Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Beltane time distortion

I got back to the Garden of England in time for Beltane. This turned into a several day thing. Beltane eve (Thursday) involved sitting 'round a little fire with Dave and Libby, noodling a bit on my saz, then heading down to the abandoned pear orchard to listen to the recently arrive nightingales. Friday (the first of May) was Nick and Jo's tenth wedding anniversary party in Whitstable, so I cycled over for that. No live music (just cheesy house and a bit of soul music on the stereo), but there was a fire in the garden, and I was happy to find that Bob and Helen (once half of local folk band The Tree Party) had come down from Norfolk. I've still yet to play music with them (I was just getting started on guitar during the Tree Party days and by the time I was playing saz, they were settled out in North Norfolk). Saturday and Sunday involved more fire and merriment, but no music.

Bank Holiday Monday is Whitstable Mayday, so Andy Bunkum, Tim and I headed over to watch (and quietly critique) a succession of Morris sides dancing outside the library - ranging from rough pirate/biker looking types to twee "Women's Institute Morris", but all with the same vibeless music, I'm afraid. Eventually they processed up the High Street en masse, which lifted the energy a bit. After they stopped for multiple pints and general milling around near the Horsebridge (almost completely killing the vibe), they proceeded up to Tankerton slopes, accompanied by Jack-in-the-Green (someone under a great mass of greenery), where we were encouraged to sing the "Whitstable Mayday Song". This is written to sound traditional, but I suspect it was written sometime in the 80's. The sentiments were generally OK, apart from a suspect line about blessing this land with "power and might" (we'd just been discussing the links between folkdance/music and ultra-nationalism, especially in continental Europe - Andy was jokingly referring to one of the more serious sides, who had red crosses on their chests, as "BNP Morris").

Jack-in-the-Green, and strange wooden horse thing
Jack-in-the-Green, and strange wooden horse thing - photos by Nick Morley

That evening, the three of us reconvened at Orange Street for a kind of "medaevil fancy dress" gig - "Princes in the Tower" (an acoustic subset of Circulus) followed by Les Derniers Trouvèrs from France. The latter had come over for the Hastings Jack-in-the-Green celebrations, but Jason (who organises these "Twilight Folk" events) had had them recommended by Kim Thompsett, whose band his girlfriend Naomi plays cello for. I'd seen the poster and had a been a bit put off by the "theme park" quality of the promotional photo, but Tim was keen, so we thought we'd risk a fiver on it.

Both groups turned out to be very capable, musically, and were in period costume, but the audience was just a bit too polite (and seated) for it to really work. The Princes used mostly stick drum, crumhorn(?) and cittern. The cittern player also sang and explained all the songs ("a bit too didactic", opined Tim), switching to a saz (which went unexplained) for one tune. That's one of the few times I've seen anyone else play a saz in a non-Turkish context. The Trouvèrs were a lot more lively (there were more of them too), beautiful costumes, very good energy - percussion, a very large mandola-shaped instrument, something like a viola da gamba, bagpipes, whistles, flutes and various crumhorn-like wind instruments. They did their best to communicate with limited English, and definitely won the audience over, but no one got up out of their seat, making the whole event feel unfortunately awkward. You could really picture a load of people responding much more kinetically in a festival setting (it seems they have someone to teach/lead traditional dances for such events).

most of Les Trouvers, plus various Canterbury folkies
most of Les Trouvers, plus various Canterbury folkies

Andy pointed out the musical similarity with instrumental techno, as well as a Gong influence (more a vibe thing than a sonic thing). To finish their second set, they got various local folkies up - Phil the hurdy-gurdy player, Kim Thompsett and Naomi shaking bells and freestyle vocalising, the percussionist from Relig Oran playing stick drum - plus the Princes doing their respective things (I could really relate to the experience of trying to play a saz in a loud folk jam where no one can hear you, and it just boils down to a semi-pointless 'chunga-chunga' strumming). Tim detected a definite "pixie magic and slight shifting of planes" during the penultimate piece where the music felt nicely out-of-control for a little while.

One of the best things about this event was the way it was amplified. Rather than trying to mic up each individual instrument and voice (which would have made the end-of-set free-for-all impossible, as well as killing the 'period' vibe even further), three or four mics were set up at the front of the stage, and that was it. Ambient miking is the way to go for these 'quiet' gigs, something I've discussed before with Nathan from Glastonbury's (now defunct) Fabulous Furry Folk club. Joel from Syd Arthur was behind the desk, doing an excellent job of (as far as was possible) keeping everything sounding nicely balanced.


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