secret woodland location near Canterbury
Friday 3rd May 2013
The first gig of the 2013 season in our little woodland amphitheatre was something of a coup. Following on from the extended interview I did with Daevid Allen for the final episode of Canterbury Soundwaves, he got in touch earlier in the year to say there was "a gaping hole in his schedule" between certain dates and wondered if I had any suggestions for gigs. Not really expecting anything, I put forward the idea that he might come and play an acoustic set in the woods. I couldn't offer more than travel expenses, food, drink and a cosy atmosphere, but he seemed delighted with that. "Count me in matey!" said the enthusiastic text message.
It took some organising, but well worth it. It was a perfectly still warm evening, clear sky, beautiful sunset, forest floor carpeted in wood anemones with a lot of bluebells also starting to come through. About seventy people turned up to enjoy this one, a mix of current Canterbury music scene types, old friends of mine, Daevid's Kentish connections, and some Smugglers crew from Deal. Nice to bring all these different scenes together in such a setting. A lot of people brought food and drink to share, so there was a communal feast as well as a free gig. My old friend Sarah took a donations bucket around and people were pretty generous, covering most of the expenses. It's only now that I realise that this is exactly how the "Floating Anarchy" tour worked when Daevid and Gilli were touring backed up by Here & Now as Planet Gong in '77. This might explain why Daevid was so cheerful and enthusiastic about playing a small gig for no fee. This was Floating Anarchy in action, without it even trying to be.
There was a bit of a last minute panic when his friend Jonny Greene (he who runs the Gong Appreciation Society from Glastonbury) let it be known that his car had seriously broken down — Jonny was going to be driving him down from Richmond. I was contacting all sorts of people trying to work something out the day before, but then late that night got a message from Daevid saying that he'd sorted it out. He'd been playing a gig that night with Chris Cutler (he of Henry Cow, etc.) and Yumi Hara Calkwell (who worked with Hugh Hopper not long before he died as the duo HUMI). They're calling themselves "You, Me and Us", kind of a continuation of Brainville (Allen-Hopper-Pyle, then Allen-Hopper-Cutler after Pip Pyle died). Chris and Yumi are also part of a new project called Artaud Beats with former Cow-members Geoff Leigh and John Greaves.
Getting a lift back to Richmond with Yumi, Daevid mentioned his dilemna, and she offered to drive him down and bring her keyboard along. It then occured to him that current Gong flute/sax player Ian East is a Canterbury native, so while in the midst of setting up the space I got a call from Ian asking very humbly and politely if it would be OK to turn up with his family. I recalled to him my delight at seeing him with flute and bells starting the second set of Gong's last Brighton appearance last November, looking like he'd been in Gong for many lifetimes, and told him that of course they were welcome.
So just after sunset we were treated to a unique combination of Daevid, Yumi and Ian playing a one-hour set that looked like this:
"The Company of Poets" (Daevid reading a hilarious poem by Lucy English)
"Unriddle Me This Then" (Daevid reading a bardic poem of his own with gliss guitar)
"Garden Song" (song from a Daevid solo album with Ian East on flute)
"Shipbuilding" (their second performance, with Yumi Hara Calkwell on keyboard and backing vocals — they'd decided to play it "for the workers" at a gig on Mayday)
"Who's Afraid? (Brainville song with Yumi Hara Calkwell on keyboards and Ian East on tenor sax)
"Underneath the YumYum Tree" (poem sung to Hugh Hopper's "Dedicated to You But You Weren't Listening", with Yumi Hara Calkwell on keyboards)
"Hope For Happiness" (a radical reworking of the Soft Machine song, with Yumi Hara Calkwell on keyboards and vocals, Ian East on tenor sax)
This was the only gig we've done at the amphitheatre with a PA, probably a one-off — Daevid wanted to play gliss guitar, so a power supply was needed (I used a small generator kept 100m away behind a strawbale wall). The unfailingly cheerful and reliable local soundman John Evans agreed to bring a small PA and handle the mix, which worked out brilliantly in the end. (The night before he'd been doing sound for local heros Syd Arthur playing to 3000 people in London through a huge rig.)
[click on images to enlarge — thanks to Claire H and Yumi for the photos]
When I took Daevid up the Dane John Mound last autumn, I recorded him reading "Unriddle Me This Then", proclaiming it out over the city, with a problematic level of wind on my microphone. When moving the files off my Zoom H2 recorder, that one just wasn't there, as if the wind had just blown it away. So my Canterbury Soundwaves interview (the extended final episode) had to include a substitute version recorded in NYC with Nicoletta Stephanz. But now I have a recording of him reading it in Canterbury....
