Monday, December 09, 2013
Tuesday, December 03, 2013
Lee "Scratch" Perry at work
Sunday, December 01, 2013
Soundcloud track of the week (no. 29)
Prof. Appleblossom meets Midnite: Intense Saz Pressure
Monday, November 25, 2013
The night before we set off, I walked the few miles into Takaka (good practice) and back to catch about an hour of a "future bass" night at the Roots Bar. NZ homegrown dubstep practitioner Optimus Gryme was headlining, preceded by Roast Crew, DJs from Nelson playing what sounded to me like hyperfuturistic drum & bass (gone so far from its roots, and yet it's Jamaican roots resurfacing in a big way thanks to dubstep) or, more accurately, music that seemed to be located at various points inside the triangle whose vertices are current dancehall, D&B and dubstep. There's been a massive genre diffusion going on in my lifetime, so this difficulty in categorically pinning down what you're listening to is only to be expected. Hence the useful catch-all word "bass" to describe this kind of stuff. My dance-music-producing friend Dave Prentice says that the Soundcloud invent-your-own-genre tagging system has noticeably accelerated the diffusion in the dance sector (and probably some of the others too). Anyway, having a walk home and then fifty mile walk over the coming days, I left at a sensible hour (the young Kiwi crowd apparently never start dancing until midnight, so it was just me twitching rhythmically in the dark corner until the last few tunes). Never got to see Mr. Gryme.
Alan and I got a chance to play one evening down at the Roots Bar, a free night where we played some loosely rendered songs and rough but spirited jams with proprietor Craig (happily dusting his bass off after months of being busy running a bar) and his friend Dale, an excellent drummer who's been, among other things, involved in playing "analogue dance music" down here on the South Island. So he had to learn to be a machine, as he put it. On this occasion he got to loosen up and just feel his way through Alan's covers, originals, and our saz-bass-drums-percussion jams. I didn't think I played very well at the time, but the recording doesn't sound so bad:
I've also accompanied Alan during some of his local busking stints (just for the love, he's the one who needs the money). Getting lots of smiles from the great diversity of Golden Bay locals coming in and out of the supermarket.
Post-Heaphy, we played a set at the village market on a Saturday morning. Grant, the soundman, immediately recognised "Ambee Dagez" which I started our saz-and-djembe set with. He used to be in a band that played Eastern European, Balkan, etc. stuff, and tunes like that. He explained to me that it's a song about unrequited love from an Armenian opera. I've been playing it for years and had no idea. I felt I'd played awfully afterwards, my rational brain having clung on rather than surrendered to the flow, my fingers stumbling, no ideas, a real struggle. But it seemed to really work for a market where people aren't listening with full attention. We were playing a pleasant selection of folktunes (and some of mine), and 90-whatever-percent of the time we were on. People were hearing coherent passages of music they liked the sound of, not scrutinising it for flaws. Plenty of smiles, applause and people talking to us afterwards enthusiastically. Which made me feel slightly odd, as I felt like I'd somehow failed in some way. It's all about context, I decided. And it's not that important. In the final analysis, some people were made happier as the result of some sounds being produced, and no one (except me!) appears to have been made less happy. But it still makes me want to practice more.
Grant the soundman started asking me about various English musicians who passed through the area, and Tina Bridgman (who used to be in Avalonian hippy supergroup Heathens All in the 90's as well as half of Hearth with Richard Osborne). On the way home I asked Emily and Alan if they knew Tina. It turns out that Emily bought their place off her! As Matt Tweed was over here while illustrating Volume 1 and knew Tina well (having produced both Hearth albums), I emailed to ask if he'd been up here. And (of course), who was with him at the time he received it...Tina Bridgman (one of countless musician-friends he's got all over the world, not a close friend).
One of Alan's three current reggae bands, HalleluJah, had their first rehearsal in months up here at the weekend. A new seven-piece lineup with sax-trombone horn section, plus a new keyboard player, a lovely local called Deb who happened to know Manx Andy! She's a pennywhistle and mandolin player, not a keyboard player. And has never played reggae before. But when I dropped in to listen to them rehearsing "Satta Massagana", she was doing fine. And seemed very happy when I shared tea and lunch with him. They took a group photo in the garden (another sunny afternoon) and all seemed delighted with how things are evolving. Very civilised to have a 70s-style roots reggae band rehearsing on the premises on a Sunday afternoon!
Saturday, November 23, 2013
Soundcloud track of the week (no. 28)
No embedded player? Try here.
This was recorded at the Heaphy Hut on the third night of a four day walk along the Heaphy Track in New Zealand with Alan last week. Me on saz, him on a smallish djembe. I know "King Willy" as an old English folksong, but Alan also knows the melody from a drinking song recorded by a Dutch folk band. "Kaike Ena Sholio" is a Greek rebetiko tune I learned off an old 78 vinyl recording. The entire collection (recorded in three huts along the track) can be found here.
