Thursday, June 29, 2006

midsummer adventures

I recently returned from a week away in Somerset and Wiltshire, my usual midsummer bicycle-pilgrimage to Avebury, but this year interpolating the new Sunrise Festival.

I cycled up to Sunrise on Friday 16th (about eight hours pedalling from Exeter), with my saz on my back, and all the usual kit. I was supposed to be getting in free as part of an improvisation project based around "Orchestra Cube", the ensemble associated with the Cube Cinema in St. Pauls, Bristol, to which my occasional collaborator Ale belongs. There was quite a bit of confusion with performers' tickets at the gate (Melski spent the night outside being made to feel like a blagger, because they couldn't find her name on a list, and went home in disgust, sadly...). As it happened, I arrived just after Stef and Peni from The Mordekkers, and they had a spare ticket I could use, so there were no problem there. I got a general impression of the site, set up camp, had brief encounters with Matt Spacegoat and Tim "Invisible" Hall (now Bard of Glastonbury!), but the bike ride and extreme (for England) heat had wiped me out, so I missed that evening's festivities.

Saturday 17th I was awoken by skylarks, and got up early to wander 'round a relatively empty site. There was a freeform solo synth 'performance' taking part in the "Freedome" (a big geodesic dome with PA and numerous instruments, intended for free jamming), then bumped into James S from the Droners, and spent some time wandering around and talking with him. Gradually I tracked down Ale and the others, to discover that the space we'd been promised in which to facilitate improvised music had fallen through, and we'd just have to find places to play on our own initiative. This was initially disappointing, as we were clearly not a "band" in search of "gigs" - we were hoping to meet new people and involve them in something very open, but we resolved to make the best of it. Our first move was to stage a "coup" in the Freedome, which was the closest thing on site to the kind of space we were supposed to be running, but, it had been observed, it was rather stuck in a kind of funk-rock jammming. So we went in, sat up front, and one-by-one asked to plug in until we had almost succeeded in a takeover. The guitarist and drummer hung on and kept the funkiness alive while we did our best to warp it out for about 70 minutes. Gradually the funksters eased us back out of the scene, but it was fun while it lasted:

Ale - tablas, acoustic guitar, text; Simone - electric violin; Bel - trumpet; me - saz; Hugh - electric bass guitar; various unknown others - electric guitars, drums, nutty stream-of-consciousness vocals

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Dragonsfly - photo from

I saw my friends Maya and Daygan's band Dragonsfly on the Small World stage that evening, with yet another new line-up, and one which works very well indeed. They had the whole place dancing (interesting arrangements of various European folkdance tunes, mostly). After them, it was The Mordekkers, who I'd agreed to record. I took a MiniDisc recording of their stormingly well-received set off the desk, and it looks like they're into having it uploaded to the, so that should happen before too long.

Sunday 18th - Not having a mobile phone, and camping in a different location, communication with the Bristol crew wasn't entirely obvious. I spent a good part of the morning floating 'round the festival site looking for them, only to catch the last few notes of their set at "Bar Solar". Just as well, though, as there had been severe monitoring problems, everyone complaining about not being to being able to hear each other. The general conclusion was that this sort of thing just doesn't work that well in the festival environment, but that we'd keep trying while we were there. I went up to check out the "Woodhenge", a "Type B-flattened" stone circle laid out with tree trunks set into the ground at the highest point of the site (presumably a John Martineau design?). As soon as I'd got my saz out, Invisible Tim appeared with his guitar, and a most pleasing, spontaneous, flowing jam followed, interspersed by discussion about his newfound role as Bard of Glastonbury, neo-Druidism, Iolo Morganwg, the Awen, etc.

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Stevie P invited a load of friends to his camp and cooked us all a fantastic curry before going off to play the main stage with his band Green Angels (he, Sam, plus new rhythm section Jem on drums and George on contrabass - Mandy's recently moved to Cumbria). After eating a really interestingly little bit of improvised serial music occured with Sam playing clarinet, Suzi (currently the Big Green Gathering office manager) playing violin, and me playing saz. I wasn't recording this, tho' I did get a few minutes of me and Suzi after Sam had to leave.

