Sunday, May 17, 2009

four nights, ten bands

I've been out the last four nights catching a lot of excellent live music.

Wednesday, I cycled in to Whitstable with my saz, intending to play at the fortnightly open mic at The Smack (a friendly little pub not far from the seafront). Unfortunately (or not), I was out of phase with my Wednesdays, and when I arrived, could hear there was a band playing. I expected covers, or stodgy pub rock, but got a pleasant surprise, in the form of Zinta and the Zoots, a Whitstable/Canterbury band who aren't bad at all. Zinta's got a powerful voice, writes good songs and the band are nuanced and slightly quirky. Miles the keyboard player was doing some nice stuff with a melodica and glockenspiel (simultaneously), and had an Indian harmonium set up (although I had to leave after the first set, so I didn't hear him play that). Not the kind of thing I'd go out of my way to see, but seated on a sofa in The Smack with a pint of Shepherd Neame spring hop ale, it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Jim Womble, who used to put on gigs in the area about fifteen years ago, recognised me as I was leaving. It was he who brought my psychedelic dub friends the Oort Cloud over from Belgium to play at the Whitstable Assembly Rooms for the spring equinox of '93 (a highly memorable night!). We reminisced about such excellent events as the time Ohm Sounds (his operation) got both Zion Train and the Revolutionary Dub Warriors on the same bill (about £4?) at the now-defunct Assembly Rooms for an equinox all-dayer.

Jim's not promoting any more, but was playing, until recently, with Thanet-based spacerock band Aurora. They were playing in Whitstale a couple of nights later (Friday), supporting the reformed Crow. Again, I cycled out (along the cycle track through Blean Woods) - a cold damp night. This one was at the East Quay, a relatively new venue attached to a micro-brewery on the seafront. Crow are a heavy tribal psych-rock trio (most of the time) who I saw numerous times back in the early 90's. They split in '95, around the time I left the area, but they've got back together in the last year or so (inspired by a touching request from a dieing friend/promoter that they reform to play a gig in Folkestone in his memory). Aurora were entertaining - their front man, Lord Armstrong of Sealand - theatrically played a theremin to great effect, made indecipherable prononouncements and wore daft costumes while a guitarist made pleasingly loud, thrashy spacerock textures and a third member handled the electronics. Like a lot of music with sequenced beats, though, it failed to really take off, being locked down to a quartz-pulsed grid. There were lasers and projections, etc. - a worthy attempt to create something of a psychedelic happening - but not really any appropriate surfaces for them to be projected on. Aurora claim to be predominantly a festival band, and I can see why. Unfortunately, Puffin the flute player has been axed from the line-up (I would have liked to have heard a bit of flute or sax in there).

Aurora's audience was small, but appreciative - mainly men within a rather narrow spacerock age-range - so I wasn't quite sure Crow were going to get the audience they deserved. But, in the interim between bands, a psy-trance DJ filling in the time, the place suddenly filled up with people of all ages, and a tangible sense of anticipation filled the place (along with a few whiffs of dry ice). This built up as the band took to the stage. I was struck by how well they all looked - the dreadlocks are gone, Chris almost looking younger than he did back in the old days, Martin about the same. Mark Dixon, the local didg player (the first person I came across who played didg, before the festival didg-glut of the 90's) opened the proceedings, as he often used to (dreads all gone, shamanic tatoos all over his head!), causing the audience to surge forward and generally deepening the sense of anticipation. Chris took his time building things up with some beautiful ambient guitar lines, and then - WHAMMM!! - they took off with that classic Crow super-heavy riffage. Martin and Mike-the-bassist are completely synched in with each other, even more than they used to be, as far as I can remember and it was quite musically humbling to witness them all in action. The Killing Joke influences (something I'd failed to pick up on back in the 90's) were very much in evidence.

Crow - photo by Amy Bailey
Crow - photo by Amy Bailey

They played about two hours, a few mellow dubby bits, one funk-rock track (the only bit that didn't work for me), but mostly the heavy instrumental stuff. Mark rejoined for another track (doing a bit of overtone chanting and delivering some indecipherable lyrics about UFOs and 'watchers') and the psy-trance DJ occasionally added some tastefully subtle swirly synth sounds from his DJ station off to the side of the stage. Overall, it was quite an emotional event. They've only played a few gigs since reforming, and this was the first in Whitstable (their hometown), which clearly meant a lot to them. From the enthusiasm of the crowd, I'm guessing that a significant proportion remembered the Crow-of-old, but there were also a lot of younger faces who just weren't old enough to (yet were fully into it). After a few too many overly staid, sit-down gigs at OSMC, it was nice to be seeing a band where there was a bit of moshing and generally wild energy going on.

One of the things which struck me was how 'clean' it was - not just the clarity of the mix, or the precision of the playing...somehow it had a very 'clean' energy, almost reminding me of straightedge hardcore (energetically, rather than musically). The old Crow had (perhaps as a resdue from their days as some of crusty squatter band Door Marked Summer) more of a chaotic, druggy, off-kilter vibe about them. And here was Chris, short hair, clean white T-shirt (with an 'om' on it, reassuringly), sneakily checking his mobile phone for texts between songs, leading the same band through the same basic material, connecting with the past but not attempting to recreate it. An epic set, great venue, great audience. There were even some performers from Kent Circus School doing UV juggling, diabolo, etc. but unfortunately, due to the size and forward-surging of the audience, they were squashed in a little space next to the speakers. Anyway, it's heartening to know that Crow are back, and it'll be interesting to see what new stuff they come up with.