He insisted that we carry instruments (my saz and his smallish djembe), which I was initially resistant to. We were to be staying in the basic but well set-up Department of Conservation huts along the route, and I didn't think other walkers would necessarily want to hear our music. But on all three nights, seeing the instruments, our cohabitants actively encouraged it. The first night (the full moon) was spent at the Perry Saddle Hut, below Mount Perry, named after a mysterious Mr. Perry — the information board informed us nothing was known about him, but suggested he was "probably a very memorable character" (which of course amused Alan!). We shared the hut with four older women from Auckland, doing the track in six days, a young American filmmakers and two giggly Japanese tourists. The experience of climbing the mountain had induced in me such a state of reverence to everything that my playing seemed to be of a much higher level of sensitivity and attunement than usual. The second night was spent in the James Mackay Hut entertaining Ben (the filmmaker from Chicago) and Craig the DOC ranger from Karamea who we passed on the track doing maintenance work ("So, showtime starts at 8pm?" he asked once he'd learned that we were staying at the Mackay hut!). The final night's stay was as the Heaphy Hut, where the Heaphy River enters the ocean, a bright moon over the sea, where we played to an extremely appreciative Argentinian extended family eating together, together with Ben (working away on a screenplay in his notebook) and an ultra-enthusiastic Alaskan plus her personal guide. I'm very glad Alan pushed me to carry my saz all that way.
Getting home from the end of the track was a bit of a mission. We got a shuttle with the Alaskan woman and guide to the outskirts of Karamea (somewhere I'd like to come back and check out one day), then a few lifts that got us as far as Murchison with a couple of hours of light left. Failing to get out of there (and being attacked by sandflies by the roadside), we wandered about after dark looking for some kind of overhanging structure we could sleep under, but were intercepted by a group of locals sitting outside a bar who insisted that the barmaid switch off the obligatory background Bob Marley and that we play them a tune. After a bit of music and some hilarious inebriated banter, one of the more sober characters present offered us a couple of sofas to crash on for the night (thanks Sonny!) — another good reason to carry an unusual looking instrument around...
We got to Motueka easily the next day, where Alan had arranged a recording session, putting down some backing vocals and percussion down for the new album by local reggae band Irie Vibes. After that we wandered across town to see Helen (who I met almost exactly twenty years ago, November '93 up in North Wales with some of the Dongas up there). She took us over to Marahau to visit the community up in the valley there, have a picnic on the beach and play at the open mic at the nearby Park Cafe. It's quite a nicely loose, jammed-out kind of open mic, rather than a succession of singer-songwriters. The musicians all know each other and play in various combinations. There's an in-house drummer (American Steve) and excellent acoustic bass player (AJ) to back things up. A couple of teenagers turned up and played some impressive tenor sax and electric guitar at one point. Alan, Helen and I did her reggae song "I Rise", a setting of a prayer attributed to St. Patrick (rather well, I thought), Gadjo's "Boots on Loan" (written by our dear mutual friend Fraggle), then a very chaotic muddle of Irish tunes with Helen switching to pennywhistle (I had drums and percussion right next to me and could hardly hear her in the monitors), and then an Amy Winehouse song (seemed familiar but I had no idea whose it was until she told me afterwards). Alan and I had ended up on stage as part of a reggae jam a bit earlier, too. A Beatles singalong on the drive home. Nice evening.
Helen and I played bit more (able to hear each other properly) and swapped tunes for a while the next day before walking her dog along the beach and catching up. Meanwhile Alan was on day two of the Irie Vibes sessions. I made my way back to Takaka, catching a lift with a couple of young British Columbian snowboard dudes who were really keen to see the saz, ended up filming me playing part of "Ambee Dagez" by the side of the road, so that's probably somewhere on Facebook by now (I didn't ask for a copy). I needed a journey like that, feeling a lot more rooted here in Aotearoa now.
Monday, November 18, 2013
Soundcloud track of the week (no. 27)
Saturday, November 16, 2013
Canterbury Sans Frontières: Episode 9
Hugh Hopper and Richard Sinclair collaborating, Steve Hillage with Gong and The Orb, an excursion into 70s dub, King Crimson from '71, Byrne and Eno from '81, Bobby Hutcherson, the Third Ear Band, and more from Robert Wyatt's recently released '68 demos. From the current Canterbury music scene: Syd Arthur, Arlet and Koloto, as well as the second half of Boot Lagoon drummer Seth Deuchar's guest mix documenting the history of electronic music (this time covering 1968 to the present).
Friday, November 15, 2013
Exactly seven years after my last visit, I find myself back in Aotearoa (better known as "New Zealand"). I've been promising Alan for years that I'd come and visit again when I finished the trilogy of books, which I did in July, so here I am. And now I have a godson here, Alan and Emily's little James, a very sweet and good-natured godson, growing up surrounded by love in most beautiful surroundings (they're near Takaka in Golden Bay, a short walk from several beautiful beaches, tree-covered mountains in the other direction).
The flight over was a long one (I left on a Monday and got here on a Wednesday), but not too stressful. Qantas vegan food is slighly better than I expected, and the music selection on their entertainment system pretty extensive. I made a big playlist of Neil Young, Creedence, Miles, Coltrane, etc. and got into playing against the built-in Go programme which I was happy to discover (they have a lot of Far Eastern customers, I suppose). I also ended up re-acquainting myself with the quirky Russian-American singer-songwriter Regina Spektor, her 2009 album Far sounding particularly engaging to me thousands of metres up. Here's an example:
Her songs were rattling around in my head when I crossed over to the South Island on the Wellington-Picton ferry the next day, so it seemed appropriate that the name of the ferry (which previously operated between Marseille and Corsica) was the Santa Regina.
