Monday, December 15, 2008

Dedicated to Hugh (but they weren't listening)

Hugh Hopper, the bass player from the classic Soft Machine line-up, has recently been diagnosed with leukemia, so various friends in his home town of Whitstable organised a benefit gig to raise money for his treatment. This was Friday 12th December, upstairs at the Royal Oyster Stores.

Hopper benefit flyer

My old friend Tim and I got the bus out to Whitstable for this after first watching an episode of the wonderful Bagpuss (in homage to its creator, Oliver Postgate, who'd died a few days earlier). As well as being a huge Postgate fan, Tim's a huge Soft Machine fan (he's listened to Third many hundreds of times, more than any other LP, and even once had one of his poetry recitals spontaneously backed up by HH on bass - check 24/08/96 here). We arrived a bit late and so missed Brian Hopper's intro. When we got there, Nigel Hobbins was finishing his set (with fellow Happy Accident Justin on trumpet). We noticed that Emily (of Bagpuss fame, being Postgate's animation partner's daughter) was in attendance. Hugh himself was sitting at the back - sadly he's unable to play bass for the time being, due to back pain related to his condition. I can imagine that not being able to get involved in the musical proceedings couldn't have been easy for him.

Unfortunately, the most noteworthy aspect of this event was the extent to which people weren't listening. There were sitting around tables drinking wine and talking louldy. Really annoying. This has been getting to me lately. That Sharron Krauss gig was too much. That was a fiver. In this case, we have people paying 10 quid to come and listen to this music, and the musicians playing for free, to help someone we're supposedly all concerned PLEASE shut up and listen. One of the trombonists (possibly of the Happy Accidents?) twice had to ask the audience, at some length, like a roomful of unruly schoolkids, to please be a bit quieter. It's just embarrassing. Arrgh.

But then, there's Robert Wyatt's lyric from Soft Machine's Third, in my opinion the greatest album to feature Hopper's bass work.

"Just before we go on to the next part of our song
Let's all make sure we've got the time
Music-making still performs the normal functions -
background noise for people scheming, seducing, revolting and teaching
That's all right by me, don't think that I'm complaining
After all, it's only leisure time, isn't it?

John Atkinson's set, featuring quirky songs with elaborate witty lyrics, was pretty much pointless with all talking going on - had to struggle to follow any of it. Between songs, his bass player stepped up to the mic, said "And now a word to our sponsor, sitting at the back there...", stepped on his fuzz pedal and twanged a loud bass note - something disappointingly few people in attendance seemed to 'get'.

The Frances Knight Trio did their jazz trio thing for a bit (and was that "Ode to Billy Joe", in there?), were then joined by Frank van der Koij and Christine Janet on horns to play an instrumental arrangment of Robert Wyatt's "Was a Friend" (i spent whole time trying to work out what the song was, from the line "I almost forgot where we buried the hatchet..."). Orphy Robinson came up with his digital vibraphone and tore it down, played with such dynamism and enthusiasm that people couldn't not pay attention for at least a little while. He wrote a nice little blog entry about the event. Lol Coxhill played three longish improvisations on soprano sax - the audience noise during this particularly bothered me, but it was undeniably challenging music, so it didn't particularly surprise me.

Fellow Penguin Cafe Orchestra alumni and Wyatt collaborators Annie Whitehead (trombone) and Jennifer Maidman (electric guitar and vocals) then got up and stole the show. This finally got people on their feet. The first piece had a kind of New Orleans 'Iko Iko' vibe, the next was more sort of 'minimal funk'. Tim pointed out how effectively AW and JM were "unwinding the bourgeois atmosphere". JM sang a song and they were then joined by a load of the other jazzers for a rendition of the Robert Wyatt/Brian Hopper-cowritten "Soup Song", which got yet more people up on their feet. Within Wyatt's repertoire, this has never been a favourite, but it was a good choice for the occasion. I've since discovered that Annie Whitehead and Jennifer Maidman were both involved in the band which played Wyatt material (sort of a tribute band, but without anyone pretending to be RW - as if you could!), also both appear in the BBC4 documentary Free Will and Testament:

We had to leave to get the last bus before The Happy Accidents started their set, which was a real shame, as I was really looking forward to seeing them for the first time in twelve years (last time was Whitstable Mayday '96, in the sadly-no-more Assembly Rooms).

And the gig left me with the same question as that Hawkwind gig a few days earlier - where have all the freaks gone? It's getting slightly disconcerting.


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