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The Green Angels set was really very impressive. They're still playing almost all French and Breton dance music, with huge, chaotic, hilarious hanter dro's and Circassian circles being danced in front of the stage, generating vast quantities of positive energy, but there's something a lot freer and more psychedelic about the current sound. Sam's bagpiping just keeps getting better, and Stevie's playing a bit of electric guitar (something he does masterfully, and which I've only ever witnessed once or twice before) and at times the simple folktunes gave way to something entirely other, yet the dances carried on as usual, the tunes being somehow 'implied'. The rhythm section obviously helps this to occur, and I look forward to seeing where it goes. Jem's a busy drummer these days, also playing with Dragonsfly and Sym's cosmic punk trio "Sun Army" (who changed their name from "Tsunami" a while back for obvious reasons).

Seeing The Mordekkers, Dragonsfly and Green Angels in rapid succession left me with the impression that something new is crystallising, akin to English early 70's "folk-rock" at its best (except without the "rock", more like high-energy folk-rooted music with a whole spectrum of other influences).

After the Green Angels, Tanglefoot (three women from Southern Germany with a couple of blokes on drums and bass) played their first ever set in England ("And they've already named a beer after us!" gleefully announced fiddler Tini "almost from Ireland" Stiefelmayer). They are clearly familiar with the British festival scene, though, as they played a ska version of "The Diggers' Song", a cover of The Tofu Love Frogs' "Star of the Hackney Downs" and an excellent reggae song by Galway's Big Bag of Sticks. It was good to see them so well-received (most of the set was full-power Irish folk-based wildness which had people leaping about enthusiastically in every direction), and also just to come across some Germans on that particular wavelength. The highlight of their set was "Step it Up", a genius re-arrangement of the traditional song "Step It Out, Mary".

I spent some time with Pok in the Campaigns Field (strangely, placed outside the main site, "A unique harmonic Festival site design based upon the Sacred Geometry of the Temple of New Jerusalem and the works of the ancient megalith builders. A geometric reflection of divinity on Earth," no less, according to the flyer). No room for ecological and social justic issues in that particular scheme? Hmmm... Then it was back to the main stage to catch most of another Dragonsfly set (tho' I missed their collaboration with Sheila Chandra) followed by more Mordekkers - a short set and a long set. Due to muddled organisation, the 'dekkers had been left of the programme and were only able to play the main stage because the "Medaevil Baebes" pulled out when they found out the festival had gone bankrupt and they wouldn't be getting paid. I recorded The Mordekkers again (and that, too, should make it up onto eventually). They really rocked the place on that occasion, supplemented by a lightshow involving projections of the band with various computer graphic overlaid - fractals swirling out of Stef's face, etc., most amusing.

Very late that night I ended up in a dome behind the Small World stage for a cosy little session with Stevie P, Sam, Maya, Tegwyn, et al. Some really lovely singing. Stevie asked me to get my saz out and we did three of his songs, some stuff from the Heathens All days. My fingers were doing exactly what I wanted them to - one of those magical occasions where the notes all just seem to come out right... I recorded that, too, but I'll have to check with Stevie about any of it I might want to upload.

Monday 19th. I managed to find Ale fairly early. He and Hugh were the only two left from the Bristol crew. They'd secured a couple of cafe slots for us as an improv trio. Ale and I had a nice saz and tabla jam in the Crafts Field to warm up. It didn't work as well on stage (the muddled sonic environment that is a festival site just doesn't help), but listening back it sounds pretty OK to me - just not really the kind of "entertainment" most festival-goers are seeking. We played the Triban Cafe after a cartoon-like didg-wizard in a tie-dyed NASA T-shirt (part of the "Tribal Earth" thing). He and a friend also did a 'hang' duet and got everyone singing - lovely summery vibe, very entertaining, and particularly hard to follow with freeform improv when we couldn't really hear each other...We cleared the place out, rather. The next set, at the Ogham Tree Cafe gelled much more, but was cut short by a grunge band kicking off on the (adjacent) main stage. Nice and relaxed while we were playing though. A young dreadlocked woman bounced up to me in the Campaigns Field later to enthusiastically proclaim that what we'd done was "COOL!", so at least one person present got something out of it.