Cycling back through Clowes Wood, I stopped to listen to a nightingale singing. This one was a lot closer than the ones I'm used to listening to (deep in an abandoned pear orchard near where I live). Musically, they're still miles ahead of anything humans can manage!

Going back a day (for reasons of continuity) - Thursday - was the fourth Moonlit Fingertips evening at OSMC. This is local psych-prog-folk band Syd Arthur's acoustic/folk night - I got to the first one, but missed the next couple, being in the States. Tom Holden played a pleasant enough set of imaginative singer-songwriter material - didn't make a huge impression, but I've been a bit spoiled for interesting live music of late. Next it was Syd Arthur's Liam and Raven, on acoustic guitar and mandolin/fiddle respectively (Raven is Kate Bush's nephew, I've just read). Their stuff has come on leaps and bounds since I last saw them - they played a blinding set, really crisp, inventive prog-folk with fantastic instrumental interplay and uplifting energy. I was quite taken aback at just how good it was. Barnaby from the School of Imagination (the headliners) joined them on a dayereh (or similar frame drum/tambourine type thing) for one piece, adding a strong cross-rhythm that pushed the music even higher. They finished with a version of "Pulse", a Syd Arthur song, and I suddenly noticed that the syncopated guitar/mandolin interaction is very strongly reminiscent of early 80's Zimbabwean guitar bands. Although I've been listening to that stuff since the late 80's, I think it was because I'd just that day been listening to Thomas Mapfumo's 1980 album Gwindingwi Rine Shumba that I made the connection. I spoke to Liam about this afterwards, and it's clear that the similarity isn't an intentional one. So, fascinatingly, they seem to have arrived (via their prog/Canterbury polyrhythmic explorations) at the same kind of style of string playing...and this is something rooted in very ancient African spirit possession ceremony music, played on mbiras, for countless generations before Thomas Mapfumo, et al. electrified it as part of the revolutionary movement of the late 70's.

Moonlit Fingertips poster

The main act that night was School of Imagination, seemingly from somewhere near Salisbury. They've played at The Gladstone Arms, a pub in SE London where Liam works, which is how they ended up on the bill. I read something on the OSMC site which described them in terms of the Incredible String Band and Buena Vista Social Club - this sounded intriguing enough, but it's not really an accurate description. The band's led by a ukelele player (a good one!) called Barnaby - who had played some frame drum with Liam and Raven. They're almost entirely acoustic (one semi-acoustic guitar) and they have a lovely, easy, samba-like groove running through most of what they do, with appropriately delicate Latin-tinged percussion. But the Hispanic influence made me think less of Cuba and more of LA - Love, in particular, were evoked somehow (not overtly, but the vibe was there), with the semi-acoustic guitarist managing to fool my ears into thinking I was hearing horn riffs. But also, somewhere in the vibrational mix, were the (not at all Hispanic, but possibly influenced at some level?) Byrds, Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas...even trippier late Monkees. Or maybe it was just me. The ISB thing perhaps makes sense in terms of the warmth and overall feel, but I was also made to think of lesser known English pastoral prog bands like Capability Brown and Gentle Giant (even though the SoI didn't sound at all like them). It's clearly to their credit that I can't think of any musical reference points beyond these vague feeling-based ones! One remarkable piece they played seemed to fill in all the musical space between the psychedelic Beatles ("Across the Universe", "Within You Without You") and epic mid-period Floyd numbers ("Echoes", "Atom Heart Mother" - those horn sounds again!).

Two nights later (Saturday), Syd Arthur were headlining an electric event at The Farmhouse, with The Jimmy Jones Band, Sàvlön and The Moon Music Orchestra also on the bill.

I arrived just after the JJB had started, and guessed, wrongly, that I was watching the MMO. I'd seen the former name on posters around Canterbury in the past and had an immediate aversion - something about bands named after one of their (presumably egotistic) members...amusingly, though, there is no Jimmy Jones in the Jimmy Jones Band and they seem like really nice, approachable people dedicated to their music. It's a instrumental mix of trumpet, sax, awesome bass, interesting Afrobeat-influenced electric guitar and drums. There as a bit of funk in there, but it was the PiL/On-U/Factory kind of funk, and it really suited them. There was clearly a jazz component, but was there a bit of the old Canterbury sound in there, I found myself wondering? Just as I was wondering it, I heard a couple of older blokes behind me discussing just the same thing, before going on to talk about Egg's 1974 album The Civil Surface. So perhaps there is. Great stuff, anyway. Who is Jimmy Jones, though?

