocket From The Tombs/Luminous Bodies @ Baba Yaga's Hut, December 2015By the ex-members’ accounts, being in the band had been a short, brutal and vivid experience; but it seems that there may also have been an unspoken, slow-burning sense of unfinished business. Twenty-eight years later, in their grizzled early fifties, and with plenty of other experience clocked up, most of the surviving band members (minus the retired Blitz and the long-dead Laughner) reunited for piss-and-vinegar-fuelled gigs, a long-delayed debut album and an actual afterlife. Although Laughner’s initial replacement (ex-Television guitar star Richard Lloyd), left in 2011 and a tour-burned Cheetah Chrome is now opting to sit out the live gigs, Rocket From The Tombs are still going – very much the garage end of Cleveland’s infamous avant-garage, making the most of this ornery self-driven second shot while bleeding in lessons learned from Pere Ubu and elsewhere.

The band have never played in Britain before, something which is being remedied with these two gigs in Leeds and London. In an interview with ‘The Guardian’ earlier this year, a currently chair-bound David Thomas growled “I’m approaching the end of my life, I’ve got my foot to the floor and I’m going to be going full speed ahead when I hit the wall.” It’s probably worth your while coming to one of these shows to check out his main accelerant.

There’ll be no support band at the Leeds gig, but in London things will be warmed up by Luminous Bodies, a “knuckle-dragging rock & roll” supergroup stealing members from Part Chimp, Terminal Cheesecake, Ikara Colt and others. See below.

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And that’s that. More coming shortly with the remaining December gigs and the seasonal parties… keep warm…

 

CONCERT REVIEW – 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”)

21 Sep

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.

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