On that same day out, I recorded him singing "Under the YumYum Tree" in the back of his friend Adrian's car as we drove around Sturry looking for the old Soft Machine house (he explained it was about a tragically lost-it Canterbury girl who'd stayed with him in Australia). You can hear that on Canterbury Soundwaves Episode 28.
Yumi's vocals on "Hope For Happiness" were pretty strident and intense, and I know of at least one purist Soft Machine fan who didn't approve of her treatment of the song. But other people really liked the unexpectedness and intensity of it. I didn't even know that she sang. There were the obvious references to Yoko Ono, but I as far as crazy Japanese-European prog collisions go I'd suggest Acid Mothers Gong or some of Damo Suzuki's vocals on Can's Tago Mago. I'd given a bit of historical background in my quick introduction, mentioning that the Soft Machine started rehearsing in the summer of '66 in a house only a couple of miles to the east of where we were, but I don't think Daevid realised was that Brian Hopper wrote that song in the mid 60s while living at a house less than a mile away in the other direction.
Yumi filmed and recorded the set, and Joel from Syd Arthur also recorded on a very expensive looking microphone, so some of this may surface on my Canterbury Sans Frontierès podcast in due course. There are already a couple of bits of video up on YouTube.
When I'd asked Leonie Evans if she wanted to come and play for this event she immediately cancelled a paying jazz gig in London so she could! I didn't know, but her dad Matt is an old Gong/Hillage freak, even plays in a band called "The Octave Doctors" — he'd brought her up on that music, she reckons she was listening to Gong in the womb! As expected she played a stunningly beautiful set to a hushed, delighted audience. There was one old Rae song from Era, the new Rae song called "Foreign Lands" where she got us all singing a repeated wordless backing riff, some other songs she'd written plus some of those wondefully obscure 20s and 30s songs she digs up and that seem as if they were written for her. She asked for requests at one point, so we got to hear "Stardust" (Bruno from ZFY's request), "Up A Lazy River" (my request, having had her recently recorded version of it stuck in my head for weeks). She encored with an old song called "Humming to Myself" (originally by the Harlem somethings, I think she said).
Liam Magill and Raven Bush from Syd Arthur were who I'd originally hoped to get alongside Daevid for this gig, but they'd already committed to playing in Maidstone that evening, hence my decision to ask Leonie. But then they found out that it was a fairly early set they were to play, so we hatched a plan for a late-night electro-acoustic set. Liam had told me that they've been listening to a lot of Terry Riley, were spending hours up at their South London studio jamming with analogue synths, and had read about the all-night performances Riley used to do in the redwood groves of Northern California. So inspired by that, they started off with Liam on heavily processed acoustic guitar and Raven producing soundscapes with the Prophet '08 that they've been using with Syd. Liam then switched to electronics (manipulating his impressive effects rack) and they took us on a sonic journey which, despite its electronic origins, felt completely appropriate for the space we were in. They then eased back onto acoustic instruments (guitar and violin) and played us out with a raga piece they'd learned note-for-note from The Rough Guide to Ravi Shankar!
It wasn't hard to talk them into doing an encore. John set Liam up with a microphone and they did a new Syd Arthur song-in-development called "Step Backwards", another Liam-penned instant classic I had running through my mind the whole next day.
Their set was over far too soon, but then we got to switch off the generator and PA and linger by the fire for hours and enjoy each other's company while listening to the nightingales sing in the nearby pear orchard. (In fact the nightingales had been audible during quieter parts of the evening, including Leonie's rendition of "Stardust" which includes the line "The nightingale tells his fairy tale of paradise where roses grew".) Daevid and Yumi stuck around to enjoy all of this, and to eat, drink and chat with people. Rather than Daevid Allen putting in an appearance as some kind of "legend", it felt much more like he was just part of the local music scene, playing a set like everyone else does, then hanging around and enjoying the event. No one, including me, knew what to expect, but I was heartened that rather than some kind of attempt at playing a definitive Daevid Allen set, we got to see him cheerfully doing the stuff he happens to be doing in early May 2013, with the people that happen to be around at the time. Rather than momentous, it just felt really normal.
At one point I found myself on a strawbale beside him, trancing out to Liam and Raven's magic/music, and I reached over to add a few more birch logs to the central fire that was dying down a bit. He leaned over and whispered "Thanks for keeping the fire going, Matthew". Even if he only intended the literal level of meaning, it was nice to hear that from the man himself.