Before leaving Wellington I got a couple of glimpses into its music scene. Having dumped my stuff at a cheap hostel I looked online for anything on in town that night. There were two, both on Cuba Street. Down at the Bootleg Bar I checked out DJ Chaoslab playing an interesting and varied set as part of a new weekly night called "Bass Addicts Anonymous". I ended up in conversation with a friend of his, the two of us trying to work out what genres we were listening to with our limited knowledge of the current future bass scene(s) (neither of us is yet sure that we know what "trap" sounds like). His friend was a financial programmer who'd just returned home from a decade on Wall Street, so we talked about exotic financial instruments and the metaphysical side of coding, to a sonic backdrop of abstract blurps, booms and wobbles.
The next DJ wasn't really to my liking so I headed up the street to the Mighty Mighty to check out The Flying Sorcerers (great name!). They turned out to be pretty close to what I imagined - a slightly ropey but ultimately likeable garage-y psych-pop band. An enthusiastic female rhythm section backed a couple of blokes trading lead and rhythm guitar and both singing a succession of two-minute songs about jealousy, beer and what-have-you. One of the guitarist-singers looked just like John Fogarty in the 60's, complete with the bowl haircut. The audience was tiny (it's a weekly free gig, Wednesdays are obviously quiet on Cuba Street), but the band was energetic. The songs were just different enough to keep me interested, although I did doze off on the very comfortable sofa I'd stretched out on (and was told off by the heavily tatooed proprietess for doing so!), my body having just been displaced eleven timezones. (HOW many time zones?)
I was in Takaka the next day after an early morning quayside walk, a ferry, a coach, a bus, and a friendly lift up the "hill", as they call it here (it's a mountain where I'm from). Dinner was shared with Alan's family + suprise guest Pernilla (a Swedish friend who once lived in SW Ireland and went out with our old friend Toby from Wiggle), just off to walk the Heaphy Track, which Alan and I will be walking in a week or so.
The day after that, we were playing for a few residents of the Abbeyfield residential home for the elderly in Takaka, Alan singing and playing some songs from Flanders, France and Ireland, "Let It Be" and a couple of his own songs, with my saz accompaniment, plus getting me to play a couple of saz tunes backed by his small djembe. I was pretty jetlagged, but some of it is quite nice to listen back to, Alan's sense of rhythm seems to bring out the best in my playing.
The next day it was Takaka's weekly market, which has a small PA set up for legitimised busking (three one-hour slots). Alan played djembe with Ollie from local acoustic reggae band Root System (bandmate Dan showed up towards the end to play some violin). Then Mudwood showed up and played. It took me a while to recognised Joe, half of this duo, who I last saw in Ireland over ten years ago — he and his partner Amira (who sings and plays udu) have adopted an endearing "raggedy wood elf" kind of look, playing gentle folkie music rather than the high-energy African-inspired stuff he was playing back then. Alan had booked himself a solo slot, thinking I'd bring my saz along. I'd walked in, still jetlagged, and not quite grasping the details, sazless. So I ended up accompanying with some minimal djembe.
Later that day we were out at a tiny community hall in the middle of nowhere, the sun setting behind a mountain, a covered outdoor stage, the remains of a feast, multiple oildrum brazier, girls running around with fairy wings dispensing glittery dust... This was Diamond Steve's 51st birthday party, a Londoner with a love of punk, ska and rocksteady, getting people together and putting on his favourite local bands.
The Totara Collective play jammed-out psychedelia with a punky edge, in the Inner City Unit vein, bordering on spacerock (not so many swirly noises, but good use of violin, trombone and sax from multi-instrumentalist Dan). Alan played a bit of percussion with them and then took the mic for their one dub-flavoured piece. Butterface followed, a heavy rock band with a lively frontman who spent over an hour sacrificing the well-being of his vocal chords at the altar of rock'n'roll. There were a few lapses into melodic power-rock that weren't to my liking, but when they stuck to neanderthal boogie-blues rock they sounded just fine. "This song is about human consciousness and it's relationship to material manifestation" — a shame I couldn't follow the lyrics! Similarly with their song about a Nephilim... Oh well.
Steve had asked Alan (a.k.a. DJ Galanjah in these parts) to put together an hour-long set, including a few requests, to end the amplified part of the evening (there being a midnight curfew). Rather than turn up with a load of discs and needing decks, I ended up helping him piece it together as a single mix on my laptop, crossfading and normalising everything in advance, so he just had to chat on the mic and get into it up on stage ("Train to Skaville", "Monkey Man", "Funky Kingston", "Shantytown 007", "Ba Ba Boom" the original "Rudy, A Message To You", all that good stuff, starting with Burning Spear's "Happy Day").
Once the PA was switched off, some acoustic music kicked off indoors: Ollie from Root System and a guitarist friend, with some percussion. We listened for a while, and then joined in, my saz just about audible, projecting from a corner. This went along nicely for a couple of songs, and then an enthusiastic Canadian took over with a bellowed Nova Scotian sailors' song followed by a highly dramatic interpretation of that Leonard Cohen song on the guitar he'd not thought to tune to the rest of us. But he'd been earlier crowned King of the Green (after capturing someone running around the site at top speed dressed as a stag and ripping away his velcro'd-on heart, and then married to the "maiden" who'd just won an "inner beauty contest" in a Pythonesque fertility ritual), and it was late, so fair enough.