A young woman who'd suddenly stepped out in front of my bicycle near the Cathedral gate as I was on the way to the gig (no accident was caused) recognised me and kindly came over to apologise. She seemed to know Syd Arthur, and set me straight on who I'd just seen and who I was about to see. MMO were in fact a "crazy folk band", I was told. Sort of. They use a mandolin and a banjo, but their biggest love appears to be southern boogie-rock...and I've not got a problem with that. After a rather long wait, a four-piece took to the stage (actually, only three of them did, literally - the organist stayed down on floor level to save having to squeeze his Hammond up on stage) and launched into a very pleasing kind of dubbed-out boogie. This band was clearly the odd one out of the four on the bill - conventional time signatures, singing in American accents and displaying an overt sense of humour. Their take on this music seemed to have a Ween- or Zappa-like irony about it, but it was more than just a pastiche. As that first song built up to a climax, two people suddenly rushed onto the stage, creating a moment of confusion in the audience - what was going on? They hurriedly took off their coats, one grabbed an electric guitar (already tuned and plugged in), and the other, blonde curls beneath a trucker's cap, with a "Lyrnyrd Skynyrd" tanktop (confederate flag and all!) grabbed a mic, and we got a ripping guitar solo and some appropriate backing vocal wailing. "All part of the act!" joked the bassist after the applause died down. The newly arrived guitarist then explained how he'd told the taxi driver that if she didn't hurry up, the band AND the two of them (a couple it would seem) would be splitting up. So that got their set off to a great start. He actually looked a bit like Vince Noir from The Mighty Boosh, and this made me realise that what we were seeing was quite close to what a second-season episode of the Boosh might have looked like if their band had gone through a southern rock incarnation.

Because of the late start, they only got a four-song set, but they made the most of it. It gradually became apparent just how good their organist Harley was (he got a couple of solos), and they ended with an epic, euphoric rock-out with him going completely mad on the keys...he even went as far as nearly tipping the organ over in an Emersonian catharsis. Huge applause. The Canterbury prog crowd was won over, clearly.

At one point, the late-arrival singer/guitarist explained that the band ran a little pub in Southeast London called The Gladstone Arms, and invited us all to stop by, should we be in the area. "There'll probably be some prog on the stereo if Liam's working", he laughed.

Syd Arthur at the Amesham Arms in London last November

Syd Arthur were next (despite headlining) - quite sensible considering the time. And what a revelation! The West African sound I mentioned earlier in relation to Liam and Raven's set was even more in evidence with the electric version of "Pulse" and the familiar "Planet of Love". They opened with a long, spacey Gong-like intro (I've been listening to You lately, and this was in that kind of vein), built around Liam's live guitar processing (fiddling most effectively with his rack of effects - he Raven and Joel have about 20 pedals between them!). The whole set was much more spaced out (a lot of that guitar processing), yet crisper than I've ever heard them. There was a joyous intelligence about it all. I'm glad I've stuck with them, despite being rather unimpressed when I first saw them a couple of summers ago. The funk elements annoyed me then, and they've gradually transmuted them into something else - still angular, but more organic, less formulaic. Those (unintended) African resonances bring in a sweetness to the sound. There's a precision about what they're doing that was (as with Crow) musically humbling to witness, and they're just getting better all the time. All four of them were playing flawlessly, and as a unit they were brimming over with energy. And there's no posturing, attitude or swagger, despite having a dedicated local following, a clearly adoring crowd - just a highly laudable dedication to their music. They ended with a new song called "Exo Domino" (I think) which shows a very encouraging development in the sound...lots of changes of time signature, but somehow avoiding the stodginess of so much prog-rock...there's a lightness on the feet, almost a pixie-like, 'sparkly' energy. They encored with "The Willow Tree", which went down extremely well with the crowd.

I've even got used to their name (a terrible name, I thought at first..but it's OK, really).

Last up were Sàvlön, a local prog-thrash(?) band. Again, lots of stop-start timeshifts produced by a serious bunch of musicians, but the metally/hardcore feel freshened things up a bit. The two guitarist were playing in a Discipline-era King Crimson kind of polyrhythmic way (but using more abrasive sounds), the bass player and drummer both spot on. A few samples and squelchy synth noises got thrown in to vary the sound. I saw them last year in a local pub (by accident) and was most impressed to know such stuff was going on locally. As with then, I'm not really sure what I think about the grindcore-style vocals, but they kept me awake - it was a long evening. Fans of late 80's 'No Wave' and hardcore bands like NoMeansNo and Blind Idiot God should certainly check this crew out.

If there's a 'new Canterbury sound' in evidence here, it's a post-funk, post-punk kind of thing, having integrated those new elements. What does it have in common with the Canterbury sound of old? There's the quirky jazziness, the tendency to play in unusual and ever-shifting time signatures, but also a serious dedication to the music that overrides any concerns about 'image' or 'entertainment'. And somewhere in there, a peculiar sort of Englishness. What's so heartening is to me is that a (largely younger) crowd is excited by something artistically challenging, and free of all the posturing and attitude which is so common among aspiring young bands.


Blogger balbulus said...

Nice to see someone else who appreciates Crow, they've been my alltime favourite band since 1993, and I was overjoyed when they told me they were reforming.

Just before they reformed, I compiled my Kent Band Archive, which started out as a Crow fanpage before expanding into other bands.


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