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I headed to the tipi circle in the evening for what was supposed to be a monster French/Breton tune session but turned out to be more of a cosy little Irish/Breton session with Stef, Rosie, Rohan and friends. This was the end of the festival for me. After the session wound down, I got a few hours sleep, got up with the larksong, and was soon on my bike, cycling to Avebury.

Tuesday 20th-Wednesday 21st. I got as far as Westbury on just a few dried figs, stopped below the white horse there to brew up a cup of tea and eat a bit more. As usual, I approached the Avebury complex along the Kennet and Avon Canal, stopping at the Barge Inn near Alton Barnes for a much need pint of bitter and packet of peanuts, before cycling up the killer hill crowned by Knapp Hill, assisted by a mad wind which had just then blown in, signalling a less-than-ideal solsice eve, meteorologically. I was just overjoyed to have got that far safe and dry, and ran around the top of Knapp Hill ecstatically in the wild wind.

barrow on Windmill Hill
a barrow on Windmill Hill - photo by IH (from Modern Antiquarian website)

That night was spent on a favourite Avebury-area hilltop under some trees with Andy Letcher (a.k.a. Andy Bard, Andy Pipes, Andy Jabberwocky) who's new book Shroom: A Cultural History of Magic Mushrooms had been published by Faber and Faber only a week or two earlier. The expected storm blew in, and we just about managed to stay dry by building up our fire and encasing ourselves in raincoats. A most excellent and hilarious night's conversation and music kept our spirits high, despite the seeming impossibility of witnessing the sunrise. But...the rain eventually blew over, a most beautiful crescent moon appeared, the sky mostly cleared, and little silhoutted figure started to appear on the largest of the Windmill Hill barrows. Andy had been playing a number of his songs on his mandolin (most notably "How Wonderful is Wood", a gorgeously flowing, poetic celebration of all aspects of wood) accompanied by my saz, so we took our instruments up to the barrow and played our hearts out to the twenty or so assembled folk until the sun appeared, which we all watched in awed silence (celestial choirs of larks providing a better soundtrack than anything we could ever do), before launching into another wave of songs. I'd forgotten what an excellent songwriter Andy is. I first met him at the Snelsmore Common camp of the Newbury road protest over a decade ago. Since then, he earned a second Ph.D., got a psych-folk band called "Jabberwocky" together (now defunct) and wrote a whole load of new songs which I'd never heard before, but seemed to be able to play as if I'd known them for years. He seems to have a vast reservoir of songs for any occasion - dawn, sunrise, morning, solstice, whatever - a proper (and properly qualified!) bard. We managed to transform a cluster of damp individuals into a mass of smiling energy, bonded everyone into a sense of shared experience, and then invited them all back to our fire for a few rounds of tea. What a solstice! (Another one! "Blessing piled up on blessing," as Andy put it - what have we done to deserve this?). A young woman called Darsha (from Crimea) took a few digital photos and a videoclip up on the barrows. Here's one photo:

Andy and I up on Windmill Hill - photo by Darsha Doublespoon
Andy and I up on Windmill Hill - photo by Darsha Doublespoon

I would never have considered recording the music, though - some things are to be given away freely to the cosmos, I feel.

Later in that morning we packed our bikes (Andy had got a train from Oxford and cycled in some of the way) and rolled down in to Avebury, met up with various friends. I got a bit of sleep at the base of Silbury Hill, after meeting Bryn (who does the database for Festival Eye and has improvised music connections in Exeter - he suggested somewhere COTD might be able to hold future sessions). I got a very good night's sleep in a hawthorn and elder grove up on Fyfield Down that night.