And now I sit here composing this at the Community Gardens building in Takaka while Root System rehearse (Ollie on guitar and vocals, Linda on backing vocals and shakers, Taki from Totara Collective on bass, Dan also from TC on violin, sax and trombone, Alan on djembe). Very similar in sound and feel to Avalon Roots from Glastonbury.
all-vocal woodland gig
This was the perfect way to end this year's season of woodland gigs. Since May we've had chamber folk minimalism, progressive funk maximalism, dark jazz folk, Greek-Venezuelan-Balkan-gypsy fusion, free improvisation, raunchy 20's blues, medaevil and Elizabethan psychedelia, poetry, gentle analogue electronica, ragas, and spacey modal guitar jams. I decided that to round things out for Samhain we'd have a night of just unaccompanied singing — a celebration of the human voice. At a practical level, this meant less fuss with moving instruments and gear about, setting things up, things going out of tune in the cold or in the heat of the fire, cold fingers struggling on fretboards, etc. But, more importantly, singing around a fire is at the root of all human-sourced music, so in that sense we'd be closer to our ancestors (the focus of Samhain).
Will from Cocos Lovers was keen to get the Smugglers Collective from Deal involved and volunteered to bring a keg of real ale and the means to make mulled cider for a donations-based bar. Local artist and cultural ally Tom Langley lent us an old Scout tent to house this in, which ended up being a godsend — for the first time this year the weather wasn't ideal.
Smugglers-affliated Ladies of the Lake started the evening with a twenty minute set. Nicola couldn't make it, sadly, and was much missed, but Natasha and Jo's harmonies were still a joy to the 120 or so attentive ears present. Most of their songs seem to be tragic ballads (it suits the plaintive nature of their harmonies), but they also sang "Shenandoah" and the comic "My Husband's Got No Courage in Him" before finishing with a wond'rous rendition of "The Blacksmith", a song which like me they'd first heard via Steeleye Span, but never an a cappella version. And I mustn't forget to mention (honorary Lady of the Lake) Phil Self's vocal bassline provided from the audience for one of the ballads (incongruously amusing, considering the miserable subject matter!)
Next it was Sarah Yarwood, who in fact inspired this evening, as our mutual friend Vicky had quietly let me know that she had a magnificent singing voice, having grown up in a Sussex folk-singing family. Sarah's regularly seen at local gigs and festivals, but almost no one seemed to know that she sings or has a folk background. It's not a matter of shyness, rather the lack of appropriate venues in the area. Vicky suggested getting her up to the woods, and she was into it, hence the idea of an all-vocal evening arose.
The rain came in quite heavily after she'd begun her set with a song by Dave Webber (inspired by the woodlands around her family home near Charlwood). Unfortunately this became rather loud on the amphitheatre roof. You could almost feel everyone straining to hear — it was like hearing a singer on a low-volume, badly tuned radio or old wax cylinder recording from 1892. After a couple of songs (one by Maria Cunningham) Dave suggested bringing her forward, so I produced the large umbrella I'd fortunately thought to buy that afternoon, and Sarah moved to the audience's side of the fire, from which point the rain just became a background texture to some glorious vocalising.
Her mum Cathy and dad Charley had come for the occasion (her sister was meant to but couldn't make it...next time), and joined her for Dave Webber's "Lady of Autumn"...at this point I was seated right below mother father and daughter, huddled together under the umbrella producing the richest three part harmonies I've heard in a long time. I've since learned that Cathy and Charley were in a folk group called Beggars Velvet ('85-'93) with Dave Webber and Anni Fentiman. They stuck around for another one before Sarah sang "Silver Dagger" solo. Looking around you could see many of her friends and acquaintances looking very happily surprised to be suddenly discovering what a voice she has. Her parents returned to her side to sing Kipling's poem "Oak and Ash and Thorn" (put to music by Peter Bellamy, as were many of his). Sarah sang "Ware Out, Mother" with a little help from her mum, then an unaccompanied rendition of Ewan MacColl's "The Terror Time". The family trio reassembled to sing "Jewels of the Night", a modern protest song about the proposed expansion of nearby Gatwick Airport, specifically the resulting light pollution (are there any other protest songs about light pollution?). I hope they all return (plus Sarah's sister) next year, and I'm sure the rest of the audience feel the same.
The inclement weather really did add something to the proceedings — the novelty of being warm, dry and comfortable, listening to beautiful singing in the woods on a rainy November night. But there was also the added intimacy resulting from the singers moving in closer from the usual bandshell position over to the small space between audience and fire.
After another short break where people could refill their plates and cups (and exercise their chattering voices) I was about to introduce the third act, the Tarry Trousers (formerly the Smugglers Singers). But they needed no introduction. Rather than facing the audience, they stayed seated among us, and suddenly erupted into song with the first of several sea shanties ("Bound for South Australia"). And rather than asking the audience to join in on the chorus, the audience just joined in anyway, as that was the obvious and natural thing to do. We got "John Kanaka", "Away Santiago", "Blood Red Roses", and a couple of wassailing songs to finish... Brilliant, just the right mood to lift everyone's spirits on a rainy night. And the multiplicity of voices easily drowned out the hammering of the rain on the roof.
I did introduce the the final performer, which allowed me to point out that it would be very hard to find a more appropriate singer for the occasion, as Thomas McCarthy is that most rare of singers in this region of space-time, having learned a vast repertoire of songs, and extremely old and rare style of singing them, directly from his family line (he's from the travelling people of southern Ireland). Many of these songs go right back, I explained, so we were effectively going to be listening to the voices of Thomas's ancestors. Having got to chat with him a bit at Smugglers Festival this year as well as that afternoon, I was aware that he never set out to be public performer. It turns out that he was overheard singing at a cousin's wedding by a member of the catering staff present, and urged to visit Cecil Sharp House (folk music HQ in Britain). One thing led to another, including an alliance with folk innovator Sam Lee, and Thomas has now made it his mission to keep his family's songs alive (his generation were largely uninterested — singing in his community, he told us, died the moment they worked out how to connect a portable TV to a car battery...).
He interspersed his songs with stories, explanations and insights into his culture, leaning casually against the central pole of the amphitheatre structure, his back to the fire, everyone hanging on every word. When I first heard his family's uncanny vibrato style of singing in August, I assumed it was inspired by the sound of the uilleann pipes, but he maintains that the singing style is older, the pipes having been developed to imitate it. His set lasted for almost an hour and a half, but flew by, as we were all transported into a timeless space. Listening back to the recordings, the sound of the rain on the tarpaulin roof over the strawbale seating sounds like the crackles on old vinyl, and with these songs and Thomas's voice, you could easily fool someone into thinking they were early 20th century field recordings!
[Thomas singing on the South Bank a couple of years back]
As with most folk music, the songs were largely about marriage and/or death, many laments for lost loves and fathers trying to marry off their daughters. So that we didn't all "go home crying", Thomas interspersed some comical songs involving ugliness, drunkenness, and the usual Irish absurdity. Not all of the songs were ones passed right down his family line — a particularly moving one was written by his father in West London, lamenting the loss of his travelling life, another ("The Dun Broon Bride" a.k.a. "Fair Eleanor and Lord Thomas" was swapped with another trad singer up in Scotland). Some songs came with a story (the story leading into the song).
He was going to finish with "Over the Mountain" from the North of Ireland, but I asked him to sing "Donal Kenny" as an encore, which he was happy to do. And by then the rain had stopped, so everyone got to arrive in the dry and leave in the dry. Quite a few of us hung around the fire til quite late, Thomas clearly in his element and happy to be out of the city for a while (he's got a teenage son up in West London).
Already looking forward to getting the amphitheatre back up and running in May 2014...
Monday, November 11, 2013
Piano in the Woods 7
This was the evening before I left for New Zealand, the first PITW performance to occur in darkness. This time Sam brough along some members of his CCCU student improvising collective the Scratch Orchestra, plus spoken word artist Ben Hickman. I lit candles along the path to the piano so that the (surprisingly dedicated, considering the weather and fact it was Sunday night) audience could find their way there. The various SO players and singers (including clarinetist Adam and a singer who'd played with my recent maths lecture at Free Range) were dispersed around the nearby clearing, the audience being encouraged to wander around and through, experiencing the sound from a variety of locations. The piano itself wasn't involved in that piece.
There was meant to be a brief SO introduction to the piano piece that followed, but Sam wisely called that off due to the worsening rain, and just got on with playing a short but effective piece of prepared piano. They keys have been unusable for months (in fact some of the black ones have started to fall off), so he was again sat underneath playing on the strings with a variety objects and devices. This was followed by another SO-led piece, this time with Ben Hickman perched on a tree stump reading his uncategorisable word-streams into the darkness. And the whole event was bookended by a gong at the start and a short blast of not-entirely-inappropriate fire breathing by Adam at the end!
Libby made a roving video of this for Sam, and I got almost all the audio on my Zoom H2, so that will be surfacing on the PITW site at some point soon (there's a bit of a backlog now, but Sam Bailey is a busy man, so be patient...). For now here's Neil Sloman's latest portrait of the decaying beast:
As ever, an interesting crowd came along for this, including Kevin Ayers' god-daughter Katrina (a regular at Free Range and woodland events), her friend Mavernie from local heroes the (currently dormant) Happy Accidents, bass player David Leahy with his little son, etc.
Soundcloud track of the week (no. 26)
No embedded player? Try here.
A recording from a rehearsal for a set played to accompany the Shuvani belly dance troupe performing in a kebab restaurant in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, January 2007. My saz here is accompanied by the expert tambourine playing of jazz drummer Ryan Biesack, as well as additional percussion from Debbie, Cathy and the dancers' ankle bells. Recorded at Pam's house.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
Free Range lecture night (with Arlet)
"Performance lecture" night with musical interludes from a five-piece Arlet (the usual quintet, no Lucy this time), including a new tune ("Swiss Gourmet"),a surprise rendintion of the quasi-aleatoric "Bell Tent" tune, and a remarkably well crafted medley of classic horror film soundtrack themes (Psycho, Halloween, The Exorcist and The Shining, I think) — another example of Aidan's skill as an arranger...the overlaps and intersections between themes making it sound not like a conventional medley, but instead a coherent whole, almost like something he mighthave written for the group.)
Andy Birtwhistle, who I've seen do readings at Free Range Dada nights, gave a dry film theory lecture on optically generated film soundtracks and the materiality of sound (I think) while gradually being drowned out by his own soundtrack. Ben Hickman, accompanied by gentle, odd piano interjections from Sam Bailey, gave a surreal lecture starting with the history of biscuits and then tangenting off in countless directions, a kind of ultra-deadpan abstract standup comedy, almost impossible to describe in words here, the only comparable speaker I could only think of being Reggie Watts. My choice of topic, it being Hallowe'en, was the Fischer—Griess Monster (generally known simply as "the Monster"). "Perfoming" as my eccentric alter ego Prof. Raphael Appleblossom, I was accompanied by Sam on prepared piano, one of his CCCU music department improvising Scratch Orchestra students, Adam on clarinet, and another one or two SO members vocalising. Taking people on a whirlwind tour of the theory of finite simple groups in fifteen minutes, I was gradually being drowned out by my crescendoing accompanists. This wasn't pre-arranged, they just got very intensely into what they were doing (just as I was, in my cloud of chalkdust and flailing arms), but it happened at about the point that most of my non-mathematical audience would be giving up on trying to follow what I was saying, so it worked really well I thought. The Prof. became quite animated, ending up standing on a chair shouting at the seated audience "THE MONSTER HAS 808 THOUSAND MILLION MILLION MILLION MILLION MILLION MILLION MILLION MILLION ELEMENTS!!". And we somehow all ended together. A video of this, filmed on a camcorder being passed around the audience, may eventually surface...