Thursday 22nd. Having awoken to a beautiful day and made tea, I wandered along the valley of sarsen stones (what Julian Cope calls "The Mother's Jam" in his The Modern Antiquarian) to the Devil's Den where I played some saz, then on to the midsummer barrows just off the Ridgeway, to The Sanctuary on Overton Hill, West Kennett Long Barrow (stopping to play some music whenever I felt moved to do so), and eventually Swallowhead Springs, where I met Whistler Jim and Stu. I met Jim (a friend of Andy's) last year up on Windmill Hill, and in the intervening year he's brought out a book about the Newbury protest. I assumed he knew Stu, as they arrived together, but this wasn't the case. Jim got his low whistles out and we played three slow, graceful Irish tunes - "The Clay of Kilcreggan", "The Twisting of the Hayrope" and "Our Kate". Apart from a few minutes last year, we'd never played before, but again, it felt like we'd been playing together for a long time - Stu certainly seemed to think we had. Jim's been doing some readings and talks connected with his book in Brighton, and Pok has got involved - it looks like there might be some kind of even at the Glastonbury Assembly Rooms in mid-July, with the possibility of doing some music - we shall see.

I intended to cycle back up to Knapp Hill but got magnetically pulled up over Waden Hill, down The Avenue and into Avebury Henge to the site of The Obelisk, where I sat with my back to the concrete marker (The Obelisk being long gone) and played for a while. I then wandered back to my bike, and cycled up to Knapp Hill to find Stef, Peni and kids had arrived in their bus. We had tea and swapped festival stories and impressions. Banana Tom turned up with some new friends he'd met at Stonehenge, and we all ended up sitting around a charcoal brazier on Knapp Hill until dawn. It was a bit too cold and damp to get any music together, and Stef was all played out from the festival.

view from Golden Ball Hill
Knapp Hill and Adam's Grave from Golden Ball Hill - photo by 'notjamesbond'

I slept under a favourite hawthorn tree on nearby Golden Ball Hill, and awoke to a pefectly blue sky. Had tea with Stef, Peni and some friends of theirs who'd turned up. Stef passed on three more CDs from Kelfin which contain yet more recordings from "The Crypt" (the Lady Chapel in the Glastonbury Abbey ruins), so I hope to sift through those in the next few weeks. We all spent some time enjoying the sunshine up on Adam's Grave with the kids running around, rolling down the slopes, etc., and then I went for a solo walk (they had to head off to play at a festival in Essex) out along the Wansdyke to Tan Hill and Clifford's Hill, stopping to play my saz at various points along the way - this is one of the most musically inspiring landscapes I know, and with all the beautiful wildflowers, birdsong and cloud formations I felt entirely blessed to be able to be experiencing it in high summer, in the most pefect circumstances. Finally (after a bit of confused stumbling about) I managed to find the amazing groves of old beech trees on Furze Hill near the intersection of the Ridgeway and the Wansdyke, and did a bit of MiniDisc recording there. I've heard about these trees from friends for years, but never managed to find them before. Somewhere I intend to spend a lot more time in future. My saz sounded somehow different - fuller, richer, more resonant - in there, and the recording seems to bear this out.

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Down to Alton Priors, I ended up chatting with and playing for some friendly Aveburyheads from Northamptonshire who were picnicking near the church and discussing its significance. Another night sleeping up on Golden Ball Hill.

Saturday 24th - I had a train booked back to Exeter from Pewsey that evening, so I made the most of my remaining time, sitting, stretching and recording some saz up on Knapp Hill, Adam's Grave, and inside Alton Priors' thoroughly amazing 1700-year old yew tree. I've worked out a new part for the never-quite-completed "Cartoon Welsh Girl", one of the first tunes I came up with when I started playing guitar, also a saz arrangement of "Bella Ciao" which I'm very happy with (Inge and I used to play that about a decade ago, but I always bashed out the chords while she played the melody, so I haven't attempted to play it since then).

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Another superb midsummer...


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