Monday, November 04, 2013
Soundcloud track of the week (no. 25)
No embedded player? Try here.
This was recorded with Henry (digital drums), John (fretless electric bass guitar) and Keith (electric guitar), all friends from the Children of the Drone collective, as part of a session at Henry's house in Exeter, February 2013. As usual, I'm playing saz. The whole session can be found here.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
'68 Fairport Holy Grail!
I was feeling rather fragile today, decided to enfold myself in that comforting blanket that's made from the interweaving sounds of Sandy Denny's voice and Richard Thompson's electric guitar wizardry. I loved this stuff as a teenager, and unlike most of the stuff I loved back then, it still moves me like very little else. In fact, I consider the best Sandy/Richard recordings to be among the finest things of any kind produced by this troubled species homo sapiens sapiens.
So I found myself listening to the Heyday compilation, and there's this rather groovy song called "Reno, Nevada" which stood out more than usual this time...
...and realising that I'd never heard anyone else's version (I was quite sure it was a cover), I checked out the songwriter. Richard Fariña. Who? Wikipedia helpfully informed me that he was a Greenwich Village folkie at the peak time for that kind of thing (1960–63). And then he wrote a novel called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me which so inspired Thomas Pynchon (my favourite novelist) that Pynchon, who was also the best man at Fariña's wedding, dedicated his '74 masterpiece Gravity's Rainbow to him (RF had sadly died in a motorcycle accident in California in '66).
So I ended up looking for other versions, and I found THIS, recently unearthed footage from the French music TV programme Bouton Rouge (which featured Soft Machine, etc. at a time when such things were rarely seen on British TV). No Sandy here, they still had Judy Dyble (and Iain Matthews) singing with them at this point:
And Richard Thompson was still a teenager at this point! There's an account by Joe Boyd of seeing this lineup playing at the UFO Club, and witnessing an even younger teenage Richard playing a blistering solo during a cover of Paul Butterfield's "East/West" and realising he had to sign this band. When I read that some years ago I searched for any recording which might exist, as "East/West" was also a formative influence in my teenage years when I was discovering West Coast psychedelia via late night college radio broadcasts from down the road while surviving the 1980s in central Wisconsin (I can still remember the request line number: 346-2696...I used to call in and request exactly this kind of thing):
I think that live version of "Reno, Nevada" may be the closest we'll get to hearing what that would have sounded like played by the earliest Fairport lineup. In fact, the jam therein seems to have borrowed from elements of "East/West", and I wonder if Joe Boyd may have actually been mistaken at the time — perhaps they were really playing the Fariña song? Who knows. But I wish someone would hurry up and invent time travel.
It seems that the audio of that French TV performance was tacked onto a recent CD remaster of the first Fairport album. Very hissy, but that hardly matters with such a treasure as this.
I note that Judy Dyble's sitting patiently listening during the jam, rather than going backstage to get a bit of embroidery done, as she used to back in London. There's an anecdote I've heard from her that word got 'round the scene that she was going backstage to do something involving needles, leading to a rumour that she was shooting up heroin! Fortunately that was very far from the truth, and she's very much still with us, still singing, and still incredibly gracious about the way her first band replaced her with Sandy Denny.
Sunday, October 27, 2013
Soundcloud track of the week (no. 24)
No embedded player? Try here.
A sci-fi themed track from central Wisconsin 'hippie disco' band Irene's Garden's most recent album Interplanetary Love Songs, featuring some of my saz playing, recorded at Mercury Dave's studio in one take in 2012. These are old friends, and it was very kind of them to get me involved.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
The Boot Lagoon (acoustic) and the-quartet at Free Range
Thursday 24th October, 2013
This was definitely the busiest, liveliest Free Range audience yet. As with Arlet earlier this year, The Boot Lagoon brought in some of their considerable local following, so the average age of the audience almost halved from the usual clutch of local academics and arty types who show up most weeks to hear challenging avant-garde sound-art, etc., and the space filled up to beyond capacity.
I was glad to see that they'd decided to do an acoustic set, with Callum on piano, Cameron on double bass and Seth playing his drums with brushes. Unfortunately, due to train-related issues, guitarist Pete had been unable to rehearse with the other three for this one, so he remained in the audience, getting to enjoy hearing his own band live for a change. This was probably the Boot set I've most enjoyed, just because it was such a pleasant surprise and the audience was fully attentive, but the music also revealed hidden depths with all of the electronic elements removed... Cam has become quite formidable on the double bass and the electric (which he plugged in for their final, and newest, piece, "Timoteo"). "Woodland", the first piece they ever wrote together, was played penultimately (it's the one which appears on their EP with the anagrammatic title "An Odd Owl"), and there was a piece Callum announced as "Eugene", but other than that I struggle to connect names to their (all instrumental) compositions. I think some of the older Free Range regulars who'd never heard them in their normal electric quartet form may have just assumed them to be an unusual sort of young jazz trio. Which they could very easily be, if they wanted to...afterwards Cam and Pete were enthusing to me about the Neil Cowley Trio (the bass player of which Cam recently replaced in London-based internationally touring funk band Mamas Gun) as well as Roller Trio.
Callum's brother Joel (bass player in Syd Arthur) was present, along with parents Gabby and John, so I got a quick SA update — they just finished a UK tour supporting Paul Weller, culminating in a Saturday night at the Hammersmith Apollo. A good experience, all-in-all, especially getting used to projecting their sound into "huge cavernous venues", but not all elements of the Weller audience are so open-minded, so not always easy...
the-quartet (Free Range organiser Sam Bailey on piano, local guitarist/singer/songwriter Jack Hues on guitar, and Led Bib rhythm section Liran Donin and Mark Holub) then played a set that mostly consisted of sections from the music written for the experimental poetry collaboration Rote-Thru, although they also squeezed in a song Jack had written, setting a poem by regular Free Range poet Kelvin Corcoran, and clearly betraying his love of Lowell George/Little Feat. They finished the set with Robert Wyatt's "Sea Song" — I've seen them do this before, but this time Sam added a little intro with his newly acquired Indian harmonium. A couple of lyrical flubs (the same ones as last time!), but not a bad version overall. Still, I can't quite get used to anyone else singing that song, it being so personal.
Next week's a Halowe'en special which involves (among other things) Arlet playing a medley of horror film soundtrack themes(!) and me (as Prof. Raphael Appleblossom) giving a maths lecture (on The Monster) with improvised musical accompaniment. I need to start studying my notes!
The Orb's 25th anniversary show (with System 7)
I waited twenty-five years to have the full-experience of post-'88 electronic dance music, and I think I picked the right night! I was offered a free ticket to this a few weeks ago, out of the blue, by Dave "Tin Man" Sheppard, a lovably eccentric Kentish philantropist who's appears to be deeply connected into the whole "Gong Global Family" (a lot of names getting mentioned in conversation, rather than "dropped") and known for turning up at gigs dressed as the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. He's come along to a couple of the woodland gigs I've organised and loved them. He also puts on gigs at a loss, just for the sake of getting certain bands and audiences together in certain places because it's a good thing to do, and sees me as being on a similar wavelength. So I happily accepted his gift, as I have fond memories of hearing The Orb's twenty-minute opus magnum "A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld" on John Peel in '89, and I've always got time for Steve Hillage's music (even in techno form à la System 7) and his commitment to the "transcendental power of pure sound", as Sally Potter recently stated of Lindsay Cooper (Steve, Lindsay and Chris Cutler from Henry Cow shared a house in London at one point, incidentally).
I quite enjoyed the experience of queueing outside prior to the 10pm door-opening time — a lot of people mostly my age (plus a few older heads and younger ravers) in noticeably "lived in" bodies of various shapes and sizes, much good cheer, people reminscing about seeing The Orb with Primal Scream back in '92, etc. After an absurd exchange with someone on the door who was hestitating to let me in due to a lack of ID proving I was over 18(!) I was inside and dancing for a couple of hours to DJ Nick Manasseh's reggae set. He's a Notting Hill Carnival veteran going back to the 80s, the perfect selecter to take us on a journey from scratchy old rocksteady singles through 70s roots and dub and into the realm of digital reggae. He was joined for a while by an MC (or, in the Jamaican sense "Deejay") who made up for what he lacked in enunciation with stage presence and a rhythm sharp as West African hand-drumming. I didn't catch his name, but at one point he dropped in a quick mention that the last time he'd been on that stage was "a long time ago, with Joe Strummer", so obviously he was of some significant lineage. Nice vibes, the space filling out with dancing people. An ultra-good-nature crowd, too, where anyone who bumps into you, however lightly, acknowledges you with an apologetic gesture, and it becomes a fleeting moment of friendly contact..
The Orb were just magnificent. Two silhouetted figures, no hype on the mic, in fact not a word spoken, there was no need for it. Just a little sihouetted "goodbye" wave from Dr. Paterson as their logo re-appeared on the screen behind them, signalling their set was coming to an end (very sweet, no need for an encore). Despite elements of edginess in some of their output, there's an overriding gentleness and good humour about The Orb, and looking back, I realise that I recall their late 80's emergeness with fondness, despite not having kept up with them or given them much thought for many years. As with Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudy of System 7, I felt that I could trust these people with my nervous system (which I just don't feel with who- or whatever's behind the great majority of anonymous psy-trance, dubstep or other trance-inducing electronic music these days).
I let myself go into the immersive audio-visusal environment, one which they'd created to a stunningly high level of aesthetic detail and coordination. The sound, decor, projections, coloured spots and sweeping multi-coloured laser arrays collectively amounted to so much more than just a spectacle or "entertainment event". I felt as if I were suspened inside a giant and deeply beautiful work of art (which included and integrated the dancers, the duo behind the music, and all the audio-visual elements I mentioned), that I was in the presence of genuine artists. I recognised a few passages and samples (lovely to hear Minnie Riperton again), but anything recognisably from their past seemed to be being reconstructed live in a completely new and leading-edge sort of way — nothing sounded in anyway dated. It wasn't the kind of 25th anniversary gig where past glories were being relived. Hillage joined them for the part of the set that most resembled "Blue Room" (their collaboration where his guitar is so processed you mostly can't tell which bit of the sound it's making!).
Reading about them later, I was reminded that the original Patterson-Cauty version of The Orb invented the whole "chill out zone" thing in dance culture, before there was any music being made in an associated genre. They operated out of a popular London club in the earliest rave days, their ambient room eventually becoming more popular than the dance room. As there was no "ambient house" or any of that kind of music which they helped birth, they had to used what they could find, e.g., dub, cosmic soul, sound effects, and Hillage/Giraudy's seminal Rainbow Dome Musick...which is how Steve and Miquette found their way into the dance scene.
I've spent years hanging around the fringes of various bits of what gets called "rave culture", watching the various subculural mutations with some interest, but never really participating. Many branches of that tree look rather unhealthy to me these days, but this Orb/S7 branch represents a certain purity of intent that has persisted from the very beginning.
I watched The Orb from about halfway back, in an elevated area next to the sound desk, behind a rail, but found myself making my way to near the front for System 7. There was enough room to move, the sound was ultra-crisp, their projections were gorgeous — a perfect 2013 analogue of a 1967 San Francisco ballroom liquid lightshow, harnessing the last 45 years of technology to make an even more far out visual display to play in front of. Identical intention to the '67 SF innovators, but nothing in any way retro about these visuals. Still organic, like the old stuff was, but more overtly mathematical, and hence seemingly having progressed in some sense. Think "God's screensaver" and you'll get the general idea.
Steve's guitar is generally processed beyond any recognisable guitar sound, and is used to create trippy counter-rhythms as well as subtle melodic textures. But occasionally the '70s guitar sound emerged and he blessed us with a little burst of bejewelled Gongishness. Miquette gleefully worked the machinery beside him, grooving away while tapping and tweaking various consoles and seemingly bringing a truly human dimension into what generally lacks it. It's worth bearing in mind that she's been doing this stuff continually since about fifteen years before the current wave of hip young electronica producers were even born. And seemingly loving every moment of it.
Rather than imitating a seamless DJ mix, they played a sequence of pieces which were joined by a few seconds of descent into a beat-less psychedelic vortex (they do it so well!), and then the next beat kicking in at just the right moment, sending a wave through the crowd. Pretty impressive how they kept the energy up, not a moment of slack or let-up. I danced ecstatically until the 4am curfew, at which point the crowd clearly wanted it to keep going for hours, and I just wanted to give them big hugs in appreciation for how much of themselves they'd given, as they left the stage beaming.
Out on the pavement in front of The Forum at 4am, the Tin Man announced that we, the entourage, were going to be following a particular friendly-looking party-person to a warehouse party somewhere in Camden where we could take refuge until the first train back to Kent. The walk there was hilarious (the Tin Man has a completely disarming effect on everyone who meets him, so you feel completely safe with him, even walking backstreets in London at 4am). We got there in the end, and this party turned out to be quite a bit gnarlier than where we'd been. The demographic was about half the average age, music much faster and more aggressive, a more chaotic, intoxicated atmosphere, the decor (which actually had been done quite well, for underground standards) naturally looked quite shoddy compared to the high-budget version The Orb had shelled out for.
And we had to negotiate to get in for a reasonable price. That's part of the culture, it seems (unlike mainstream capitalist-based entertainment). And it did strike me as an emergent "folk" culture: the music was anonymous, not commodity-based (being generated live via laptops and consoles, rather than records being DJ'd) and it was music for dancing, no celebrities or "performers" ... the crowd struck me as fairly classless, and this, importantly, was not an event superimposed on the city by a money-making promotions operation, but rather something welling up from "the people" (or at least a small but proactive slice of "the people"). I stuck around there for a couple of hours, not connecting with the music enough to get into dancing, happy just to observe, before heading back to Victoria to get my coach. On the way up to London and back home I was reading parts of Chris Cutler's File Under Popular (essays on folk music, "art" music and "popular" music, analysed in terms of class struggle, etc.) which gave me a lot to think about in the light of what I'd just experienced.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
Paper Cinema's Odyssey
18th October 2013
A busy week. Miriam suggested this, as she and the Little Bulb theatre crew got to know the Paper Cinema people while they were both doing residencies at the Battersea Arts Centre over the last year or so. The two groups have a lot in common, in terms of energy, enthusiasm, inventiveness, gentle humour and imaginative, judicious use of technology.
Music was provided by Chris on guitar (highly versatile), ukelele and various bits, Quinta on violin, musical saw and various bits, and Hazel on keyboard, electronics, electric drill, thundersheet, etc. It's ostensibly a visual cinema-like experience combining elements of 2-d visual art, puppetry and clever projections, but the music was an inseparable part of it. I commented to the Chris afterwards that I would have loved it even if I were blind.
I won't attempt to describe the show — they've been getting rave reviews you can read online, such as this. And here's a trailer they made:
The story culminates with Odysseus returning home to his beloved Penelope, the only point in the performance where colour is used (very effective), while the musical trio played a riff over and over on ukelele, xylophone and melodica that was achingly familiar (was it the Penguin Café Orchestra? I wondered — seemed that kind of thing). The ensemble filed out in front of the screen (still playing), the two visual artists holding up "THE" and "END" signs on sticks, and then they all filed out of the hall, keeping that riff going. What was it? And then suddenly Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" (what a great tune!) came blasting through the PA — that's what it was!
We went for a drink with them afterwards in a nearby pub, and it transpires they are PCO fans. So we've got them interested in some kind of woodland performance or residency next year. Watch this space...